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In his laboratory, Jekyll develops a chemical potion that is designed to accomplish the separation and drinks it. After a “grinding of the bones” and a horrible nausea, he begins to feel “incredibly sweet” and free. Looking in the mirror, Jekyll observes not himself but Edward Hyde, a smaller and younger person than himself. Jekyll delights in the division of himself and in his new liberty, but he soon begins to lose control of Hyde, who can assume Jekyll’s form at will. The novel follows Dr. Jekyll’s struggle with Mr. Hyde, who becomes increasingly evil and whom Jekyll refuses to acknowledge as a part of him. (Geduld, 2-5)
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The enormous popularity of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has aided the perpetuation of a persistent view that it is a simple fable of the division between the good and evil that exists in everyone. The complexity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s imaginative story of an individual’s conflict with himself, however, is evident in its multiple narratives. Through the presentation of various points of view, Stevenson escalates knowledge of events from the peripheral to the more intimate and at the same time deepens the insight into the psychology of Jekyll. (Swearingen, 1-3)
The first narrative, Richard Enfield’s horrified reaction to Edward Hyde’s trampling of a little girl, provides the first evidence of the existence of Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. Enfield, a “well-known man about town,” finds Hyde unaccountably detestable. He also relates the reactions of others present: the women, whom the sight of Hyde makes “wild as harpies,” and a doctor, who like Enfield is sickened by Hyde and wants to kill him. Enfield confides his narrative to his cousin, Gabriel John Utterson, an attorney who is a friend of Jekyll and who practices self-denial in order to strengthen his own moral fiber. Utterson, through whose perspective the story is told, listens to accounts of Jekyll and Hyde told by other characters and sometimes observes Jekyll and Hyde directly. A tolerant person, he believes that Jekyll has perhaps been guilty of some foible in his youth and is being blackmailed by Hyde. Upon meeting Hyde, he too feels disgust and nausea. (Geduld, 2-5)
The third narrator is Dr. Hastie Lanyon, who has written a letter to Utterson. A bold Scottish doctor, Lanyon has become estranged from Jekyll because of Jekyll’s “fanciful” theories. Dr. Lanyon is the first to ascertain that Jekyll is Hyde and that Jekyll is in Hyde’s control. His observation of Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde literally shocks Lanyon to death.
Jekyll’s narrative, a letter read after his death, is the one for which all others have been preparation. The most subjective account, the letter reveals his concerns that led to his experiments and the conclusions that he reached about them. Of great interest is his personal reaction to Hyde. (Swearingen, 1-3)
One of the earliest and most enduring criticisms of Stevenson — that he wrote only children’s books — has perhaps arisen from confusion about his method. Although his essays, adventure and travel stories, and poems all demonstrate an ambition to produce serious and important art, the childlike imagination that infuses all of his works has been misperceived by some as merely childish. The fact that Stevenson, as an adult, had the ability to recapture the emotions and sensations of childhood and at the same time explore the ambiguities of human motivation made him a powerful and imaginative writer.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a serious romance, a genre usually intended for the instruction of the young. As a writer of romances — nineteenth century stories depicting the truth of the human heart — Stevenson successfully adapts a novel about adults into a thriller that challenges young people to consider the ambiguity of human nature. He was interested in psychology, and he excels at penetrating façades and exposing the ambiguities underneath them. The several narratives that tell the story of Jekyll and Hyde present differing views of reality and prepare the reader for the chief ambiguity in the novel — Jekyll’s attitude toward Hyde. Stevenson uses extensively the idea of the double, or Doppelgänger — the theory that an individual’s character is composed of two parts, a reasonable self and evil twin or shadow, which are constantly at war — that forms the split center of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet, Jekyll and Hyde (Jekyll’s double), although split, are not two. Sharing one body and one brain, they do not separate but assume a change in form in which Jekyll is replaced by Hyde, who was within Jekyll. (Geduld, 2-5)
Jekyll, whose existence makes Hyde possible, has rejected Hyde for more than twenty years — the chemical potion representing only his most dramatic step. Hyde is slowly transformed from one who tramples a child impersonally and without conscience to a selfish, cruel creature that is consumed with malicious hatred of Jekyll. Meanwhile, Jekyll continues his dissociation from Hyde. He considers the possibility of destroying Hyde altogether, accelerates his performance of altruistic deeds, and refuses to acknowledge Hyde as a portion of him. Hyde is enraged at his treatment by the person to whom he owes his life, and he becomes increasingly evil. He assumes control at will, and Jekyll, failing to understand that what he had attempted was impossibility, continues to believe that the experiment could succeed if he could only obtain pure powder for the potion. In desperation, Hyde commits suicide, thus destroying both men.
To strengthen his theme — the essential ambiguity and unknowable nature of the self — -Stevenson layers contrasts within the various points of view that form the narrative. The friendship of Enfield, the first narrator, and Utterson is mysterious, because they are almost polar opposites. The motif of the double, suggested by their regular and almost compulsive walks through the fog-shrouded streets of London, continues in their responses to Edward Hyde. Although both regard Hyde himself with intense disgust and nausea, the mystery of Hyde’s identity provides a mere anecdote for Enfield, while Utterson finds it very troubling. For Dr. Lanyon, who is more closely associated with Jekyll, the knowledge of Jekyll and Hyde is fatal.
The phrase “Jekyll-and-Hyde” does not merely denote a kind of split personality, but rather refers to Jekyll’s intense conflict within himself. Stevenson presents to young readers an extreme case that nevertheless illustrates the dangers of refusing to accept duality as a fact of human nature.