by Patrick McGrath

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written in 1885 when Robert Louis Stevenson was living in Skerryvore, a house in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. He was in very poor health at the time. He was suffering continual hemorrhages from the tuberculosis that would kill him nine years later. As a remedy he was taking laudanum, an alcoholic tincture of opium with a trace of morphine added.

It seems that one night he was shouting with horror in his sleep, and his wife Fanny Osbourne awoke him. He told her reproachfully that he’d been dreaming what he called “a fine bogey tale.” By daybreak he was writing feverishly. Confined to his bed throughout, in three days he was finished. He showed the manuscript to Fanny; she criticized it as too sensational, and insufficiently allegorical; a furious row ensued, and Stevenson threw it in the fire.

He soon relented. He spent another three days in bed, again in a state of fevered composition, the result of which is the version of the tale we know today. It is extraordinary to think that a man practically at death’s door could write the two versions, totaling sixty thousand words, in six days, without killing himself. Yet that is apparently what happened.

Jekyll and Hyde is a short novel that divides into ten chapters, the last of which uncovers the mysteries that have accrued through the previous nine. The most pressing of them concerns the identity of the murderer Edward Hyde, and his relationship to the eminent physician and scientist, Dr. Henry Jekyll. The first hypothesis that carries any real weight is the one put forward by Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer, Mr. Utterson. Reflecting on the youth of his old friend, he remembers that the doctor “was wild when he was young,” and concludes that Edward Hyde must be “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.” [1] In other words, a bastard love-child of Henry Jekyll’s youth has appeared out of nowhere to embarrass and exploit the poor man in the tranquility of a respectable middle age.

Curiously, the only reason, at this stage at least, that Mr. Utterson concerns himself with Hyde at all is because a cousin of his, Mr. Enfield, saw Hyde literally trample over a young girl as she ran through empty London streets at dead of night on an errand to summon a doctor to her home.

Mr. Utterson is in no doubt that Henry Jekyll is in “deep waters,” beholden to this violent man who appears to be the sole heir to his considerable fortune. What if Hyde discovers the contents of Jekyll’s will, thinks the lawyer, and grows “impatient to inherit”? [2]

By the end of the story we are in no doubt as to Hyde’s precise relationship to the doctor: he is “the brute that slept within me,” [3] and “the animal within me licking the chops of memory,” [4] and even, in a weird prefiguring of Freud’s ideas about the double, “the thing that was projected.” [5] There are places in gothic literature where the double relationship-—and no couple is more synonymous with the idea of the double than Jekyll and Hyde-—seems to involve not so much a pair of siblings or twins as parent and child; and this repeated image of Hyde residing “within” Jekyll cannot help but arouse thoughts of pregnancy, of the womb, of Jekyll being in some sense not Hyde’s father but his mother.

Some sixty years before Stevenson created these characters Mary Shelley wrote the story of another meddling scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. That Frankenstein and the Creature he brought to life are doubles, or doppelgangers, is never in doubt. Frankenstein often explicity identifies himself with the Creature, as though, in Freud’s words, he had “caused the ego to project that material outward as something foreign to itself” [6]-—the material in question being pathological mental processes. Dr. Frankenstein explicitly recognizes the Creature “in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.” [7] Later he refers to himself as “I, the true murderer” [8]; confesses that he “wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible,” [9] and that he was “the author of unalterable evils.” [10] Such sentiments could as easily come from the lips of Henry Jekyll.

There is a further aspect of Victor Frankenstein’s relationship with the Creature that reflects that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It concerns an extraordinary series of events on the night of the Creature’s “birth,” when Frankenstein dreams that he is kissing his fiancee, Elizabeth. But even as he plants his lips on hers, she turns into the corpse of his dead mother. This is no mere gothic flourish; it represents on Mary Shelley’s part an inspired understanding of the unconscious. It suggests a mind raddled with guilt-—the guilt, specifically, of a man who, in creating life, has usurped not only God but Woman too.

