Analysis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Longman, Green, and Company published Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886 as a “shilling shocker.” Stevenson reputedly developed the storyline from a dream he had about a man forced into a cabinet after ingesting a potion that would convert him into a brutal monster. The composition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde began in September 1885, and the final draft was submitted for publication later that same year. Unlike most 19th century literary works, Stevenson’s manuscript was released in book form instead of being serialized in a popular magazine. The publishers withheld its release until January 1886 because booksellers had already placed their Christmas stock. Within six months, Stevenson’s novella sold more than 40,000 copies in England and America.

Dr. Jekyll (right) and Mr. Hyde, both as portrayed by Fredric March in Rouben Mamoulian’s film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde debates the conflict between good and evil and the correlation among bourgeois values, urban violence, and class structure. Dr. Jekyll is a seemingly placid character whose often-debated scientific research has nonetheless gained him respect amid his peers. The potion that Jekyll develops causes an unexplainable transformation into the violent Mr. Hyde. The Mr. Hyde alter-ego may represent an uncontrollable subconscious desire driven by anger and frustration toward an oppressive English class structure. Hyde’s numerous rampages include trampling a young girl and murdering the prominent English politician Sir Danvers. Although Jekyll prefers living the life of “the elderly and discontent doctor” (84), he cannot control his urge for “the liberty, the comparative youth, the light steps, leaping impulses, and secret pleasures” that the Hyde persona offers him. Dr. Jekyll’s desired liberty is perhaps caused by the restricted lifestyle that bourgeois cultural codes imposed on English society. Several Victorian social critics maintained that inner-city London dwellers were a debased life form living in junglelike conditions analogous to those in Africa. In 1890, William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, claimed that England needed rescuing from its continually degenerating condition since its citizens were gradually turning into “[a] population trodden with drink, steeped in vice, [and] eaten up by every social and physical malady” (quoted in Stevenson, 183). Stevenson’s text describes how hidden desires have always existed in a seemingly perverted civilization.

Literary critics have stressed that Stevenson’s success in the “shilling shocker” market both helped and hindered his career. The rapid success of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde led Henry James to remark that Stevenson’s novella was at first too popular a work to be comfortably called a masterpiece. Henry James was not questioning Stevenson’s talent as a writer but rather was noting that the book’s quick popularity defined it as a story that was easily accessible to the mass public.

Playwright Richard Mansfield produced a stage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1888. Shortly after Mansfield’s play opened, several East End London prostitutes were murdered by a serial killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper. English newspapers initially termed the slayer the “Whitechapel murderer” and “Leather Apron” before settling on “Jack the Ripper.” Reporters based their stories on the possible correlation between the killings and Mansfield’s theatrical representation of violence. Mansfield’s play was eventually closed because such parallels made it seem as though Jack the Ripper was mimicking the violence depicted in Mansfield’s play, marking the first time that the concept of Mr. Hyde was used in reference to sequential crime sprees. Reports from the Daily Telegraph further damaged the profits for Mansfield’s play by stating that “there is no taste for horror” (17) on the London stage. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains a significant canonical text that uses its patchwork narrative to explore the conflation of reality and fictional representation that most postmodern writers still examine.

Caler, Jenni. The Robert Louis Stevenson Companion. Edinburgh: P. Harris, 1980.
James, Henry. “Robert Louis Stevenson.” Reprinted in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, edited by Martin A. Danahay, 140–141.
Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Literary Texts, 1999.
Rose, Brian A. Jekyll and Hyde Adapted: Dramatizations of Cultural Anxiety. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.
Saposnik, Irving S. “The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion, edited by Harry M. Geduld, 108–117. New York: Garland Publishing, 1983.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edited by Martin A. Danahay, 29–91. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Literary Texts, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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