Popular fiction has always had the unfortunate reputation of being looked down upon by literary critics. Therefore in 1886, when Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he was expectedly ridiculed by his peers. However, the story of Jekyll and Hyde contained within it an essence that struck at the core of society in a manner so profound that it has resonated through time, and has remained within the human consciousness even in the current post-modern age. This essay aims to deconstruct this novel through Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic theories, and thereby will attempt to answer the question as to why society today gravitates to the concepts presented by the novel in more or less the same manner society did more than a hundred years ago.
To summarize the novel briefly, a well known doctor by the name of Henry Jekyll creates a concoction that transforms him into a hideous man who is capable of carrying out vile acts of crime. This man, who goes by the name of Edward Hyde, does not present even the slightest hint of remorse for the horrors he commits. While initially carrying out this unnerving transformation process for the simple purpose of scientific experimentation, Jekyll soon begins changing into his alter ego without his own volition and in horror of losing himself completely, the character takes his own life. Both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can be utilized to dissect what is actually going on. Freud speaks about the three levels of awareness of the mind. According to him, most of the contents of our psyche reside within the unconscious, and much of our actions and knee jerk reactions occur due to how this unconscious segment of the mind operates. He states that when it comes to experiences we wish not to tackle, we instinctively push them into the deep recesses of the unconscious, i.e repression. In the novel, Jekyll is a law abiding, well respected citizen. However, he longs to let loose his instinctual, ‘uncivilized’ urges which reside within the id. His ego is always trying to confine these urges, as they will be in very heavy conflict with what his superego dictates. As a result, they are repressed, simmering and boiling inside the unconscious until Jekyll is unable to come to terms with what is going on. He concludes that if he were to separate the two, “life would be relieved of all that was unbearable” (Stevenson 74). Most unfortunately, however, Hyde turns out to be what leads to his own downfall. This character embodies what Carl Jung describes as the ‘shadow’. Jung states that everyone has a shadow and the less it is brought into the forefront of the individual’s conscious life, the more powerful and difficult to manage it will become (Psychology and Religion 131). He further emphasizes that the shadow could be an individual’s connection to primitive animal instincts that gets hidden away in early childhood (Answer to Job 12). Hyde’s appearance is described as ‘something downright detestable’ (Stevenson 45) and in some instances he is referred to not as man, but as an ‘‘abnormal and misbegotten’’ creature (Stevenson 94). Jekyll’s primitive animal instincts have thus manifested themselves in not only mannerism and action, but in actual physical form as well. Here, one may look at Freud’s list of defense mechanisms. Repression, as mentioned before, falls under this category but there are others that also apply. Once Mr Hyde is let loose, these repressed urges find an outlet through displacement and projection onto innocent civilians; Jekyll has also regressed back into a primal form in his transformations. Unfortunately, the two sides cannot be reconciled, sublimation is not achieved and there is no individuation between the shadow and the ego. Like the contents of a container that finds even the tiniest of openings, the shadow bursts forth and takes over Henry Jekyll, in both identity and livelihood.
Now, the question arises as to why this dark tale has lingered within the populace for so long. Perhaps a valid answer to that would be because it strikes at a central dilemma and duality of the human being. There are countless tales of good versus evil, where the morally righteous triumphs against those who wish to tarnish the beauty of innocent life. What then does the morally righteous do when they find that the very evil they have been battling against actually resides deep within them? In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes that man is both a complex, self aware species capable of symbolic thought, yet in the same vein, is self aware to the point where he knows that at the end of they day, he too is nothing but an animal with animal instincts who will one day perish (Becker 26). This conflict within him is what, the author argues, causes much psychological problem. This conflict is then perhaps at the heart of what man views as good and bad within himself. In modern times, this has gone past mere psychoanalysis and literature, and has become a trope in new areas of creative works such as comics and film. For example, if one is unable to remember Jekyll and Hyde, the image of the meek Dr Bruce Banner and the earth shattering Incredible Hulk can serve to be very close substitutes. Even in some popular video games nowadays, the player is not limited to one linear storyline. He or she can choose to follow multiple paths to reach different endings and either be hailed as a hero or feared as a villain. One such game that puts an interesting spin on this concept is Infamous (2009). The protagonist is in search of a force of nature known as ‘the beast’. If the player chooses to take the villainous route, the twist unravels itself magnificently as he utters the simple line ‘‘I have become the beast.’’ Apart from the character of the Hulk, a similarly brutal figure is that of Wolverine, a much beloved hero of Marvel Comics. Wolverine’s character exudes strength, brutality and ruthless savagery. Even his superhero name is that of a vicious animal. Thus, it is quite telling that the 2017 film, Logan, deconstructs this animal nature and strips the character down to his most vulnerable human form. The title of the film, too then, speaks volumes.
It is apparent that the modern, and subsequently, the postmodern world, has made man’s duality a central dictum of thought. Whether it be a self realization of Freud in Disillusionment of the War (1915) or the physical confrontation of Logan against a bestial clone of himself in Logan (2017), the idea of the shadow behind the civilized man is a concept that is not retreating from the mass consciousness anytime soon. This is why the story of Jekyll and Hyde, though being one of shock, awe and lacking high literary merit, has survived to this day. Modern man knows instinctively that at the heart of the novel, he can find himself at his most powerful and his most vulnerable. His duty, then, is to achieve what Jung calls ‘individuation’, i.e the process of bringing the shadow and unconscious into the conscious mind in as safe and healthy a manner as possible, because for every Jekyll out there, a Hyde lurks not too far behind.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Free Press, 1997. Print.
Jung, C. G. (Carl Gustav), 1875-1961. Psychology And Religion. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1963. Print.
Jung, C G, and R F. C. Hull. Answer to Job. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.
Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London:
New English Library, 1974. Print.