Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Themes

Learn about themes in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Course Hero's video study guide.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Themes

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The essential event that moves the plot in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the experiment enabling Dr. Jekyll to split himself into two people. This inspired concept allows Stevenson to explore fundamental questions that continue to occupy people today. What is the nature of evil? How far should science go in studying the essential nature of humanity? What does it mean to be a unique human being? Some elemental themes emerge in the story that challenge readers to consider these questions and their answers.

Good and Evil

In his letter that forms the final chapter of this novella, Dr. Jekyll explicitly identifies one of the core themes in this work: good and evil. Although that sounds straightforward enough, the reality ends up being more complicated. The first time Jekyll takes his "tincture" (drug mixed with alcohol) he feels "younger, lighter, happier in body." He is more sensual. Though he says he is "tenfold more wicked," some of what he's describing is simply being younger. What is evil for Jekyll, and for British society at this time, is to be young, physical, sensual, and passionate. At another point in this final chapter, Jekyll describes the pleasures he enjoys being Hyde as "undignified." Evil in this society is the private, passionate, and physical. Good is the public, the mental, and the spiritual.

The Divided Self

The most obvious and literal divided self is Dr. Jekyll. He consciously and literally splits himself into two people, so he can retain the good reputation of his public self, Henry Jekyll, while indulging his dark passions as Edward Hyde. The first question, then, is What exactly are these divided selves? At times it seems like it might be a simple good/evil split: Jekyll is good, Hyde is evil. Other times, though, it is more complicated. When Hyde tramples a little girl in the first chapter, he still wants to retain a gentleman's good reputation (though it isn't clear why). In the final chapter, Jekyll explains his perspective: Hyde is pure evil, while Jekyll is a composite of good and evil. This particular division has occurred, Jekyll says, because of his intention when taking the drug. If he'd wanted to create a purely good version of himself, the potion he made would have done so rather than creating the evil one. At various times this novella seems to recount a war existing within a self among stages of evolution. Utterson sees Hyde as having something "troglodytic" in his face, which would make this a war between cave man and modern man. However, when Jekyll refers to Hyde as "younger," the war would seem to be between a younger, passionate self and a more mature and disciplined self.

Self-Control

The opening pages of this novella describe Utterson's constant self-discipline. It is a way of making self-control habitual. Dr. Jekyll, in contrast, uses his scientific knowledge to escape self-control. Once he creates a tincture that frees Hyde as his evil side, Jekyll doesn't have to exercise self-control. He can let Hyde run wild. This leads to a profound and bitter situational irony for Jekyll: once he lets Hyde run free, he can't get him back under control again. Jekyll goes to bed one person and wakes up another, losing control of himself on a literal, physical level. In the end the only way he can get this control back is by killing himself.

Class

In Victorian England people were expected to act in certain ways as defined by the class to which they belonged. As a member of the upper class, Dr. Jekyll is expected to behave carefully and properly and, indeed, to do so willingly as a true gentleman would. This is part of the reason his decision not to repress his lower urges is so shocking to his peers. They react based not only on a disgust for evil but also on shock that one of them would be so careless. Dr. Jekyll's action flies in the face of social rules and values by letting out his base nature in the form of Mr. Hyde, whose violence and unchecked sexuality show a complete disregard for strict codes.

The servants in the story also highlight the strong hold the notion of class has across all of society. Even when terribly concerned about Dr. Jekyll, his servants refuse to cross any lines of propriety. And the strength of Poole's character in particular shows just how artificial are the ideas labeling people as different in their abilities to think and feel according to their class.

Inquiry

Throughout this story people pursue different methods of inquiry and investigation—or they refuse to do so. Enfield is the first character who refuses to follow questions to their end, and he even refuses to ask them. In the first chapter he makes a point of saying that if something looks like "Queer Street," he makes a point of not asking questions about it. Strikingly, he doesn't do this because asking these questions can lead to making judgments.

On the other hand, throughout the novella, understanding how to seek the truth properly and doing so successfully is shown to be essential. This takes many forms: Enfield pressures Hyde for money in the first chapter; Utterson pressures Hyde to see his face in the second chapter; and Poole collects evidence to present to Utterson about Jekyll's fate later in the narrative.

Jekyll also shows the danger of improper inquiry. He asks questions that people should be cautious in asking and follows his discoveries to dangerous places. His death and the deaths of others are other irrevocable consequences.

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