One of the hallmarks of the Gothic novel is its preoccupation with the “positional notion of good and evil” (Sandner 192) and the “complex confusion” that characterizes the relationship between these two aspects of self and society (Sandner 200). Gothic authors recognize that all human beings have the capacity for goodness, but all people also have a shadow side, and it is the degree to which one sublimates and controls his or her darker impulses that prevents one from becoming consumed with evil. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the central problem of Dr. Jekyll is that he cannot accept this truism about humanity and, particularly, about himself. He is so preoccupied with separating his shadow side from the man that he wants to be that he is unable to find a way to channel his negative impulses in a manner that is adaptive for himself and for society. The failure to develop an integrated sense of self has serious implications because it leads Dr. Jekyll, in his Mr. Hyde guise, to kill people in acts of senseless violence and, ultimately, to meet his own end. Stevenson’s skill in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that he deftly uses metaphors and images from science to convey the message that human beings must accept the complex wholeness of their psychological condition, even when certain aspects of such complexity prove repulsive to them.
From the opening of “Jekyll and Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that Dr. Jekyll is not a man who is well in his mind or his spirit. When Mr. Utterson seeks the opinion of Lanyon, a long-time friend, about Dr. Jekyll, Lanyon replies with annoyance that it was more than ten years prior when Dr. Jekyll “became too fanciful…[and] began to go wrong, wrong in mind,” practicing a kind of “unscientific balderdash” that Lanyon cannot respect (Stevenson 15). The details offered by Lanyon in “Jekyll and Hyde” foreshadow the revelation that will eventually be made with respect to Dr. Jekyll’s dual identity. These details also explain the frenzied lab activities of Dr. Jekyll that are presented later in the novel and they begin to build Stevenson’s basis for discrediting such activities. Lanyon, who has been introduced to the reader as a man whose opinion is, like his character, respectable, is a character whose credibility is believable. Lanyon does not dismiss science as a field of study and inquiry, but he does, in this early reaction, question the misappropriation of science for questionable purposes, even though the reader does not yet know what such purposes might involve.
At this early point in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though, science has not yet become the central focus of the author’s or the reader’s concern. Instead, the question that is beginning to form in the reader’s mind is more psychological in nature. Why must the shadow side of Dr. Jekyll be repressed? Even Mr. Utterson, who is not yet aware of the true relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, senses that Dr. Jekyll “is in deep waters” (Stevenson 20). Based on his observations, Mr. Utterson intuits that Dr. Jekyll’s troubles must be a punishment and a penance for “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace” (Stevenson 20). Mr. Utterson specifically mentions that Dr. Jekyll was wild in his youth, though he does not reveal any specific details that might help the reader understand why Dr. Jekyll might feel the need to dissociate himself from his shadow side. In fact, Mr. Utterson’s hunch causes him to become distracted briefly, leading him to worry briefly about his own shadow side, as he considers any sins that may have become forgotten in the corners of his memory. Mr. Utterson concludes that he is, as stated in one of the important quotes from “fairly blameless” (Stevenson 21), but his meditation on the subject of the shadow self becomes a hint of the novel’s thematic thrust. The narrator reports that Mr. Utterson was “humbled to the dust by the many ill things he had done, and raised up again into a sober and fearful gratitude by the many that he had come so near to doing, yet avoided” (Stevenson 21). The point here is clear and it sets up the distinction between Dr. Jekyll and the rest of the characters: While the other characters find ways to accept and cope with their shadow sides, Dr. Jekyll cannot, and his failure to integrate the seemingly opposite aspects of himself will result in his destruction.
