Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde work as an allegory?

Both religious leaders during Stevenson's time and contemporary readers interpret this work to be a condemnation of man's indulgence in sin. Mr. Hyde symbolizes the embodiment of the evil side of mankind, and Dr. Jekyll's indulgence in that side serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences of such behavior. Dr. Jekyll's confessional letter can be interpreted as an effort to repent of his sins. However, other readers, including author Robert Mighall, suggest that Mr. Hyde represents the repressed homosexual desire in Dr. Jekyll. Thus the story is not a religious allegory but rather one concerned with the double life or divided self of a homosexual man in 19th century Europe. This second interpretation is supported by the fact that aside from the housemaid, the little girl who was trampled, and the witness to Carew's murder, there are no female characters in the novella, suggesting that the allegory pertains uniquely to men.

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, what might be the significance of Mr. Hyde's name?

The name Mr. Hyde serves as a clue to the reader in his or her quest to make sense of this story of a divided self. A reader who ascribes to the interpretation that Stevenson's novella is an allegory for dealing with repressed homosexual desires might recognize that "Hyde" is a homonym for "hide." One possible interpretation of this connection is that Mr. Hyde represents the part of a homosexual man who is not free to act on his sexual desires and must hide those desires from society. By creating Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll is able to extract the hidden part of himself from the part that conforms with social expectations (e.g., heterosexuality or abstinence).

Why might Mr. Hyde be described as both smaller in stature and younger than his creator, Dr. Jekyll, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

In The Descent of Man Charles Darwin argued that man had evolved from other life forms, specifically hairy quadrupeds with tails. Stevenson might have characterized Mr. Hyde as a "particularly small and particularly wicked-looking" young man with hands that were "corded and hairy" to suggest that Mr. Hyde was a less evolved version of Dr. Jekyll. This goes against Dr. Jekyll's statement in his letter that "I was in no sense a hypocrite ... I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day." Nonetheless when Dr. Jekyll says, "I had lost in stature" after indulging Mr. Hyde, he shows that, while both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exist in a single person, there are consequences for indulging Mr. Hyde.

How does Mr. Hyde's house as described in Chapter 1 compare to Dr. Jekyll's house as described in Chapter 2 of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

When the door to Mr. Hyde's home is first encountered, there is a detailed description of the exterior of the home. It sits on a sinister block in Soho that breaks from the character of London, and the door "was blistered and distained." Furthermore the house is odd, as there is no back door and no one seems to be going in or out, although the smoke from the chimney suggests that someone is inside. Hyde's house is shrouded in mystery, not unlike Mr. Hyde himself. By contrast Dr. Jekyll's house is described as sitting on "a square of ancient, handsome houses" that are "now for the most part decayed from their high estate." The door to Jekyll's house "wore a great air of wealth and comfort, though it was now plunged in darkness except for the fanlight." Here the reader sees that Dr. Jekyll lives in an area of London where things used to be quite upscale but have since fallen into disrepair, as perhaps has Dr. Jekyll.

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, how does Stevenson use the setting to establish mood, specifically in Chapter 1 and Chapter 8?

From the very start Stevenson uses details about the setting to establish the mood of the tale. In Chapter 1 the street down which Utterson and Enfield walk is described as being "broken by the entry of a court; and just at that point, a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street." This description, which comes on the heels of a discussion of the gaiety of the neighborhood, establishes that there is a division. Something is amiss on one side, sinister even. In Chapter 8 the setting of "a wild, cold, seasonable night ... with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her" sets a mood of chaos and discord, where even the moon is out of order.

In Chapter 9 how does the idea of concealing the true self surface in the physical setting of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The notion of containing Mr. Hyde within is one that the novella explores in a number of ways. In Chapter 9 Lanyon's letter describes a number of containers. For example, some secret ingredients and materials are contained in the drawer he is sent to retrieve. Of note is a phial that contained "phosphorus and some volatile ether." This description suggests that what Dr. Jekyll hid in his laboratory is connected to the volatile nature of man and his ability to vacillate between good and evil. Similarly, as Dr. Jekyll finds it harder and harder to contain Mr. Hyde, he "more than ever confined himself to the cabinet over the laboratory." Through physical substances and spaces, Jekyll attempts to conceal and contain those elements of himself embodied by Mr. Hyde. Indeed Dr. Jekyll's entire endeavor in creating Mr. Hyde is an attempt to "contain the raging energies of life."

What effect is achieved through Stevenson's juxtaposition of classic themes and references with central concerns of his time in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Throughout the novella Stevenson invokes biblical references, allusions to Greek legends, and themes such as metamorphosis and friendship that have been explored in works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Likewise the theme of good and evil has been of central concern since the start of written human history. Yet Stevenson's novella reflects understandings of these themes as they manifest in his particular place and time. While the conflicts with which his characters engage aren't new, the context within which they struggle is. Stevenson explores the dual nature of man through an emerging understanding of human evolution and human psychology. (Freud's work with psychoanalysis was underway at the time Stevenson's novella was published, but it had not yet been translated into English or permeated the British/Scottish consciousness. Nonetheless Stevenson's novella is considered to be one of the first places where the jargon of psychology entered the lexicon.)

Why might The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde maintain such a prominent place in contemporary culture?

Just as the themes and conflicts of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were not new to Stevenson's original audience, they are not new to contemporary audiences. However, these universal concerns remain relevant. Humankind is still preoccupied with notions of good and evil. Literature at its best continues to delve into the complexities of human nature, specifically with regard to the "true self" as compared to the "self" that one projects to the world, and the means by which one keeps baser impulses in check. For this reason the novella has been adapted into film versions as recently as 2003, and characters as diverse as the Incredible Hulk and Tom and Jerry draw from Stevenson's novella.

How do the descriptions of Hyde provided in Chapter 2 of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during his first encounter with Utterson help characterize the villain?

In Chapter 2 when Utterson first encounters Mr. Hyde, he is seen taking "hissing" breaths, just like a snake—the biblical symbol for the devil and his temptations. At one point he "snarled aloud into a savage laugh," a description that calls to mind a beast, earthly or otherwise. Utterson's encounter reveals that "the look of [Hyde] even at that distance, went somehow strongly against the watcher's inclination," suggesting Mr. Hyde's presence is disturbing; yet despite Utterson's revulsion, he has a strong desire to see Mr. Hyde's face. There is something both recognizable and curious about the devilish man that at once attracts and repels Utterson. This early encounter with Mr. Hyde lays the foundation for his character as the embodiment of some darker side of humanity.

In what ways does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exemplify the Gothic double trope?

The Gothic double trope (a significant or recurring theme) was popularized in response to the antihero of the romantic period. The Gothic double embodies both the good and evil within a main character, oftentimes by splitting the character into two separate characters, as is the case with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Whereas the traditional hero is wholly virtuous, with perhaps the exception of one tragic flaw, the antihero displays very few virtuous qualities. The Gothic double knits the hero and the antihero together to explore their characteristics as they are embodied by a single character. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the monster is the Gothic double to Dr. Victor Frankenstein. In each work a man of science creates a creature described as hideous and evil; nonetheless both creations hold a mirror to their creators. The separation of the evil from the good underscores how intertwined they are in each person, challenging classic notions of duality.

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