“The Point” of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

James Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Gold - Piccadilly (1881); Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Some stories have so entered the public consciousness that we feel as if we know them even if we have never actually read them. Such is the case with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The main twist- that the seemingly respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll and the criminal Mr. Edward Hyde are, in fact, the same person – is widely known. We even use the term “Jekyll-and-Hyde” to describe someone who has a darker side that is usually hidden from others.

If the ending, the point, of a story is known, why read it? 

The answer, of course, is that the point is not really known at all. A story (a good one, anyway) is not contained in the ending. There is not “one point” which can be taken away as a piece of knowledge to be filed until needed. Each story worth reading contains a world, and just like the one that we all live in, that world is filled with meanings and mysteries. 

When we do discover something so important as to be called “the point,” in stories as in life, it is not something that we know as complete and done. The most important things demand attention and repetition and contemplation. If we neglect to offer our time and our hearts to those points we find important…well, we miss the point.

With this in mind, I return again and again to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (it is, after all, a short read). Each time I do, I find something else, another nuance, a slightly larger gap in the curtain. Here are some of the ways Stevenson’s great mystery has kept me exploring both the story and my faith. 

Others Care For Us, Even When We Do Not See It.

The story opens with a man named Utterson taking a walk with his cousin, Enfield. Enfield shares about a chance encounter he had with an odious man named Mr. Hyde, who had entered one of the doors he and Utterson had just passed on their walk. Utterson is somewhat unsettled by this story, as he recognizes the door as being the back entrance to the house of his friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Much of the action which follows is driven by Utterson as he reaches out to Jekyll in an attempt to help him. In the process, he connects with Dr. Lanyon, a mutual friend of his and Jekyll’s, who has had a falling out with the secretive doctor. Utterson works to bring the increasingly reclusive Jekyll back into contact with Lanyon and their group of friends, and is ultimately the one trusted by Jekyll’s butler to help when the situation grows more dire.

As Utterson criss-crosses London attempting to unravel the mystery and help his friend, I am struck by how Jekyll has no way of knowing the extent of Utterson’s efforts. Even if he could have some idea of how much work his friend puts in to helping him, Jekyll is consumed with self-interest and (except, perhaps, in the end) incapable of recognizing it. 

Do I take the time to be grateful for what others do for me? For the efforts taken in order to help me, even when I do not see them, or falsely think I do not need them?

When It Comes To Good Works, What We Do Matters Far More Than What Others Do.

The most popular image of transformation in the story is of Jekyll mixing up a potion and drinking it down in order to take on the body of Hyde. As the story progresses, however, Jekyll finds that he does not have control over the transformations – sometimes the potion works, sometimes not. Hyde’s crimes grow increasingly violent and, realizing he cannot trust himself to remain in control the more he relies on the potion, Jekyll resolves to stop his experiment all together and live only as himself.

Jekyll feels remorse for the crimes of Hyde, and he seeks to make amends by supporting local charities around London. After several months of this, however, he begins to think back to his times as Hyde, enjoying the memories of his past crimes. When he begins to feel guilty about enjoying these memories, he comforts himself by thinking that he is so much better than other people because of how much money he has donated. As soon as this prideful thought enters his mind, however, he immediately turns into Hyde – no potion needed.

It is not a question of the facts: it is certainly believable that Jekyll, being quite wealthy, did indeed financially support more good works than the majority of other people. But, again, Jekyll’s own selfishness acts against him. He gives out of guilt, not concern, and thinks himself righteous for doing so. 

Am I more concerned with the question of how much others are doing, than how much I am? Am I more ready to excuse myself than to excuse others?

It Is Not That One Man Is Two, But That What Seems To Be Two Men Is One.

It is Jekyll’s view that each human being is really a combination of two (or more) different personalities which leads him to create his potion. This view is a desperate one for him because he is tormented with conflicting desires: he wishes to do whatever he wants, without concern for others, yet he wants others to think well of him. 

As the story’s mystery is revealed, however, it becomes clear that Jekyll’s hypothesis is not correct. The body may change, but Jekyll and Hyde are in reality the same man. The clash of desires within him is not resolved by the creation of Hyde. The same conflicted Jekyll who first concocted the potion is present after Hyde has committed his acts. Giving in to temptation does not make it go away.

Jekyll is not alone in wishing to push all of his undesirable traits and desires onto a different personality. It is a tempting thought, to consider that the only parts of me which exist are the positive ones and that the negative belong to “somebody else.” 

But this is not the reality – and good thing too! After all, when we consider ourselves in relation to God (something which, for all his trials, Jekyll never did) we may recall the really important point: God loves us, not some person we think we ought to be. Once we recognize this, we can begin to work with Him to grow into being truly and wholly ourselves.

-->

E-mail Newsletter

Stay connected with The Jesuit Post and be notified of new content and ongoing discussions.