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Horror Fiction 102: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson


In Horror Fiction 101, Gothic literature was the main focus: haunted castles, far-away lands, powerful landscapes, and heroines running from evil villains. The Castle of Otranto started the genre and Ann Radcliffe created a whole legacy. However, time passed and literature changed. The haunted house remains with some alterations and additions and the hunter’s domain to pursue its victim grows, it is no longer confined to the four walls of a house. The boundaries between the rational and the supernatural are blurred, evil becomes attractive and impossible to escape, and the hunter and the haunted seek each other. Victorian Horror has arrived.

Horror Fiction 102 will deal with Victorian Horror and it will be divided into six different chapters:

  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker

  • The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  • The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most popular work by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Published in 1886, this novella is a carefully constructed story that reflects Victorian double standards and the rigidity people were subjected to at the time. The tale of Dr. Jekyll’s attempt to free himself from society soon became a key work in English literature as well as the perfect example to analyse one of the most important concepts in Victorian horror, the double, or, more precisely, in this case, the doppelgänger.

Poster for a theatrical adaptation of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When analysing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from a Horror Fiction perspective, many elements arise that connect the work with the Gothic Horror tradition. The most obvious one is the setting, there are many instances where the events take place at night, in dark and gloomy spaces; Dr. Jekyll’s house is a cage that traps the characters, and the streets of the city are twisted and labyrinthic like the castles in a Gothic story. However, Victorian Horror takes one step further into connecting the space with its inhabitants. In Gothic stories, the castle was haunted because a usurper was sitting on its throne, in Victorian Horror, the house and its owner become one, and the concept of duality is introduced.

Duality is a central concept for Victorian Horror since its society was obsessed with separating the public sphere from the private one. To the outside world a Victorian man had a very strict behaviour to adhere to, only in their most private moments could they relax and free themselves from these constructs. It was a society that fetishized respectability. Therefore, Victorian men were forced to completely separate themselves into two different personas, one for the public and one for the private. It is easy to link this behaviour with Victorian Horror’s obsession with duality and, since the house and the city become one with its inhabitants that duality is also reflected in the construction of the setting.

Shot from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a 1941 American horror film starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner.

Many critics disagree on whether the city was meant to represent London or Edinburgh, however, as writer Irving S. Saposnik argues in his article The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even though the latter had a very clear division between the Old Town and the New Town, the respectable part of the city and the areas reserved for criminals, London was “much like its inhabitants, a macrocosm of the necessary fragmentation that Victorian man found inescapable” (1971, p. 718). London was the center of Victorian society and to its inhabitants, the spaces for the respectable and the doomed, good and evil, were very clear. It seems logical that work meant to represent Victorian sensibilities takes place in the center of Victorian society. Different events take place in different scenarios, Mr. Hyde’s sordid affairs do not occur in the same space where Dr. Jekyll meets with other members of society. However, the labyrinthic streets of the city make it inevitable for the respectable members of society to eventually encounter Mr. Hyde, the city acts like a Gothic haunted castle: it traps and haunts its inhabitants.

Stevenson’s duality is not only reserved for the city, Dr. Jekyll’s house is also divided into two easily distinguishable parts. On the one hand, those rooms dedicated to receiving guests are very well kept and organised, the image of a respectable doctor living as a bachelor in London. However, there are other rooms, particularly the doctor’s laboratory, that are described as being in a constant state of chaos and disarray. There are even two exits in the house, the main door used by Dr. Jekyll for everyone to see and the backdoor, hidden from the public eye, for Mr. Hyde to use.

Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) in his laboratory, from the 1941 adaptation.

