Jekyll and Hyde: a tale of doubles, disguises, and our warring desires

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In our Guide to the Classics series, experts explain key works of literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was published in 1886. The Scottish author was already known for his travel writing and children’s literature – including Treasure Island – when Jekyll and Hyde appeared. However, this insightful and fantastic tale is perhaps his most unique and enduring.

As its title suggests, the story is indeed strange. It’s bound up in notions of self-estrangement, and the uncanny, which Freud describes as the familiar made strange. Inspired by a feverish nightmare, the story is about competing desires, and what might happen if we could split the good and evil parts of the self into separate identities.

The novella’s mystery plot centres on the puzzle of an unlikely connection between two opposing characters – the benevolent and respectable doctor, Jekyll, and the murderous, animalistic Hyde. The criminal Hyde uses a cheque signed by Jekyll, and Jekyll’s will is changed to make Hyde the sole beneficiary. But why? The connection, we eventually learn, is that Hyde is Jekyll. Or, more specifically, he is the embodiment of Jekyll’s evil aspects: a demonic double brought to life by a transformative potion, conjured to allow Jekyll to act out his vices in disguise. Based on his belief that “man is not truly one, but truly two”, Jekyll seeks to cordon off his dark side and let it run amok.

Hyde is Jekyll’s demonic double, brought to life by a transformative potion. Daniel Boud/STC

Written in ‘a matter of days’

According to biographical accounts, Stevenson penned his tale in a matter of days. He then threw the original draft into the fire because his wife suggested the story needed work. Various reports suggest she either didn’t think the sensational story worthy of him, or felt that the allegory needed to be refined. He wrote a revised version in another few days. Stevenson said that the work “was conceived, written, rewritten, re-rewritten, and printed inside ten weeks”.

Despite its astoundingly short production, Jekyll and Hyde was an incredible success: it has never been out of print, has been reimagined in countless film and stage adaptations, and is often referenced in popular culture. In The Simpsons, for instance, Bart exhibits “some monster-ism” after drinking an experimental diet cola.

In The Simpsons, Bart exhibits ‘some monsterism’ after drinking an experimental cola – a reference to Jekyll and Hyde.

The names Jekyll and Hyde have been integrated into our everyday language. Even those unfamiliar with the book (and its many adaptations and riffs) know that “Jekyll-Hyde” means twinned good and evil, or the split personality. According to Urban Dictionary, “Jekyll-Hyde” is a colloquialism for someone whose erratic behaviour makes them seem like two different people.

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Sensationalism and radical science

Sensationalism was a popular genre that emerged in Britain in the 1860s. These sensational novels – often called railway novels, because cheap editions were sold at stations to be read on long train journeys – typically took place in recognisable, contemporary settings, with plots often revolving around shocking crimes, doubles, and mistaken identities. Jekyll and Hyde adheres to many conventions of the genre. Set in 19th-century London (in real-life locations such as Cavendish Square, Soho, and Regents Park), it represents violence, murder, and mirrored, fluid protagonists.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde has been reimagined in countless adaptations, including the 1941 film, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman.

The text is also distinctly gothic in its engagement with supernatural themes such as metamorphosis, and its delving into the dark side of human psychology and desire. There are some interesting crossovers between Jekyll and Hyde and Mary Shelley’s seminal horror story, Frankenstein (1818). In both cases, a radical scientist brings a monstrous, violent creature to life, and is then horrified and plagued by his own creation.

While Hyde is not as complex as Frankenstein’s monster – a character driven mad by isolation and the prejudice of others, but capable of love and empathy – both texts force us to question whether the monsters are really to blame for their crimes, or whether we should be pointing the finger at their irresponsible creators? More broadly, they force us to question whether society’s monsters (murderers and other villains) are born “evil”, or if their antisocial behaviour is created by outside forces.

Stevenson had been friends with a doctor, Eugene Cantrelle, who was later convicted (in 1878) of murdering his wife for a life insurance payout. Stevenson, who was present throughout the trial, was reportedly traumatised by discovering the dark side of his seemingly normal friend (who was also believed to have committed other murders). This may have influenced Stevenson’s novella, which was published eight years later.

Blending elements of sensation and gothic fiction, while also imparting moral lessons and reflecting on the intricacies of human nature, the story is both thrilling and thought-provoking. In a contemporary review, novelist Henry James refers to the tensions between moralism and excitement in the text, asking, “Is ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ a work of high philosophic intention, or simply the most ingenious and irresponsible of fictions?”.

Careful examination tells us that it is, in fact, both – a mesmerising horror story and a stylistically complex work that meditates on social issues as diverse as moral philosophy, the dangers of drug use, and the repressive codes of Victorian society, to name a few.

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The moral of man’s doubleness

Stevenson explains he based the story on “that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature”. Although the book is only ten chapters long, it engages with complex questions about moral conflict, or the internal battle between our carnal – not always honourable – desires and our ethical responsibilities.

