Summary of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
This Edition: 1886
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- Gothic fiction
- Victorian literature
What It’s About
The Duality of Man
In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson presents a story both fantastical and familiar. While you may not possess a mysterious potion that allows you to transform into another identity, most people compartmentalize aspects of their personality to some degree and must battle against their darker urges. Published in 1886, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde begins as an amateur detective novel but ends as a powerful critic on the dangers of repressing aspects of one’s personality. The book gained international acclaim both for the excitement that the suspenseful tale offers and the moral message it contains; it was even used in sermons of the day. Written in a poetic yet factual style, Jekyll and Hyde depicts the horrifying violence of which man’s inner evil is capable when unleashed. In doing so, it turns a mirror to its readers, inviting them to consider all aspects of their own nature.
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s bestseller is a masterpiece of horror, psychological insight, social commentary and consideration of what it means to be human.
- When Dr. Henry Jekyll creates a potion to separate his good and evil selves, he transforms into the purely evil Edward Hyde. At first Jekyll enjoys the freedom Hyde offers, but after Hyde commits murder, Jekyll gradually loses control – until Hyde takes over permanently and kills himself.
- The allegorical tale considers the duality of human nature, which contains both good and evil.
- Published in 1886, the book earned Stevenson international fame and inspired more than 18 film and stage adaptations.
- Stevenson’s poetic style of writing has earned praise from contemporary and modern critics alike.
- Stevenson said the novella was an allegory but would not reveal for what.
- Hyde’s apelike appearance and animalistic cruelty drew on Victorian fears about evolution surrounding the work of Charles Darwin.
- A horrible nightmare in which Stevenson saw Jekyll’s first transformation into Hyde inspired the story.
- Today, some people use the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” to refer to multiple personality disorder.
- “I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”
A Beast in the Night
Lawyer Gabriel Utterson is strolling through London with his old friend Richard Enfield when they wander down a quiet lane. There, the men encounter a run-down, neglected door. The derelict entrance reminds Enfield of a story, which he recalls aloud to Utterson: Early one morning, he witnessed a man trample a young girl and continue coolly on his way as she screamed on the ground. Enfield, shocked, caught up with the brute and dragged him back to the scene. He found the man repulsive, without being able to specify why and threatened him with social ruin unless he paid restitution. Agreeing, the man brought Enfield to that same door, went inside and returned with a £100 check. The check’s signature was that of a respectable and important man, leaving Enfield to suspect a case of blackmail.
“‘I incline to Cain’s heresy,’ he used to say quaintly: ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.’” (Utterson)
When Utterson asks the name of the man who ran over the girl, Enfield sees no reason not to give it: Hyde. Utterson then reveals that he already knows the identity of the reputable man whose account paid the £100. The two men, both disapproving of gossip, agree never to speak of this again.
Search for Mr. Hyde
Later that evening, Utterson sits in his study, looking over the will of his friend and client Dr. Henry Jekyll. Jekyll has left everything to Edward Hyde, not only in the event of death but also if Jekyll vanishes for a period of three months. Utterson, frustrated, suspects Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll. He visits Dr. Hastie Lanyon, another of Jekyll’s old friends. Lanyon reveals that he and Jekyll have been estranged for a decade because Lanyon objects to Jekyll’s fanciful and unscientific research. Utterson returns home and that night has nightmares about Hyde. When he wakes, he decides he must meet Hyde and waits by the door until the man returns. Hyde’s appearance disgusts and scares Utterson. They talk briefly; then Utterson rushes to Jekyll’s house. Jekyll is absent, but the butler, Poole, admits him. Poole explains that Hyde has a key to the house and can enter Jekyll’s laboratory whenever he wishes; the servants have orders to obey Hyde. Utterson worries that if Hyde discovers the will, he will murder Jekyll to get the inheritance.
