Of the many works from the picturesque gaslight era of fiction, few achieve a convincingly mysterious ambience as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Aside from a genius for setting and character, which reveals itself in Mr. Utterson the lawyer and antagonist to Dr. Jekyll—with his slightly eccentric, distinctly likeable personality—Stevenson maintains a keen psychic tension by pitting the “good” Dr. Jekyll against his “evil” other half. This prompts fascinating questions about the nature of sin and guilt.
Dr. Jekyll, in his confession at the end of the story, describes the “primitive duality of man.”
Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of me. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.
Dr. Jekyll acted on a theory that it is possible to separate these two aspects of himself, by means of a special potion, allowing him to purify his good half. However, his evil nature (Mr. Hyde) ends up predominating and taking over the lives of both men, ending in debauchery and murder.
While Stevenson’s prose is invariably lucid, his presentation of Dr. Jekyll’s moral struggle is ambivalently expressed. It is true that Stevenson rejected the Scottish Presbyterianism of his youth, yet one senses a residual Calvinist determinism lurking among the pages. Of course, such a view would have been aggravated, rather than discouraged, by the post-Christian Romantic fatalism of the time. Agnostic Victorians, however, were not the first to consider the paradox of sin and free will. Dr. Jekyll’s dilemma was addressed by St. Paul in his famous Epistle: “For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do” (Rom 7:15). The Apostle speaks here not of man’s personal responsibility, which he believes in, but the disorderly passions which afflict even good men.
The infidel thinks that material existence presents man with an inflexible destiny he can never master. Thus, according to Jekyll, all men are tempted and invariably give into the demands of their lower self. We are condemned live in a universe in which good and evil are merely two aspects of the same thing. It is, of course, a misunderstanding of the distinction between temptation and consent. Stevenson’s tale permits many interpretations. Can it be that Dr. Jekyll, despite his superficial decency and protestations against the wickedness of his evil half, had indeed committed the primal sin of pride, which led ultimately to the creation of the monstrous Hyde?