There is in Dr. Jekyll’s relationship to his own “projected material” the tenderness and solicitude of the anxious mother who harbors a child in her house, or in fact in her very body. Certainly in the early chapters the doctor displays an overly protective attitude toward his mysterious guest. Immediately after the child-trampling incident, when Hyde is forced to come up with monetary compensation for the family of the girl he has injured, he has no trouble securing money from the doctor. Nor would any wild scion of a wealthy family, seeking to escape punishment for his misdeeds through the deep pockets of an indulgent parent. Stevenson spends the first three chapters of the book establishing this relationship of protector and protégé through the eyes of Mr. Utterson; and when the lawyer finally expresses his misgivings about the whole business, Jekyll’s response is illuminating: “I do sincerely take a great, a very great interest in that young man,” he says, “... I only ask for justice; I only ask you to help him for my sake, when I am no longer here.” [12] Against his better judgement Mr. Utterson defers to his client’s wishes.

Stevenson then ratchets the drama to a new level: Hyde commits murder, and no ordinary murder, but a vicious, unprovoked assault upon “an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair.” [13] For reasons never explained, this gentleman is out and about on the streets of London, near the river, late at night. He addresses “a very small gentleman... with a very pretty manner of politeness.” [14] Close to the end of the book Jekyll describes what happens next:

“Instantly the spirit of hell awoke in me and raged. With a transport of glee I mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight from every blow; and it was not till weariness had begun to succeed, that I was suddenly, in the top fit of my delirium, struck through the heart by a cold thrill of terror. A mist dispersed; I saw my life to be forfeit; and fled from the scene of these excesses, at once glorying and trembling, my lust of evil gratified and stimulated, my love of life screwed to the topmost peg.” [15]

This is wonderfully strong, sick, gothic stuff. Stevenson equates wild homicidal violence with “love of life,” and in doing so points up the true nature of the libido. For he’s suggesting here that desire is morally neutral, subject to civilized norms only by means of socialized mechanisms of internal control. Such mechanisms Edward Hyde does not possess, and it’s precisely this freedom from moral constraint that Dr. Jekyll appears to crave when he quaffs the transforming brew-—“which was at first of a reddish hue, [then] began, in proportion as the crystals melted, to brighten in colour, to effervesce audibly, and to throw off small fumes of vapour.” [16] However, by this point in the story we are no longer trying to define Jekyll and Hyde’s relationship. Instead we’re trying to understand why Jekyll continues to indulge it. The answer is simple: it is beyond his conscious control. He has become addicted to being Hyde.

Until the very last chapter of the book, when he delivers his “Full Statement of the Case,” we have only a few hints as to the nature of Jekyll’s addiction. It is a mark of Stevenson’s ingenuity that he structures his story in such a way that the information we need in order to make sense of events is dispensed in enigmatic pellets that serve to tantalize rather than illuminate. Only later, as we reread the tale, do we understand the significance of what others, usually Mr. Utterson, have witnessed. The day after Hyde’s impassioned murder of the beautiful, white-haired old gentleman, Utterson goes to visit Dr. Jekyll. Hyde has apparently gone to ground, and nobody can find him; we understand why, because we know where he is hidden: deep inside Henry Jekyll. But all we see when Utterson visits his friend is that Jekyll is sitting very close to the fire in his chambers, “looking deadly sick.” [17] The lawyer assumes that this deadly sickness is a result of moral shock. We know better: Jekyll has binged, and is suffering the consequences.