As a work of Victorian Horror, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde take the duality between good and evil, the haunted and the hunter, to a whole new level. The hunter is no longer a supernatural element completely separated from the rational and human sphere, they become one. The self and the other are trapped in the body of a human and the battle is internal. Dr. Jekyll had been indulging in some sordid pleasures that no respectable Victorian man should ever be connected to, therefore, to avoid discovery, he resorted to a perfect plan: he transformed himself into a different person. Dr. Jekyll can no longer suppress his basic instincts and must dissociate himself to fit into Victorian society (Oates, 1988, p. 604). Through experimenting with some chemical substances in his laboratory, Dr. Jekyll managed to transform his body into that of Mr. Hyde. The split between the public and the private, good and evil, has never been sharper: “man is not truly one, but truly two” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 58).

Mr. Hyde is therefore a human creation, not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, he is Dr. Jekyll’s doppelgänger, his evil twin. Doppelgänger is a German word meaning “look-alike” or “double walker,” it is usually a ghost, a shadow, or a mirror image of the protagonist that takes their same shape and haunts them like an evil twin. There are other instances in literature where doppelgängers participate in the plot, like in Poe’s short story “William Wilson” or Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.” In Victorian Horror, the doppelgänger works as a manifestation of the “other” haunting the “self” while also being embedded in it. The supernatural, the other, is no longer a separate entity, it is an intrinsic part of the self, the rational. For Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde is safely the other for “It was Mr. Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 63). He can do as he wishes, he is, as Freud would say, a personification of the Uncanny.

Fredric March as Mr. Hyde in the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In 1919, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay on the subject of the Uncanny and it proved to be a key element in Horror Fiction, especially in the Victorian period. According to Freud, the Uncanny is a psychological experience of something that is mysterious and disturbing, but also familiar. Every time a character encounters Mr. Hyde in Stevenson’s novella, the man is described as unpleasant and bad-looking, but most importantly they all agree that there is something uncomfortable about his presence, something they cannot name. For instance, after meeting him for the first time, Mr. Utterson argued that his grotesque appearance could not “explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing,and fear with which [he] regarded him” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 13). However, Freud also argued that the Uncanny could refer to a person’s most hidden desires. Such elements are perceived as threatening since they divert from society’s expectations and norms. To Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde represented everything he could not do in public society, every time he wanted to be a part of some sordid affairs, he had to retort to Mr. Hyde.

Such a relationship was not meant to last. Even though Dr. Jekyll claimed to have Mr. Hyde under control, the situation quickly spiraled. Mr. Hyde, like Frankenstein’s monster, was rebelling and asking for more control over their lives. Dr. Jekyll could no longer control the transformation and Mr. Hyde was entering the public sphere that Dr. Jekyll was so desperate for him to avoid. The destruction of Mr. Hyde was now a necessity. However, the destruction of one part meant the destruction of the other, there was no Mr. Hyde without Dr. Jekyll and vice-versa. Eliminating one meant eliminating the other. The doctor had no choice but to “bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 74).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920 movie adaptation.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an accurate rendition of Victorian society and its obsession with a clean cut between the private sphere and the public one. Anything that diverted from society’s norms and expectations was seen as a threat and quickly rejected. Dr. Jekyll could no longer suppress his impulses and saw no other choice but to create a whole different persona in order to free himself from society, even if it were for only a few hours. Mr. Hyde represented the other, the Uncanny, Dr. Jekyll’s most hidden desires. The duality between the hunter and the haunted was closer than ever, embedded within the same person.

Bibliographical References:

Oates, J. C. (1988). Jekyll/Hyde. The Hudson Review. Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 603-608. The Hudson Review, Inc.

Saposnik, I. S. (1971). The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 11, No. 4, Nineteenth Century, pp. 715-731. Rice University.

Stevenson, R. L. (1886). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Penguin Classics. Penguin Group. London England.

Image References:

Fleming, V. [Director] (1941). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Loew's Inc. The United States.

March, F. [Actor]. 1931. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Paramount Pictures. United States.

National Printing & Engraving Company. (ca. 1880). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Chicago.

Robertson, J. S. [Director] (1920). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Famous Players-Lasky. Paramount Pictures Studio. United States.

Tracy, S. [Actor] (1941). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Loew's Inc. United States.


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Isabel Panadero

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