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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Course Hero's video study guide.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Context


The Gothic Novel

While people have always told scary stories, contemporary horror is rooted in the Gothic novel. The Gothic movement might be considered the dark or shadow side of the romantic movement. Both evoke strong emotions and embrace folk beliefs, legends, and myths rather than the new inventions of science. However, where the romantic writers, such as Wordsworth and Blake, focused on natural beauty, Gothic writers kept their attention on death and the irrational. Harold Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is considered the first Gothic novel, but many others followed, such as Charles Maturin's 1820 Melmoth the Wanderer. Gothic works focus on the dark and mysterious. This darkness can be literal, with action set at night or in passageways, or symbolic darkness in the form of sin and crime. Unnatural passions are common in the Gothic. Writers of such literature often build mystery and suspense as Stevenson does in this novella, which uses the structure of nested manuscripts, or narratives within narratives. This means there is no single objective unifying perspective. Instead documents written at different times provide different glimpses of the mysterious activity at the heart of the story, and readers must weave the information together.

Victorian Morality

Victorian morality was a mass of contradictions, which in many ways perfectly suits Stevenson's masterpiece. On the one hand the period was characterized by a strict code of sexual morality, even repression (especially for women). Both secular and religious leaders sought to uplift the poor and sinful and thought they had a responsibility to do so. Also during this period British society took more active steps to address crime and poverty; the idea of a professional police force took hold during this time. On the other hand Victorian England accepted the poor living in terrible conditions. Prostitutes were common in London. Men were supposed to have sexual desires, but women were not. The result was a continual and often scandalous interplay between the classes that was both sexual and economic.


Fifteen years before Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man. Darwin explicitly stated that his goal was to determine whether humans, like other species, descended from other forms. He concluded that they did, arguing that humans descended from hairy quadrupeds with tails. Darwin's impact on 19th-century society was immense. The idea that evolution shaped humans and animals alike challenged the special status humans received in the biblical story of creation, where they are created distinct from and superior to the animals. In popular fiction this erosion of human uniqueness took the form of animal-human hybrids, as in The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, or the emergence of animalistic traits in humans. Readers see this in Mr. Hyde's "ape-like" and "troglodytic" nature.


There is no explicit homosexuality in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—nor is there explicit discussion of it. However, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Mighall argues that understanding British attitudes about homosexuality in the late 1800s is essential for understanding the novella. He specifically argues that the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde looks like a homosexual affair to Utterson and would look that way to Stevenson's readers. Mighall bases this interpretation on lines like the following from Utterson: "It turns me cold to think of this creature stealing like a thief to Harry's bedside." The suggestion that Hyde may be blackmailing Jekyll would also signal possible homosexuality: threatening to expose a man as gay was the basis of many blackmail cases in the 19th century. This assumption works thematically, since Hyde is Jekyll's way of indulging passions he cannot pursue in public. The suggestion of homosexuality also explains other activity in the novella, such as the way Sir Danvers Carew, a "beautiful gentlemen," accosts another man (Hyde, as it turns out) the night before he is beaten to death. It also works with the plot, since it provides a plausible explanation for why Jekyll might do things such as leave everything to Hyde.

Stevenson's Scottish Background

Robert Louis Stevenson was raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. That background shaped this work in two ways. First, Edinburgh is composed of two sections: Old Town and New Town. New Town is more logically organized and more modern. Old Town is much older. It grew organically, and its streets are narrower, rougher, and darker. Some doorways are hidden. Critics such as G.K. Chesterton have argued that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually set in Edinburgh rather than in London as Stevenson says, based on the descriptions of the city in the novella.

The second, more specific way Edinburgh's history shaped Stevenson is in the figure of William Brodie. Brodie lived in Edinburgh's Old Town in the 18th century. By day Brodie was a professional cabinetmaker, a deacon in a guild, and a member of the city council. However, part of his job as a cabinetmaker was repairing locks. By night he used that skill to rob the homes of the rich and respectable. The man was eventually arrested and put to death for his crimes. Interestingly, Stevenson's parents owned a cabinet built by Brodie, and it was in Robert's nursery. Stevenson's nurse, Alison Cunningham, told Robert the story of William Brodie when Robert was young. Stevenson even wrote a play about Brodie titled Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life.

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