It also taps into contemporary concerns about the ethics of scientific and medical advancements. Jekyll is a pioneer of “transcendental medicine”; his experimental cocktail allows him to take on an unrecognisable form and commit atrocities without sacrificing his own good name. This raises a question that still resonates today: what is at stake when technology and power are used for personal gain?

Stevenson based his story on a ‘strong sense of man’s double being’. Daniel Boud/STC

Jekyll’s first transformation is intoxicating and liberating:

I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.

This “new life” lived through Hyde, who nonchalantly knocks down a small child in the street and frenziedly bludgeons a kindly old man to death, becomes a secondary outlet through which Jekyll’s base cravings can be channelled. Yet, expressive freedom turns to stifling bondage when Jekyll’s mutations into his evil twin become involuntary, and progressively more difficult to reverse.

Having flexed and strengthened his dark side, it takes him in a chokehold and refuses to let go. Hyde cannot be suppressed or flung aside, because he is an integral part of the whole self. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, which is independent of its maker, Jekyll’s creation is an essential, inseparable part of himself – a different dimension of the same identity.

The mythical and the beastly

The narrative moves between past and present, building suspense by setting up the mystery of Hyde’s identity before finally taking readers into its confidence. Its fictional world is drawn through various perspectives, including two first-person accounts. No matter whose eyes the world is filtered through, it is a place of confusion and uncertainty, where characters try to figure each other (and themselves) out.

Fredric March in Hyde guise, in the 1931 film, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. TCM

We are rarely aligned with Hyde’s gaze. He remains an inaccessible, somewhat distant figure – more of a boorish caricature than a complex human. Characters who encounter Hyde form only a distorted, vague sense of him – thus hinting that he is a spectral, intangible figure. One recalls, “He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point”.

It’s as if we can’t get Hyde in full view, or see him in a broad light, seeming to signal a lack of substance. As a figure of “pure evil”, with any semblance of good cellared in his other self, Hyde emerges as an incomplete half-creature. To take an idiom that typically relates to mental incapacity, the extremely diabolical Hyde is (morally) “not all there”.

Physically furry and energised by primal impulses, he’s represented as more animal than human. His hands are covered in “swart” hair; he bares and gnashes his teeth when enraged, and physically treads over his victims like a stampeding beast.

Hyde’s vicious, almost feral side is most pronounced in the scene where he beats an old man who stops him in the street and politely asks for directions:

Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And, next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot, and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway.

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Adaptations: prosthetics, parody, and an Oscar

With its thrilling plot and universal themes, Jekyll and Hyde lends itself to dramatic adaptations and reimaginings. There have been countless film versions; there’s even an IMDB list of the best and worst.

Fredric March in his Oscar-winning role

Adaptations range from horror-comedies to psychological dramas. In the 1931 film, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for which Fredric March won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the animal dimensions of Hyde are borne out visually. March dons a set of false teeth resembling canine fangs and a wig of shaggy hair that sits so low on his forehead, it almost meets his eyebrows.

In his 1990 portrayal of the title character, in Jekyll and Hyde, Michael Caine plays up the bodily grotesqueness of the character, making him more ogre than human. It’s a departure from Stevenson’s notion that Hyde’s deformity is sensed, but not quite visible.

The 1996 film, Mary Reilly, offers a subtler rendition of Stevenson’s story, and also introduces a new character – Jekyll/Hyde’s housemaid, Mary (played by Julia Roberts), who sees and loves both men. (Notably, there are no central female characters in the book.) John Malkovich takes on the paired roles of Jekyll and Hyde, infusing both with a charismatic intensity.

The 1996 film Mary Reilly introduces a central woman character, played by Julia Roberts, to Stevenson’s story.

In this retelling, there are no prosthetics or special effects to distinguish the villain, and Hyde is recognisable only by his long, black hair and clean-shaven face, in contrast to the grey, goateed Jekyll. Although the film retains the gory violence of the original text – at one point, the villain is shown holding the severed head of a brothel madam – it gives Hyde a psychological depth, and a capacity for romantic attachment, which Stevenson does not afford him.

In a parodic sketch for Saturday Night Live in 2009, Bill Hader plays the part of Dr Jekyll, with Hyde as a made-up alter-ego through which he acts out his homosexual urges. He tells a group of colleagues, “I’m attracted to women, like my wife. It’s Mr Hyde who does stuff with guys.” This comical reworking mocks the absurdity of the transformative potion, a plotline that also drew complaints from many contemporary critics. But it stays true to the themes of split desires and their expression through a second, secret self.

A comic spin on the ‘other’ self.

A human problem

Despite its fanciful premise of the distillation of evil through shape-shifting, the anchoring concerns of Jekyll and Hyde are profoundly and universally human. This classic text forces us to confront uncomfortable questions about morality and responsibility: do the best of us have a bad side that is suppressed, waiting to get out? How would we act if we had a duplicate identity that couldn’t be traced back to us – an invisibility cloak, of sorts?

Stevenson’s fever-nightmare comes to life in this vivid, haunting tale, immersing readers in a dystopian world where sympathy and self-control give way to reckless self-indulgence. It is a world from which we must all recoil.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is on at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 3.

Stephanie Last does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.