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Dr Jekyll

Character Analysis

Dr Henry Jekyll is the respected, middle-aged doctor and scientist whose longing to explore his hidden desires leads him to unusual scientific experimentation. This allows him to create his alter ego (alternative personality), Mr Hyde.

‘well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a slyish cast, perhaps’

Jekyll’s physical appearance suggests that he is a handsome, prosperous man but there are hints at another side to his character.

The adjectives ‘well-made’ and ‘smooth-faced’ indicate that he is good-looking and has had an easy, prosperous life with time to take care of his physical appearance.

There is a hint to another side to him in the description of his eyes that have a ‘slyish cast’. This suggests a sense of deceit and foreshadows his later revelations about his dark side.

Context: Physiognomy is the pseudoscience (mistaken science) of using a person’s physical appearance to judge his or her character; it was very popular in Victorian Britain. Jekyll’s ‘well-made’ physical appearance would indicate to Stevenson’s readers that he is a man who has admirable personal characteristics but the signs of deceit in his ‘cast’ would also be noted.

‘direction of my scientific studies… that truth that… man is not truly one, but truly two’

Later in the novel, Jekyll explains how his scientific experiments and studies led him to conclude that all men are divided in nature. He is seen as a man of determination in his pursuit of scientific discovery and also a man of intellect. He does not base his conclusions on fancy and superstition but on solid science. 

Yet this science does cross over into the realms of the supernatural as he experiments with giving physical form to his alter ego.

Context: The Victorian era saw huge advances in scientific knowledge and discoveries and, although this was exciting, the pushing of scientific boundaries also led to anxiety and fear. Jekyll’s success with his controversial experiments reflected these concerns.

‘large, low-roofed, comfortable hall, warmed… by a bright, open fire’

Jekyll’s house appears to be pleasant and affluent (wealthy).

The list of positive adjectives such as ‘large’ and ‘comfortable’ establish Jekyll’s home as prosperous. It appears welcoming and friendly with the description of the fire as ‘bright’ and ‘open’.

Context: It was seen as incredibly important for a gentleman in Victorian Britain to have a solid, respectable reputation. If this reputation were lost, a man could be ruined and rejected by society. The setting of Jekyll’s house helps create an impression of a wealthy, hospitable and respectable gentleman.

‘I was the first. I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye… and in a moment… spring headlong into the sea of liberty’

Jekyll recalls how he enjoyed the ability to change his personality by becoming Hyde.

We see his contempt for respectability in the verb ‘plod’ which suggests the mundane and unexciting. This contrasts with the much more energetic verb ‘spring’ which shows how he eagerly embraces his dark side.

There is a sense of pride and power in the repetition of ‘I was the first’ at the start of each emphatic, declarative sentence. Initially, he was relieved and delighted with his discovery and was in control of when he chose to explore his dark desires in his ‘sea of liberty’.

Context: Stevenson used the literary traditions of Gothic novels which were popular in the Victorian era. One of these traditions was that of the doppelganger (double character) and, through the creation of Hyde, Stevenson explores this idea of duality.

‘A creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak… solely occupied by one thought: the horror of my other self’

Dr Jekyll describes himself as a broken man at the end of the novel.

He is physically weak. The personification of the fever, which is a side-effect of the transforming drug, shows how powerful it is; it has ‘eaten’ Jekyll up and ‘emptied’ him. He has been consumed by the evil that he has unleashed and is diminished to the status of a ‘creature’, the noun signifying that he is less than human.

Context: Stevenson’s portrayal of the strong scientist reduced to a weak creature reflected contemporary concerns that, at the end of the 19th century, civilisation was degenerating and mankind was becoming weak.

Grade 9 Analysis

Look at the character in a different way.

Do we sympathise with Dr Jekyll?

Yes: Stevenson ensures that we feel sympathy for Jekyll through the descriptions of his mental and physical agonies; his remorse at Hyde’s actions are clear when he tried to ‘smother down the crowd of hideous images and sounds with which my memory swarmed against me’. There is also definitely a sense that Jekyll is helplessly trapped by his experiments; his desire to indulge his dark side ‘tempted me till I fell in slavery’. The metaphor of slavery reveals how he is completely imprisoned and is powerless. Certainly, he loses control as his dark desires overtake him and he involuntarily turns into Hyde. At the end, he dies in agony of spirit, broken by his experiments. He is simply a man who, like all of us, struggles with his evil side.

No: Jekyll makes clear choices throughout the novel, aware of his ‘fatal crossroads’ as he admits his ‘moral weakness’ which allows him to drink the potion that unleashes Hyde; his fate is entirely of his own making. Even the remorse over Carew’s murder is tarnished by his ‘sense of joy’ that now he cannot turn back into Hyde for fear of being arrested as a murderer. He is essentially a clever but weak man who cannot use ignorance as an excuse for the horrors that he has committed.

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