A few pages later Mr. Utterson and his cousin Mr. Enfield, passing Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory, are astonished to see the doctor sitting at his window, “taking the air with an infinite sadness of mien, like some disconsolate prisoner... “ [18] Prisoner indeed, prisoner of his addiction, for it soon becomes clear that he has lost all control. After a few moments of conversation “the smile was struck out of his face and succeeded by an expression of such abject terror and despair as froze the very blood of the two gentlemen below.” [19]

He disappears inside, and Utterson and his cousin walk away, profoundly disturbed: “They were both pale; and there was an answering horror in their eyes.” [20] What they have seen is a man in the grip of a bodily affliction brought on by a drug which, as Jekyll’s butler later remarks, “is wanted bitter bad, sir, whatever for.” [21]

One last example of the dramatic personality change that Dr. Jekyll undergoes as a function of his addiction, before we reach his own “Full Statement”: Mr. Utterson comes upon a book of Jekyll’s, “a pious work, for which Jekyll had several times expressed a great esteem.” [22] He then to his amazement sees that the pages have been annotated, and in the doctor’s own hand, with “startling blasphemies.” [23]

In the last chapter all at last is revealed. This is indeed a story of addiction. It moves from an initial moderate indulgence in a drug which liberates its user from irksome habits of discipline and virtue; through a stage of more frequent use, to the point where he frightens himself, and attempts to give it up; to a full acknowledgement that his pleasures while under the influence are not merely “undignified” but have begun “to turn towards the monstrous.” [24] He refers to his “vicarious depravity,” and confesses that his sins are far from victimless, for he was “drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another.” [25]

It is cruelty, then, that represents the nadir of Jekyll’s moral descent; and it is cruelty that first marks the portrait of another gothic figure of doubleness and depravity. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, published five years after Stevenson’s tale, Oscar Wilde illustrates the moral degeneration of a beautiful young man who sustains his youth unblemished, while his portrait, kept in a locked room at the top of his house, marks his decline. Cruelty is what first disfigures the picture:

“The bright dawn flooded the room, and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that [Dorian] had noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to be more intensified even. The quivering, ardent sunlight showed in the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.” [26]

For Wilde and Stevenson, as for Mary Shelley, “the thing that was projected”-—the double, the brute within--escapes the strictures of moral convention and finds its most intense pleasures in cruelty. Other doubled figures share this trait. Joseph Conrad’s secret sharer, that fearless, upstanding young mariner, a powerful swimmer whose skill at reefing a foresail saves a ship from destruction--he too is a killer, having murdered a shipmate with his bare hands at the height of a diabolical storm. He hides in the cabin of the narrator of “The Secret Sharer,” a young sea captain who regards this strange stowaway as his “other self... as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror.” [27] The complicated maneuvers necessary to conceal his “other self” from the rest of the crew involve the secret sharer squeezing himself into various womblike, intimate spaces in the captain’s cramped private quarters. The captain even gives him his bed, making the secret sharer the brute, in effect, that slept not within me but with me.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” depicts a relationship far less benign than that of Conrad’s captain and his secret sharer. Poe returns to the dichotomy represented by Jekyll and Hyde, by Frankenstein and the Creature, and by Dorian Gray and his painted image: the doubled individual fissured along a moral faultline, the cruel and lecherous brute within attempting to have his way with the higher, constraining self, and often succeeding. There is in Poe’s story the same grim inescapability that Dr. Jekyll experiences when, sickened by his own depravity, he tries to shun Hyde.

William Wilson is relentlessly pursued by his better self, which triumphs at the end by taking his evil twin with him into death. “I fled in vain,” [28] cries William Wilson, but whereas in Jekyll and Hyde it is the good doctor who flees his amoral libido in vain, in Poe it is the libidinous Wilson who flees in vain from the machinations of his better self. “In me didst thou exist,” exclaims that better self, “and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” [29] In Poe the man who lacks a conscience lacks life, and is in effect dead. Stevenson’s story is a variation on the theme, diametrically opposed; there, it is the man of conscience unable to constrain his appetites who must die.