Although Dr. Jekyll turns to science to extricate him from what is really a moral and philosophical dilemma, Stevenson’s portrayal of scientific knowledge and processes is as an inadequate instrument for understanding human motivations, needs, and capacities. When Mr. Utterson visits Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory for the first time, the space is described, in one of the important quotes from “Jekyll and Hyde” as a dark, “dingy windowless structure” (Stevenson 30); like Jekyll’s very mind and soul, light cannot penetrate and illuminate this space where Jekyll is working so hard, paradoxically, to eliminate darkness. Also, like Dr. Jekyll’s psyche, the laboratory is cluttered and prevents easy navigation in the space and precludes visitors from entering comfortably. It is within this space, though, that the tortured doctor has been titrating a drug that he concocted in order to separate his negative self, Hyde, from the man that Dr. Jekyll wants to be. Interestingly, this drug works at first, separating the good Dr. Jekyll from his evil alter ego, Mr. Hyde. Like all drugs, however, the mixture that allows Dr. Jekyll to dissociate in this manner is needed in higher and higher doses, and eventually it loses its potency and efficacy. There are limits, then, to the ability of science to separate man from his true nature (Wright 254).
It is Mr. Utterson, a lawyer by trade, who diagnoses Dr. Jekyll’s malady, which further reinforces the idea that science and scientific principles are ineffective for dealing with natures of the human soul and spirit. After learning about Dr. Jekyll’s obsessive, desperate pursuit of chemicals from the pharmacist which he uses to manufacture his drug, Mr. Utterson remarks that Dr. Jekyll is described, in one of the important quotes from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “plainly seized with one of those maladies that both torture and deform the sufferer” (Stevenson 45). This malady not only causes the “alteration of his voice; [and leads to the] mask and his avoidance of his friends; [and] his eagerness to find this drug,” but also deforms and corrupts Dr. Jekyll’s psyche and capacity for normal human functioning (Stevenson 45). Mr. Utterson asserts that no scientific training or knowledge was necessary to arrive at this diagnosis; he proclaims to Dr. Jekyll’s butler, “There is my explanation; it is sad enough… and appalling to consider; butit is plain and natural” (Stevenson 45, emphasis added). Later, when Mr. Poole explains his own impressions of Mr. Hyde to Mr. Utterson, he too asserts the value of emotion-based knowledge as opposed to information discerned through rational process of science. He remarks regarding science in one of the important quotes from “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” , “I know it’s not evidence, Mr Utterson; I’m book-learned enough for that; but a man has his feelings, and I give you my bible-word….” (Stevenson 47). Dr. Jekyll’s greatest problem, of course, is that he seeks relief for a plain and natural condition by pursuing cures that are not at all plain or natural. By disconnecting himself from his feelings, by disavowing and denying them and relying instead upon scientific principles, Dr. Jekyll secures his fate as a man who is a “self-destroyer” (Stevenson 49).
What is almost more important than the details of science that Stevenson does include are those details that he omits. The reader never learns, for example, of Dr. Jekyll’s academic or professional credentials, nor does the reader ever observe Dr. Jekyll with patients. Dr. Jekyll is never observed conducting experiments, however misdirected they may be. Instead, all of the descriptions of Dr. Jekyll in his laboratory are devoted to his obsession with mixing the drug that gives him a release from his psychological torture. The reader sees, then, that Dr. Jekyll never uses science for any noble purpose; rather, he appropriates its methods and its alleged benefits only for his own ends. The lack of details in any quotes from “Jekyll and Hyde” in this regard are not a mere oversight on Stevenson’s part; rather, they are a carefully crated set of omissions that are intended to direct the reader’s attention to the limitations of science.
The cool and distanced logic and rationalism of science, so popular in the generations preceding the Gothic writers, is contested in a novel such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although scientific processes, science in general, symbols, and metaphors are an important part of such texts, they are ultimately de-centered; science lacks the authority, wisdom, and insight that experience and emotion can provide. Unfortunately, those characters who are enthralled by what they believe to be the potential of science are thwarted. Gothic authors such as Stevenson punish the characters who, like Dr. Jekyll, cleave to science, even when it becomes clear that science cannot extricate them from their psychological needs and the dilemmas that they confront as a result. It is only through reflection upon one’s own experiences and thoughtful decision-making that one can hope to integrate the shadow side with the person we believe and want to be our true selves.
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Works Cited / Sources
Louis Stevenson, Robert. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oxford: OxfordPress, 1987.
Sandner, David. Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Wright, Daniel L. “The Prisonhouse of My Disposition: A Study of the Psychology of Addiction in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ Studies in the Novel. 46 (1993): 254.