Dr. Jekyll Is Quite at Ease
Two weeks later, Jekyll gives a dinner party and invites Utterson. After the party, they sit together in front of the fire. When Utterson tries to discuss the will, Jekyll becomes visibly distressed. Jekyll admits that his position is strange but reassures his friend that he can be rid of Hyde whenever he wishes. He makes Utterson promise to execute the will faithfully and to ensure that Hyde receives his inheritance should the need arise.
The Carew Murder Case
Almost a year later, a maid witnesses a murder on the streets of London: An elderly Member of Parliament, Sir Danvers Carew, meets Hyde in the night. When Carew speaks to Hyde, Hyde attacks him with a cane and clubs Carew to death. Hyde vanishes, leaving his broken cane behind. Carew was carrying a letter addressed to Utterson; when the police visit the lawyer, Utterson recognizes the cane as one he had given to Jekyll and leads the police to Hyde’s house. Despite its dingy exterior, Hyde’s home is furnished luxuriously. There are signs that he packed in a hurry and burned documents. However, despite the police waiting for him to retrieve his money from the bank, Hyde has disappeared.
The Incident of the Letter
Utterson goes to visit Jekyll. Poole leads Utterson to the laboratory, which Utterson sees for the first time. Formerly a lecture theater, it is reached by crossing a yard and is windowless and dark. Upstairs is the doctor’s cabinet. There, next to the fire, sits a sickly Jekyll. Utterson urgently inquires if Jekyll is hiding Hyde, but Jekyll swears he will never see Hyde again. Jekyll then tells Utterson that he has a letter from Hyde and wants Utterson’s opinion as to whether he should show it to the police; his concern is how his reputation would suffer if the connection between himself and Hyde becomes public knowledge. Utterson offers to take the letter for a night and think about what to do. Jekyll confirms Utterson’s suspicions that Hyde dictated the terms of Jekyll’s will.
“Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile [and] he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness.”
Needing advice, Utterson invites over his head clerk, Mr. Guest, who knows of Jekyll’s connection with Hyde because of their legal dealings. Since Guest is a student of handwriting, Utterson asks him to analyze the letter from Hyde. Guest requests a sample of Jekyll’s handwriting, so he can compare it with the letter; he determines that the handwritings of Hyde and Jekyll are the same, only sloped at opposite angles. After Guest leaves, Utterson locks Hyde’s letter in his safe and worries about Jekyll forging the letter he claims was from Hyde.
The Remarkable Incident of Dr. Lanyon
Time passes, and despite a huge reward on offer, Hyde doesn’t reappear; however, many of his crimes and cruelties come to light. Jekyll returns to his old self, entertaining often, and in addition to his charity work becomes deeply religious. But just two months later, things change. Just days after Lanyon and Utterson dine with Jekyll, Jekyll shuts himself away and refuses to see Utterson. When Utterson visits Lanyon, Utterson finds his friend looking near to death; Lanyon is pale and appears older, and his eyes are haunted. Lanyon says that he suffered a terrible shock and assumes he will die within a few weeks. When Utterson asks if Lanyon has seen Jekyll, Lanyon reacts with horror; he explains that Jekyll is dead to him and says that Utterson may remain only if he doesn’t speak Jekyll’s name.
“‘Poor Harry Jekyll,’ he thought, ‘my mind misgives me; he is in deep waters!’” (Utterson)
When Utterson returns home, he writes to Jekyll to ask about the breach with Lanyon. Jekyll replies mysteriously, saying that Lanyon isn’t to blame – but that they must not meet again. Jekyll adds that he will live a life of seclusion in the future and that Utterson must accept that he isn’t allowed to visit. He explains that he has brought on himself a terrible punishment.
“You must suffer me to go my own dark way. I have brought on myself a punishment and a danger that I cannot name. If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers, also.”
Two weeks later, Lanyon dies. The night after the funeral, Utterson considers a sealed envelope from Lanyon, to be opened after his death. When Utterson opens it, he finds another enclosed – this one not to be opened until after the death or disappearance of Jekyll. Although Utterson makes several attempts to visit Jekyll, Poole refuses him entry each time. Poole reveals that Jekyll now rarely leaves his laboratory – sometimes sleeping all night in it.
