If you’re looking to score highly in GCSE English, then themes (the key ideas that run through a text) are your new best friend. This is because it’s virtually impossible to score a 7, 8 or 9 without them. Even if you’re aiming for a more modest grade it is worth revising and learning Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde key themes as they feature throughout the entire novella, and thus come in handy when answering the text as a whole.
One key thing to remember is that for any book there is a lot of crossover between themes, so make sure you make a note of where one theme connects with another and then mention this in an essay (if it’s relevant of course). This also makes them easier to learn, because you can recycle quotations between different themes.
So what are some of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde key themes? Here are a few of the most important:
Duality (‘doubleness’) lies at the heart of the book and is one of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde key themes. Dr Jekyll literally splits his identity into two parts in order to live as he truly desires: Jekyll, the upstanding, respectable doctor; and Hyde the low, sordid part indulging in immoral activities.
“Man is not truly one, but truly two … ”
This quote is from Jekyll’s letter to Utterson. Notice the placement of the comma in the middle of this phrase, splitting it in two so that the language Jekyll uses to describe his duplicity is therefore itself duplicitous.
“I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both … ”
In this longer quotation, also from Jekyll’s letter, the doctor emphasises how the two parts of his personality serve to make up a whole; that he is both Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, and that one cannot live without the other. The idea that good and evil within humans are inseparable is deeply philosophical, also playing into the theme of good versus evil in the novella.
Good versus Evil
In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson examines the good and evil that exist in all men, providing an allegory of the constant struggle between the two as they exist within the human personality. The quote above (from Jekyll’s letter) is perfect for this theme, but others, which connects Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde key themes of religion, also play their part.
“All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil … ”
Once again from Henry Jekyll’s confession, here, the doctor sets out his belief that humans have a duplicitous nature at their heart.
“There was the man in the middle, with a kind of black, sneering coolness — frightened too, I could see that — but carrying it off, sir, really like Satan … ”
This is Enfield’s description of Mr Hyde, connecting him to the Devil in chapter one. Repeated references to Hyde and his Devil-like ugliness contrast with the almost angelic description of Sir Danvers Carew (“aged and beautiful, with white hair”).
Social conditioning and repressive society
One of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde key themes is the devout, God-fearing nature of Victorian society. Like Jekyll, society suppressed their true feelings and desires. Victorian society was sober and dignified, with a veneer of respectability covering illicit activities. In attempting to restrain Hyde by not transforming into him, Jekyll finds that his alter ego grows stronger from being repressed, and bursts forth when summoned, angrier and more violent, resulting in the murder of Carew.
“Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.”
Once again from Henry Jekyll’s letter, here we learn how Jekyll’s duplicity is also connected to the fact that he was forced to repress his true desires.
“A great curiosity came on the trustee, to disregard the prohibition and dive at once to the bottom of these mysteries; but professional honour and faith to his dead friend were stringent obligations; and the packet slept in the inmost corner of his private safe.”
When Utterson first receives the packet from Lanyon, he represses the urge to open it, indicating an impulsive side even to Utterson that he, unlike Henry Jekyll, is nevertheless able to control.
Friendship, Loyalty and Fidelity
Friendship and loyalty is another of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde key themes, as it is Utterson’s friendship with and fondness for Henry Jekyll that not only compels him to uncover his mysterious connection with Hyde, but also to express concern for Jekyll. It is this that leads him to make comparisons between Jekyll and Hyde’s handwriting, and to protect Jekyll by not mentioning his acquaintance with Hyde to the police. Friendship is shown by Stevenson to be powerful and enduring, although not infallible: the uneasy friendship between Dr Lanyon and Dr Jekyll breaks down after Lanyon learns of Jekyll’s abilities to transform into Mr Hyde.
“Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde … ”
Jekyll, in his letter, writes of his desire to once again be part of society, with friends, rather than alone, indulging in his vices as Edward Hyde.
Science and the Supernatural
Another of Jekyll and Hyde’s key ‘battles’ is epitomised by Dr Lanyon, who believes in reason and scientific basis, and Henry Jekyll, who dabbles with the occult and concocts experiments eventually leading to the appearance of Edward Hyde. Lanyon uses science to understand the known world, whereas Jekyll uses his ‘science’ – more a form of supernatural alchemy – to push the boundaries of what’s possible. The theme of science also relates to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which, published in 1859, was seen as an attack on religion, with contemporary society considering religion and science to be at odds with one another.
“ … 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.”
Stevenson’s description of the murder of Sir Danvers Carew evokes the idea of humans being descended from more primitive forms of life, and of Hyde as regressing into an “ape-like” state.