Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (often referred to simply as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) has it all: mystery, scandal and supernatural horror. Initially sold as a cheap “shilling shocker”, it was given a boost by a favourable review in The Times and by 1901 had sold over 250,000 copies. But Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is much more than a cheap tale of gothic horror. Highly influential, it spoke to the moral instincts of Victorian readers who, shaken by the publication of Charles Darwin’s radical theory of natural selection (On the Origin of Species was published in 1859), may have been questioning the role of science in society.
Science and morality sit at the heart of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. While taking a walk on a Sunday afternoon, lawyer Gabriel Utterson (the book’s narrator) and his cousin Richard Enfield pass the door to a house. This is where Enfield tells Utterson he saw a man named Edward Hyde bump into a young girl before trampling over her. Forced to pay £100 to avoid a scandal, Hyde gave Enfield a cheque signed by Dr. Henry Jekyll, a friend and client of Utterson’s.
Utterson is aware that Jekyll recently changed his will to name Hyde as the sole beneficiary. He is therefore worried that his friend is being blackmailed by Mr Hyde, who, by all accounts, is sinister and contemptible. When he meets with Jekyll, Utterson expresses his concerns, but Jekyll dismisses them. He tells Utterson that, if necessary, he knows how he can rid himself of Hyde, and asks him to drop the subject.
The narrative now jumps forward in time and, almost a year later, a servant witnesses Mr Hyde beating Sir Danvers Carew, a celebrated MP, to death with a cane. Hyde vanishes, but Utterson recognises a broken walking stick left at the scene of the crime as belonging to Henry Jekyll. He visits Jekyll who shows him a note from Hyde, apologising to Jekyll for what has happened. Utterson, who notices similarities between Hyde’s writing and Jekyll’s, suspects that his friend has forged the note to protect Hyde, but cannot understand why he would do this.
In early January, Jekyll, who has seen Utterson during the autumn, begins to refuse visitors. Dr. Hastie Lanyon, a friend of both Utterson and Jekyll, receives some information relating to Jekyll which he finds so shocking it kills him. Before his death, Lanyon gives Utterson a letter that is to be opened only if Henry Jekyll disappears or dies. Taking another walk, Utterson sees Jekyll at his window. They begin a conversation, but Jekyll suddenly retreats inside, slamming the window shut and disappearing into the house.
Utterson receives a visit from Jekyll’s butler, Mr. Poole. Poole tells him that Jekyll has locked himself in his laboratory and hasn’t emerged for weeks. Utterson and Poole break into the laboratory and inside they find Mr Hyde, dead, dressed in Henry Jekyll’s clothes. Dr. Lanyon’s letter reveals that Jekyll has concocted a “tincture” (a kind of medicine) which, via the powers of transcendental medicine, can turn him into Mr. Hyde; Dr. Lanyon was so shocked at seeing this transformation that it ultimately killed him.
A confession letter written by Jekyll (and included in full at the end of the book) confirms he is, in fact, Hyde, and reveals that transformed into Hyde. He admits he had engaged in all manner of illicit activities, most of which are too debauched to confess to Utterson. While at first, he could control the transformations into Hyde, Hyde apparently became too strong, and one morning Jekyll went to bed as himself and awoke as Edward Hyde. Jekyll resolved to stop becoming Hyde but was unable to keep from continually transforming into him, for example when he slammed his window shut during the earlier conversation with Utterson. Terrified that he would remain trapped forever as Hyde, Jekyll wrote his confession and committed suicide, poisoning himself in his laboratory and, in the novel’s famous final lines, ‘bring[ing] the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end’.
For GCSE English Literature, the highest scoring essays are often those that combine an analysis of the plot with an examination of the novella’s themes (ideas that come back or recur within a piece of writing). Key themes in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde include good and evil – respectively Jekyll and his alter ego, Hyde – and their simultaneous presence (or duality) within humans, friendship and loyalty, science and the supernatural, and social repression in Victorian Britain; the name “Hyde” also serves as a homophone expressing Jekyll’s wish to explore his desires in secret and “hide away” inside his Hyde persona.
References to religion feature in discussions between characters and in comparisons between Hyde and the Devil, and the book poses philosophical questions relating to Man’s true nature and whether it is right for Henry Jekyll to “play God” by transforming himself into Mr. Hyde.
While Stevenson’s language can appear heavy and dense, it is worth remembering that he is writing in the deliberately dry, unambiguous tones of his narrator. Mr. Utterson, who is himself an example of a reliable narrator – someone who will lend credibility to the more fantastical elements of the narrative: the fact that Utterson is “dry” actually makes the events of the novel more incredible because it makes them more believable. Pay attention to the language of the novella as well as the chronology of events, so that you feel confident identifying descriptive language techniques and then explaining their significance, and practice with past papers so that you gain experience analysing extracts and responding to questions.
You could also take a break from mind maps and flashcards and watch one of the 100+ film adaptations of this famous story – although be warned as, aside from director B. Luciano Barsuglia’s 2017 retelling, very few of them actually stick close to Stevenson’s original plot!