The Incident at the Window
While Utterson and Enfield are on their regular Sunday walk, they pass Hyde’s door. Enfield recalls that Hyde’s house connects to the back of Jekyll’s home and suggests that they step into the courtyard and look for Jekyll. Through a window, they see their friend, who looks solemn and imprisoned. Utterson invites Jekyll to join their walk, but Jekyll says he dares not – albeit expressing his pleasure at seeing his two friends. They agree to converse through the window, but Jekyll abruptly dons a horrified expression and slams the window shut. Utterson and Enfield leave the courtyard to walk on.
The Last Night
One windy March evening, Utterson receives a visit from Poole. Poole tells Utterson that he is afraid and that Jekyll has shut himself in his cabinet; Poole asks Utterson to follow him to Jekyll’s house. They arrive to a room full of anxious servants who thank God for Utterson’s arrival, and Poole explains that they are all afraid. Poole leads Utterson to the laboratory; when Poole announces him, Jekyll says he will see no one. Poole and Utterson agree that Jekyll’s voice sounds different, and they discuss the possibility that Jekyll has been murdered and that they have heard his murderer’s voice. Poole says that whoever is behind the door has cried for medicine all week – and that only notes and orders for supplies have been passed from behind the door. The butler shows Utterson an example: a letter to the druggist begging for a sample of the same substance as received in a previous order, insisting the last sample was impure. The handwriting is Jekyll’s, although when Poole once caught a glimpse of the man within, he was wearing a mask and ran away. Utterson decides to break down the door, and he and Poole fetch an axe and a poker. Poole admits that he thinks the creature inside may be Hyde, describing how the masked creature leapt like a monkey into the cabinet when it was seen. The pair orders a footman and some boys to guard the back entrance.
“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death.”
They reach the cabinet door, and Utterson shouts that he will break down the door unless whoever is on the other side admits him. Hyde’s voice begs for mercy, but Poole opens the door with the axe. They enter and find the room quiet, with the kettle on and tea things laid out. In the middle lies Hyde’s body, a vial still clutched in his hand; Utterson smells the vial and identifies that Hyde has poisoned himself. They search the rest of the building for Jekyll, but there is no trace of him. They find the broken key to the locked back door, the remains of an experiment with the drug Jekyll had ordered and a religious book vandalized with blasphemies in Jekyll’s handwriting. Among Jekyll’s papers, they discover an envelope containing a new version of Jekyll’s will, leaving everything not to Hyde but to Utterson. There is also a note from Jekyll to Utterson with the same day’s date; it says that Jekyll will have disappeared by the time he reads the note. Jekyll asks Utterson to read Lanyon’s letter first, then his own confession. Utterson decides to go home and read the documents, but assures Poole he will return before midnight, at which time they will call the police.
Dr. Lanyon’s Narrative
Lanyon’s letter to Utterson reveals what frightened Lanyon to death. On January 9th, Lanyon had received a letter from Jekyll. In it, Jekyll begged Lanyon for his help. He explained that he needed Lanyon to go to his house. There, Poole would be waiting with a locksmith, and they must break into Jekyll’s cabinet. Lanyon then was to take a full drawer containing some powders, a vial and a book and bring the supplies to his own home. Jekyll asked that Lanyon be alone at midnight, at which time a man would arrive to collect the drawer. He added that five minutes later, if Lanyon demanded an explanation, all would be revealed. Lanyon feared that Jekyll had gone mad but nonetheless Lanyon followed Jekyll’s instructions. One of the packets in the drawer contained a mysterious white salt, and the vial was full of blood-red, foul-smelling liquid.
“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.”
