Jekyll and Hyde is a very common choice for GCSE English Literature, but it is not an easy text to study. It explores some complex ideas about the human psyche, and also requires students to get to grips with psychoanalysis as well. Having said that, students often engage well with the mystery of the text, and are normally hooked by the last chapter when everything is finally revealed to the reader. In this blog post, I share five key ideas that can help students get to grips with the complex and often dark subject matter of this novel.
- Duality and Freud
This is one of the central ideas of the text: the notion that man is “not one, but two”. Jekyll has grown up with a strong sense of morality, but also a conviction that there is a much darker side to his character that has never been given expression. This relates to the notion of the id in Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud believed that we are all born with the id, the desires that reside deep in our unconscious mind. The id is driven by the pleasure principle, the part of us that wants immediate gratification of our needs and desires. As we begin to grow, we learn to control the id, through the development of the ego. The ego is aware of how we need to operate in society, and seeks to regulate the desires of the id. Later on, the superego also forms. The superego embodies idealistic standards, and is the part of us that strives for perfection. The ego’s job is to keep the balance between the id and superego.
Hyde is the physical representation of Jekyll’s id. We can see that he has grown up under the influence of the superego, forcing him to strive for excellence. His ego has kept the demands of the id in check, but Jekyll still feels incomplete. Initially, Jekyll believes that being Hyde allows him to gratify his desires without fear of consequence. Of course, he comes to realise that he cannot control his id in this way. Once he relieves the ego of its duty, the id takes over. Whilst he wants to believe that he is two, the reality is more complex than this. He cannot keep the id and the superego separate in this manner, and live in both states simultaneously.
- Victorian hypocrisy
Students sometimes oversimplify the Victorian period, and this means overlooking some of the key contradictions of the era, that are reflected in the literature of this time. The Victorians adhered to strict moral principles, which did not condone sex before marriage and required women to conform to a notion of innocence and virginity. There were clear codes that dictated how men and women were to behave in society, and any deviations from these standards would result in scandal and ruin.
Yet at the same time, drinking, gambling and prostitution were rife in Victorian London. Men often lead double lives. During the day they were respectable, upstanding gentlemen, and at night they frequently brothels and public houses. Jekyll’s sense of being two different people could therefore be seen as a metaphor for the paradox these men were living. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the novel is a metaphor for homosexuality. Jekyll is always vague about the exact nature of the activities he is participating in when he is Hyde, and there is a sense that he is harbouring a secret that he feels is potentially even more shocking than the deeds to which he has confessed.
- Gothic genre
The novel is a mystery, but it is also a key example of Gothic literature. Students often query what makes a text Gothic, rather than horror. The differences are subtle, but Gothic tends to have more of a preoccupation with the darkness within our own minds, rather than horror which focuses on the darkness in the world around us. In that sense, Jekyll and Hyde is the perfect expression of the main concerns of Gothic writing. The most disturbing aspect of Gothic is often the acknowledgement of deeds we did not even know we were capable of. Ultimately, the horror of the novel has not come from any external forces, but from the turmoil within Jekyll’s own mind.
Setting and atmosphere are also key components of Gothic literature. Whilst the Gothic literature of the Eighteenth Century is often set in isolated settings in foreign countries, Jekyll and Hyde is a great example of urban Gothic. London is represented as a dark and sinister place, where horror lurks around every street corner. Most scenes take place at night, and even when we see London in the daytime, Stevenson often evokes a dark atmosphere, for example in the Incident at the Window chapter.
- Narrative perspective
The novel is told predominantly in the third person, and mainly through the perspective of Utterson. This means that although Jekyll is our protagonist, we often see him through the eyes of a relative outsider. It helps to build up the suspense and tension throughout the story, as we piece together the clues alongside Utterson. We also get the perspective of other characters at key moments, for example the murder of Sir Danvers Carew is narrated through the eyes of the maid. This decision seems to emphasise the idea of brutal murder as spectacle, treated by society as a form of grotesque entertainment.
- Victorian pull between rational and the supernatural
The Industrial Revolution meant that the Victorians went through a huge amount of change in a relatively short period of time. This changed many key aspects of society. From being a predominantly rural farming economy, there was a shift towards factories and urbanisation. Society was shaken further by the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, presenting a threat to core values held by the Victorians. Key elements of religion and faith seemed to be questioned by scientists, and this led to a surge of interest in the supernatural, most notably in the form of Spiritualism.
This movement began in America, and emerged in Britain in the 1950s. Spirit mediums, normally young women, conducted seances, and Victorians flocked to see them apparently communicating with the dead. There was a real fascination with the idea of being able to experience something that could not be explained by science, and the popularity of Spiritualism can be seen as part of a Victorian crisis of faith. Whilst the initial transformation of Jekyll into Hyde can be explained by science, there is still a strong supernatural element in the novel. The transformation process quickly runs out of control, and it emerges that the initial discovery was in fact down to an impure sample, not the perfection of a scientific process. The novel definitely seems to explore elements of Victorian society that have eluded the grasp of the rational mind.
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