And die he does. In a recent essay, “The Art of Being Found Out,” Colm Toibin describes the spirit of the age in which Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde as one that espoused “ideas of doubleness, secret selves and the possibility of discovery... the need to set down in a story what had been up to then withheld, the need to be found out, for the words of disclosure to offer the comfort of meaning and publicity to what was previously an inchoate experience...” [30] It is the comfort of disclosure that Dr. Jekyll requires and, in the penultimate chapter of the book, “Dr. Lanyon’s Narrative,” he finds it. Toibin writes: “... private life and private acts are not enough; the art of loving and wanting involves, even in the most nuanced way, publicity: it needs words.” [31] He is talking about Henry James, Lady Gregory, Ford Madox Ford and others of Stevenson’s contemporaries, but these ideas go a long way to explaining Hyde’s extraordinary decision to mix his lethal cocktail and drink it in front Dr. Lanyon, who is Jekyll’s old friend and philosophical adversary. Lanyon witnesses the moment of transformation:

“[Hyde] seemed to swell-—his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter-—and the next moment I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror... there stood Henry Jekyll!” [32]

And so the mystery is explained. It only remains that Jekyll tell the story from his own point-of-view, which he does, tersely and succinctly, in the final chapter. He is lucid about his addiction and the vain attempts he has made to overcome it. He tells how he managed a period of abstinence during which “I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensations of an approving conscience.” [33] But the brute was not dead; it stirred from sleep, and “I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling after freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.” [34]

In an hour of moral weakness: how clearly we picture it, the pacing man, obsessing over the knowledge that the drug he has forsworn can within minutes be in his grasp. What drunk or junkie, what addict of any stripe, is unfamiliar with this experience of exquisite temptation? Jekyll cracks. Soon he is beyond help: “It took on this occasion a double dose to recall me to myself; and alas! six hours after, as I sat looking sadly in the fire, the pangs returned, and the drug had to be readministered.” [35]

Jekyll goes on to describe in lurid detail the scarifying hatred he feels for the brute within, and the brute’s reciprocal hatred of him; and then comes this:

“But his love of life is wonderful; I go further: I, who sicken and freeze at the mere thought of him, when I recall the abjection and passion of this attachment, and when I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him.” [36]

This is genius. After everything, the doctor still finds it in his heart to pity the brute. It is a last instance of the maternal current that has flowed quietly through the story, infusing it with the aching heartbreak of a love that cannot die, no matter what cruelty or contempt the loved one displays toward his doting parent. The profundity, the spiritual penetration that Stevenson employs in describing this strange case uncovers at the last that it is self-love that wins the day. Dr. Jekyll’s narcissistic attachment to his own libidinal energies-—the “love of life” he recognizes in Hyde-—remains unbreakable. Fissured, doubled, conflicted and addicted he may be, but in the end he is still all of a piece, one being, facing death in a state of the most wrenching and pathetic self-pity.


1. Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories, Vintage, London, 2007, p.17

2. ibid., p.18

3. ibid., p.75

4. ibid., p.73

5. ibid., p.65

6. Sigmund Freud, Art and Literature, Volume 14, Penguin Freud Library, 1990, p.358

7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, The Modern Library, New York, 1999, p.95

8. ibid., p.111

9. ibid., p.113

10. ibid., pp.115-116

11. excised

12. Stevenson, ibid., p.21

13. ibid., p.22

14. ibid., p.22

15. ibid., p.71

16. ibid., p.58

17. ibid., p.27

18. ibid., p.37

19. ibid., p.38

20. ibid., p.37

21. ibid., p.43

22. ibid., p.49

23. ibid., p.49

24. ibid., p.66

25. ibid., p.66

26. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Classics, 2000, pp.87-88

27. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Stories, Tess Press, New York, p.110

28. Edgar Allan Poe, Tales, Poems, Essays, Collins, London and Glasgow, 1961, p.35

29. ibid., p.38

30. Colm Toibin, “The Art of Being Found Out,” London Review of Books, Vol.30 Number 6, 20 March 2008, pp.25-27

31. ibid., p.24

32. Stevenson, ibid., p.59

33. ibid., p.70

34. ibid., p.70

35. ibid., p.75

36. ibid., p.77