At midnight, the messenger arrived; he was small, generated feelings of revulsion in Lanyon and was wearing clothes that were too large for him. The visitor was anxious to obtain the drawer and asked for a graduated cylinder. Lanyon provided one, and the man combined some of the red mixture with the crystals, causing the liquid to bubble and change color. He then inquired whether Lanyon would be wise and allow him to leave with the glass – or if Lanyon would ask for an explanation and thus gain extraordinary new knowledge. The doctor asked for the truth. First reminding Lanyon of the Hippocratic oath’s vow of secrecy, the messenger drank the potion and underwent a horrible transformation, becoming Henry Jekyll. Lanyon explains in his letter that he cannot repeat the story Jekyll then told him – but knows he soon will die of terror. However, he does reveal that the man who transformed into Jekyll was Carew’s murderer, Edward Hyde.
Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case
Jekyll reveals the story of how he created and became Hyde. Jekyll had been born into wealth and cared deeply about earning the respect of his peers. His worst fault was “a certain impatient gaiety of disposition,” but Jekyll struggled to reconcile it with his pride and desire to appear serious and respectable in the public eye. He concealed his unspecified pleasures, leading a kind of double life. As a result, Jekyll pondered the duality of man and dreamed of separating the two aspects of his personality into different men, letting his evil be free from guilt and his goodness free from disgrace. Jekyll began to explore a scientific solution and eventually produced a drug that could create a second self. Despite his fear, Jekyll tested his potion.
“This is my true hour of death, and what is to follow concerns another than myself. Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”
He experienced terrible agony, but once the transformation was complete, he felt younger, lighter and more wicked. He sneaked into his room and looked in a mirror, seeing Edward Hyde for the first time. Because his inner evil was less developed, Hyde was smaller than Jekyll. His body gave an impression of deformity and decay. Jekyll later observed that none could approach Hyde without a negative physical reaction and believes that this was because – while all other humans are a mixture of good and evil – Hyde was pure evil. Jekyll drank the potion again and reverted to his old self. Jekyll speculates that had he approached the experiment with virtue, a purely good self might have emerged; however, because he undertook it with ambition and pride, his evil was awake and seized the opportunity to escape.
Jekyll often fell victim to the temptation to become Hyde, gaining the freedom to indulge his pleasures without harming Jekyll’s reputation. He set up Hyde’s house in Soho, introduced his servants to Hyde and wrote the will that so alarmed Utterson. As Hyde, Jekyll’s pleasures became monstrous, and Jekyll was horrified by Hyde’s actions. However, Jekyll decided that the evil was Hyde’s and not his, and while Jekyll worked to make amends for Hyde’s actions, he felt no guilt. One morning, Jekyll woke to discover that he had changed into Hyde in his sleep, without taking the potion. Terrified, he stole back into the lab and transformed back into Jekyll, but he noted that Hyde had grown physically larger. Jekyll worried that he might become Hyde permanently if his evil continued to gain influence. He realized he must decide between his personas, and after some debate, chose Jekyll. For two months Jekyll resisted the lure of Hyde – but finally gave in and took the potion. Long caged, Hyde emerged with a vengeance. He murdered Carew and then realized he would be killed if caught and thus fled. Hyde destroyed his papers and transformed back into Jekyll. Jekyll was full of remorse for Carew’s death and realized he never could become Hyde again now that the latter was wanted for murder. Wracked with guilt, Jekyll labored to do good, performing charity work.
One day, Jekyll sat in Regent’s Park feeling pride and vanity in his good deeds and suddenly became Hyde. Knowing that if he returned home to get his potion he would be arrested and hanged, he wrote to Lanyon and asked the doctor to collect his supplies. Jekyll waited at an inn until midnight, then retrieved the potion; Hyde was unaffected by Lanyon’s horror when he revealed the truth. Though he traveled home as Jekyll, from then on, he could only become Jekyll with the help of the potion and usually remained as Hyde. Hyde grew stronger and Jekyll sickly and afraid. Hyde only took the potion to avoid hanging for Carew’s murder – but played cruel tricks on Jekyll, such as burning or destroying his belongings and defacing his books. Eventually, Jekyll began to run out of the salt he needed for his potion and – unable to obtain more – he wrote his narrative for Utterson. Admitting that he soon would become Hyde permanently, he concludes his confession and prepares for the hour of the death of Henry Jekyll.
