Origins of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
In his essay “A Chapter on Dreams,” Robert Louis Stevenson revealed that certain scenes and plot elements in his fictions including The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) came to him in dreams. Stevenson dreamed of Jekyll and Hyde in Bournemouth, England, with a fever preceded by a lung hemorrhage. The drugs prescribed by his doctors possibly heightened the delirium of his sleep visions. The dream was so horrifying that he cried out in terror during his sleep, which caused his wife, Fanny, to awaken him. Indignant, he told his wife he “was dreaming a fine bogey tale” and gave her a rough sketch of Jekyll and Hyde. In the morning, he worked in the sickroom for three days and came out with a 30,000 word manuscript, which he read to his wife and stepson. Fanny was highly critical, and told him he “had failed to emphasize the allegorical message of his strange dream: propensities for good and evil coexist uneasily in the human soul.” Hearing the justice of her comment, Stevenson threw the manuscript into the fire. After three more days, the second manuscript was completed, and with revisions, was published six weeks later. It sold 40,000 copies within its first six months of publication and was much favored by Queen Victoria.
Historical data regarding Stevenson’s life as well as comments from his contemporaries tell us that the concept of a respectable man living a double life that could be immoral and criminal had been rooted in Stevenson’s personality since early childhood. “The image of Jekyll and Hyde appears to have had its origin in a real personage of Stevenson’s native city of Edinburgh — Deacon Brodie (1741-1788)” (Borowitz 759). William Brodie was a successful carpenter and cabinet-maker who eventually became “deacon” of the Edinburgh carpenters’ trade. Regardless, he spent Sunday mornings making wax impressions of door locks of his friends and neighbors who were at church. This was because Brodie lived a double life—during the day time he worked as a carpenter; at night, he was a housebreaker and broke into houses of people who had asked him to repair their locks or perform other works in the trade. While working as a carpenter during the day, Brodie had figured out the schedule of his clients for the break-ins. Initially he broke into houses alone; then became the gang leader of three men. Some victims who witnessed Brodie’s night raids thought they recognized him under his black gauze mask, but kept quiet either out of friendship or disbelief. The next morning Brodie would console victims on their losses, or would serve on the town council, of which he was an ex officio member, to capture the criminal. Eventually, he was ratted out by one of his gang members after an unsuccessful raid at the Scotland Excise Office. Deacon Brodie was hanged in 1788.
Stevenson had a bookcase and a chest of drawers made by Deacon Brodie when he was a child. Horror stories, according to his nurse Alison Cunningham, were great bedtime stories. Among those was the story of the famous Deacon of Edinburgh. At age 13 or 14, Stevenson made the first attempt to make the story of the Deacon into a play. In 1869, he wrote a later draft. In 1879, H.E. Henley convinced Stevenson to work with him to revise the 1869 draft. The plot of their play entails the Deacon William Brodie who commits burglary to regain his sister’s dowery, all of which he had used for gambling. The title of the play, “The Double Life,” emphasizes the message that will be embodied later on in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Deacon Brodie feels that his true self is muffled by the social restrictions and hypocrisy of daytime Edinburgh, and feels freed when takes the part of a criminal at night. The Deacon dies in a duel with the police at the end of the play, crying he has found the “new life” at last. Unfortunately, “The Double Life” was unsuccessful, due to various circumstances.
However, despite the unpopularity of the play, its idea of “the double soul of man” remained inside the author with the creation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Borowitz 762).
Social, Historical, and Literary Commentary on Victorian Era
Jekyll and Hyde was written near the end of Queen Victoria’s rule, a time when artists, writers, and intellectuals were beginning to turn away from a celebratory view of “progress” unique of the era. Stevenson was among this pessimistic group of writers who questioned the relevance and permanence of domination of Western culture. Stevenson uses the lifestyles of the English upper middle class to criticize the hypocrisy of Victorian society. The elegant dress and outward appearance of an individual may just as well hide an evil villain underneath. In a cultural context, Jekyll and Hyde may be parallel to Western culture’s fascination with perceived “savage” countries and cultures. Dr. Jekyll may be the embodiment of English manners, pride, and high culture, while Mr. Hyde is the perceived savage culture. While colonizing the natives of the lands, Europeans believed they were civilizing the native peoples by converting them to Christianity. Although fascinated by the newly discovered cultures of foreign lands, Europeans saw the natives’ ways of life as demeaning. Similarly, then, Jekyll was fascinated with his “new life” at night, but had trouble confronting the negative aspect of it. In the postmodern perspective, Stevenson could also be making a commentary about the impact English colonizers have on its colonies overseas, with its theme of good vs. evil.
Borowitz, Albert. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Stevenson.” Legal Studies Forum 29.2 (2005): 759-763. University of Texas at Austin. Web. 16 Mar 2010.
Nelson, Brittany. Shelby, C. ed. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Study Guide: About Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” GradeSaver. N.p. 25 August 2006. Web. 16 March 2010.