It is often the case that an interpretation of the story “the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” focuses on the nature of good and evil and the ability of a person to be just as evil as they are good; yet, such an examination merely scratches the surface of possible interpretations of the story. First and foremost, what must be understood is that authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson derived a great deal of the material for their work from the society they lived in. Though the novel is a work of fiction, many of its settings, locations, societal constructs and even the personalities depicted within the story itself were derived from the Victorian era setting that Stevenson was born in. Such a method was often utilized by many authors of the Victorian era such as Oscar Wilde and Jules Verne who often utilized the Victorian era setting as means of creating a personality profile and setting that lent their novels a degree of realism that enabled people who read it to relate with many of the characters and settings depicted within. Further research into this particular method of writing revealed that authors often utilized their work as a means of subtly criticizing the society they lived in and often showed both its positive and negative aspects for the all the world to see. For example, in the case of the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” it subtly depicts the excesses and adverse behaviors within Victorian society through the medium Lord Henry Wotton who often criticizes Victorian culture through his conversations within Dorian Gray and Basil Howard. Similarly, in the case of authors such as Verne, Victorian society is often depicted as being overly reluctant to change with many of its traditions and processes often impeding societal progress. The same message can be seen in the case of the story “the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” wherein the squalor, morally questionable practices and the all too familiar theme of repugnant behaviors are often subtly inserted in certain parts of the story. From a certain perspective, it can be stated that the method of writing for authors of this era is a means of showing “filth overlain with a fine dusting of gold” which for them depicted the true nature of the Victorian era wherein the progressive nature of the time covered up the poverty, hardship, and deplorable living conditions that the lower classes of society had to endure. Based on this, it can be stated that “the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is symbolic of the dualism within Victorian society that existed at the time with the character of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde being the ultimate representation of this dualism.
Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and the Dual Nature of Victorian Society
When examining the character of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde it must first be noted that the character himself has admitted to having “certain evil tendencies” which manifest themselves as violent or at times socially repugnant desires which the main character stated he wished to rid himself of. This is a particularly interesting characteristic since it is actually quite similar to the attitudes and behaviors evident among the gentry of Victorian era London. What you have to understand is that while the upper echelon of society during this particular era placed a heavy emphasis on decorum, respectable behavior and acting like a gentleman or lady; it was often the case that people of this era said one thing yet did another. For example, in the book “the Crimson Petal and the White” by Michael Faber which utilizes the same setting as Wilde and Stevenson, it can clearly be seen that prostitution was quite rampant during the Victorian era with the supposed “gentlemen” of this time period often indulging themselves in areas such as Covent Garden. This is not merely a fictional account but an actual historical fact; classic novels such as “the Picture of Dorian Gray” and even new iterations of the Victorian era such as those by Eleanor Updale in her book “Montmorency” often portray scenes involving gambling dens, mistresses, drunken behavior, lewdness, excessive prostitution and all other sorts of behavior which are anything but respectable. When taking such aspects into consideration, it can be seen that the personification of the Victorian age gentleman by Dr. Jekyll is a way for the author to show how the gentlemen of the era were not as proper as they seemed with the character of Mr. Hyde personifying the ugliness that is hidden just below the surface. This dual nature thus represents the dual nature of the Victorian age gentlemen who is prim and proper on the surface yet underneath all the silk, embroidery and gentlemanly behavior lies a far uglier truth. Taking into consideration the theme of “overlaying gold over filth” that is prevalent in many books based on the Victorian era; it can be seen in the latter half of the novel that Dr. Jekyll attempts to stop his transformations by “engaging in philanthropic work so as to curb the tendencies associated with the transformation”. What you have to understand is that during the Victorian era there were numerous instances of philanthropic work wherein “rescue societies”, social groups and gentlemen clubs often engaged in charity fundraisers as a means of helping the urban poor. While on the surface such activities may seem to be relatively “good”, in reality such activities were often used as an excuse to socialize and otherwise have a party. In fact, many of the participants who were involved often were mainly the reasons behind the suffering of the urban poor. During this particular period of time the Victorian elite often made their money through factories which mass produced products. Unfortunately, safety standards within such establishments were often nonexistent with the pay being pathetically low. Combined with the sheer amount of people clustered within the city slums as a direct result of having to be near the place they worked resulted in horrendous conditions for the poorest denizens of the city. Thus, from a certain perspective, it can be seen that the philanthropic work of Dr. Jekyll and the fact that in the end it proved to be ineffective in actually resolving his problem of transforming into Mr. Hyde is in itself a metaphor for the utter absurdity and uselessness of the philanthropic work of people during the Victorian era since it failed to deal with main issues that caused the lower class to suffer in the first place.
The Potion and Mr. Hyde
Further interpretations of the novel have revealed the view that the concept of “the potion” is actually a metaphor for the rampant use of opium during this particular time period. For example, it can be seen throughout the novel that Dr. Jekyll often fought against particular “urges” which manifested themselves in a behavior that was drastically different from his own in which he “rejoiced in the feeling of freedom from the moral constraints that had previously bound him”. This particular form of behavior is actually quite similar to when a person takes opium resulting in a gradual deterioration of their personality over time resulting in addiction and their inability to exist without it. Behavioral tendencies of addicts often manifest themselves through violent actions, irrational behavior and a total disregard for the people around them. Such characteristics were often displayed by Mr. Hyde and lend credence to the theory that the dual nature of the main character was based on the changing personalities seen in drug addicts at the time. It was even noted by various historical scholars that since story the “the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was based off of Stevenson lifting various aspects of personality theory from leading scientific text at the time it is not that far-fetched to believe that he lifted inspiration from other sources of which papers on opium addiction may have been one of them.
Given how the story both literally and metaphorically presents the dual societal characteristics that existed at the time it can be seen that the story and the main character are metaphors for the ugliness that existed just beneath the veneer of “gentle and proper” behavior that “supposedly” defined the people of the Victorian era.