About the Text
Structure and Style
The novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde falls into the genres of Gothic fiction, psychological horror, mystery, suspense, sensation fiction and science fiction. A little more than 60 pages long, about two-thirds of the text consists of Utterson’s attempts to discover the connection between Jekyll and Hyde, in the manner of the amateur detective story popularized by Wilkie Collins. Through the use of a close third-person narrator, the readers know only what Utterson can discover, which generates suspense. By filtering most of the story through the methodical Utterson, the fantastical events are relayed in a plain, factual style. The final third of the novella is epistolary, comprising letters containing first-person accounts of events outside Utterson’s knowledge.
The story’s violence, such as the trampling of the child or the murder of Carew, is contrasted by the elegant and formal prose. With this contrast, Robert Louis Stevenson reflects one of the themes of the text: the difference between outward appearances and reality. Much of the darkness in the story is hidden from the reader, just as humans hide their own evil. Stevenson often skirts Hyde’s crimes, only implying the dark acts committed and allowing the readers to fill in the blanks with their own subconscious desires. He makes frequent use of tropes of the Gothic genre, such as fog, darkness, doubling, decrepit buildings and the supernatural. Many contemporary critics praised Stevenson’s ability to combine suspense and a moral message in such a short text. Stevenson declared that the novella was an allegory but would not reveal for what. He insisted, “I have said my say as I was best able; others must look for what it meant.”
- Though the book claims that all people contain both good and evil, there is no purely good character in the story: Jekyll is an ordinary man, both good and bad, who in seeking to battle and repress his evil inadvertently unleashes it as Hyde.
- In describing Hyde as small and apelike, Stevenson draws on contemporary fears about atavism: the idea that if a human evolved from an ape, a human could devolve into something bestial. Many criminals were considered to be less evolved, and physiognomists claimed to be able to identify criminal natures by studying the shape of the human skull.
- Stevenson employs doubling throughout the text. Not only does he present humans as having a dual nature, but also London has two sides – dark and light. Even Jekyll’s home has an elegant front but backs onto Hyde’s dilapidated East End house. The house may be inspired by that of John Hunter, a renowned surgeon who used a back entrance to his home for grave robbers to deliver corpses.
- The story points to the hypocrisy of Victorian Society, which held its members to impossible moral standards that forced them to pursue their pleasures illicitly while maintaining an appearance of virtue. In addition to Jekyll’s dual life, both Enfield and Carew suspiciously return home at a strange hour, implying their respectability hides sinful behaviors.
- Science, religion and the supernatural are all at war within the novella. Jekyll’s potion works as though by magic, making the tale more of a fantastical horror than science fiction. Lanyon dismisses Jekyll’s experiments as heretical, using religious language against Jekyll’s pseudoscience. Jekyll seems to be playing God by creating new life, and when Jekyll tries to reject Hyde after Carew’s murder, Jekyll becomes religious.
- At different moments in his statement of the case, Jekyll accepts varying responsibility for Hyde’s actions. At times, Jekyll refers to Hyde as “he,” suggesting Hyde is an entirely separate person, and at other times, he calls Hyde “I,” admitting that he is Hyde and is culpable for Hyde’s actions. Through these changes, Stevenson reveals people’s frequent refusal to accept responsibility for their evil acts.
Society, Science and Literature in Victorian England
Victorian England, and London in particular, offered myriad contradictions. The city contained opulent wealth and dire poverty, divided between the West End and East End; incredible industrial and technological advancement heightened the gap between the classes. Using Queen Victoria as an example, society expected the middle and upper classes to adhere to the highest moral and religious standards, yet crime and prostitution flourished. It was a time of great scientific discovery. Interest in psychology flourished; the theories of Sigmund Freud gained popularity, and cases of individuals with split personalities came to national attention. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection shocked the Victorian world by suggesting that humans had evolved from apes. Many concluded that certain people were more evolved than others – some refined and fully human, others less evolved and prone to animalistic and criminal behaviors. It was postulated that if humans could evolve, they could devolve into a more bestial state through a reversion known as atavism.
