To kick-start my series on the Gothic novel, I thought I’d begin with one many people are familiar with – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Recognized as one of the most significant tales of the 19th century, Jekyll and Hyde is a fascinating representation of the inner struggle of man’s dual nature during the moral climate of the Victorian era.
Let me begin with a little background information about the piece. Published in 1886, Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde during the height of Victorianism (which lasted from the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign over England in 1837 until her death in 1901). Founded on repression, Victorian society was predicated on the suppression of passion and sexuality, and a strict adherence to a social code of conduct and outward display of respectability.
This was challenging, however, because of the existence of mankind’s dual nature – the moral half, and the sinful. Like different sides of the same coin, these two pieces are the basis of the human soul. And yet, in order to exist within the era’s concept of morality, one had to bury their immoral thoughts and project only their virtuous side to the outside world. Little empathy was shown for mankind’s struggle between these twin personality halves.
It’s in this very struggle that Stevenson’s ominous tale takes shape. Dr. Jekyll’s attempt to separate the two halves into distinct entities demonstrates the desperate lengths humanity will go in order to ease the torment of denying the darker – yet equally real – half of our nature. As Dr. Jekyll states, “If each could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable.”
Unfortunately, the experiment does not go as planned. On the one hand, he succeeds in creating a new persona for his evil side – Mr. Hyde. Hyde represents this moral freedom, able to follow his every whim without a hint of remorse. However, his other half – Dr. Jekyll – is wholly the same, unable to rid himself of his sinister urges and yet forced to abide by Victorian edicts.
Still, under the mantle of Mr. Hyde, Jekyll is able to embrace a life of sin and freedom. It is this very freedom that he longs for, even as he tries to suppress it. At first he secretly enjoys this ability to pursue his dark desires as Mr. Hyde while walking through society under the mantel of Dr. Jekyll’s respectability. With his two halves separated into different men, he can exercise his demons without violating the Victorian code of conduct. However, it’s not long before his double life starts to collapse in upon him.
This sense of the soul’s impending doom inherent in the novella firmly roots in in the Gothic tradition. Furthermore, there’s a clear warning in Stevenson’s tale – one assuring us that no matter how well we suppress our wicked nature, it will always find its way to the surface in the end. Stevenson suggests that the more we attempt the separate our two halves, the worse the consequence will be. The only way to avoid becoming the darkest versions of ourselves is to accept the darkness within us.