In literary London, Gothic novels and sensation fiction were some of the most popular genres of fiction. Tales such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray frightened readers with the evil of monsters and men alike. Many novels were serialized in magazines, and others were sold as inexpensive paperbacks known as penny dreadfuls or shilling shockers.
Before Robert Louis Stevenson first conceived of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he became obsessed with the dual nature of man. In the fall of 1885, Stevenson needed money but was struggling to invent a plot for a new novel. He was ill and confined to bed, but one morning his wife heard him screaming in his sleep. She woke him, and he exclaimed, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” The nightmare was Jekyll’s first transformation into Hyde.
In three days, Stevenson furiously wrote the first draft. His wife read it and pointed out that he had written the tale as a story rather than an allegory, with an evil Jekyll using Hyde as a disguise. Stevenson burned the draft, then re-wrote the story in three more days. He spent weeks revising the tale, then offered it to Longman’s Magazine for serialization. Instead, the publisher printed it as a shilling shocker in January 1886. After a positive review in The Times, it became a bestseller in Britain and the United States.
Reviews and Legacy
Jekyll and Hyde earned Stevenson international fame, receiving praise not only for its excitement and elegant writing – but also for the moral message it contained, even being discussed in the sermons of the day. In 1887, Thomas Russell Sullivan adapted the novella into a popular play with Richard Mansfield portraying Jekyll and Hyde. After the Whitechapel murders by Jack the Ripper in 1888, the public image of Hyde’s viciousness was so entwined with descriptions of the real-life murders that Mansfield was suggested as a suspect in the killings.
During Stevenson’s lifetime, the critical reception of his work was mostly positive. Most admired the lyrical style of his prose and his ability to craft a story. His contemporaries Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde and Jack London praised him. In the early 20th century, modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf decried Stevenson as overrated, accusing him of “self-consciousness” and “sentimentality.” However, in more recent years, he has regained his status as a classic writer. Although Vladimir Nabokov thought the story of Jekyll and Hyde was simplistic, he said the writing was so beautiful that it was “nearer to poetry than ordinary prose fiction.” The story lives on in the popular imagination; in addition to inspiring a psychological term, to date there have been more than 18 stage and film adaptations.
About the Author
Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh. As a result of illnesses throughout his childhood, he didn’t attend school regularly until 1864, but he enjoyed hearing and writing stories from a young age. In 1867, Stevenson enrolled in the University of Edinburgh; though he studied law, he abandoned the field shortly after graduation and devoted himself to writing essays for magazines. In 1876, he met a married but separated American magazine writer named Fanny Van de Grift. He became her lover, though she soon returned to America. In 1879, he learned of Van de Grift’s impending divorce and traveled to California to meet her. The couple married one year later, and Stevenson became stepfather to her two children. From the late 1870s onward, Stevenson suffered from lung disease and remained an invalid for most of his life. In an attempt to find a setting that would improve his health, the family traveled extensively throughout Britain and America; despite his illness, Stevenson wrote essays and stories. When Treasure Island (previously serialized under a pseudonym) was published as a novel in November 1883, it met with huge success. In 1884, he published A Child’s Garden of Verses, his compendium of poems for children. With the publication of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, Stevenson gained fame in America as well as in England. When his health worsened in the late 1880s, the Stevensons undertook two years of cruises throughout the Pacific. In 1890, Stevenson purchased a plantation and built a house in Vailima, Samoa. He became involved in Samoan politics and drew attention to the incompetence of some European colonial officials, resulting in their dismissal. On December 3, 1894, Stevenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44 and was buried on Mount Vaea. Over the course of his life, Stevenson wrote 13 novels (two uncompleted at the time of his death), six short story collections, four collections of poetry, seven autobiographical tales of his travels and more than 60 essays.
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