“Nosce te ipsum”, or better read as ‘know thyself. Ancient Latin words spoken over 2000 years ago. These words ring very true in the literary work of ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. This gothic novella is personally one of my favorite pieces from the late Victorian Era, such an interesting story of a well respected doctor trying to rid himself of the evil inside him, and subconsciously the social pains Britain felt at the time, this piece resonates on many different levels. With the rise in literacy and leisure time for reading at the end of the Victorian Era, Novella became more and more popular as they entertained and related to the public instead of solely focusing on political or religious issues. ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ challenged readers to ‘know thyself’ and understand the psychological effects of society at the time. With Jekyll standing as the superego and Hyde as the inner id waiting to be unleashed, this tale relates to all who struggle with repressing their inner instability.
In the beginning of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, through the lens of a good long time friend Dr. Lanyon, Jekyll is introduced as an older gentleman and doctor: one of respect and money. He was considered a model citizen, who was shaped and formed by society. In psychological terms, he was the Superego. Hyde as Jekyll’s counterpart has the appearance of a young man with primitive unhuman like features. It is quite interesting the name Hyde was chosen for the id of Jekyll’s life. It sounds like ‘hide’ and a big game of hide and seek is exactly what Jekyll attempted to accomplish. When Jekyll gives his full statement of the case, stating "Jekyll had more than a father's interest; Hyde had more than a son's indifference." he is really saying that Jekyll had all to lose, and to Hyde the consequences did not matter. (Greenblatt, pg. 804) Anything that Hyde did as Jekyll’s dark side would come back for Jekyll to have to answer to, and it would be Jekyll who would take the brunt from society, as Hyde would just hide away. Was Jekyll in the right to try to separate out the evil into another human being? After all, if the id is left unchecked, the ego or superego cannot suppress its urges and tendencies.
Jekyll knew himself well enough to recognize there was ‘evil’ inside him that he could no longer contain and that he must separate himself from it. But, can we really ever separate ourselves from the ‘evil’ inside? Biblically I say no. After ‘The Fall’ where Eve ate of the forbidden fruit sin, or the evils of the world, that God wished for us not to know were introduced to man. It was after that fatal mistake that man stood no longer pure and sinless in God’s eyes. With that each man was born a sinner and would be tempted, and have the desires of the flesh or id to urge off daily. We all have that little voice inside our heads speaking thoughts tempting us each to ‘the fall’ in our own lives. We need the good and the bad to check each other to stay on course in life. Here’s the question though, how do we know those thoughts are evil if we have no superego checking and suppressing? Also who dictates the standards of good verse evil?
In the time of writing ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson was witness an evolution of Britain in the political, social, and religious arenas. As Singh and Shubho state in their study in dualism, “Interestingly, Christianity, the religion Stevenson was born into, rejects dualism and preaches a monistic origin to the universe from one, infinite, and self-existing spiritual being who freely created everything.” Was Stevenson’s novella a way of expressing the inner demons he would have suppressed during his childhood years? Was this Stevenson’s way of expressing Britain’s suppression of the ‘evil temptations’ that began to arise in the late Victorian Era?
There is so many other areas topics and themes that can be discovered in this excellently written novella, not to mention the way it was written in itself, but for my analysis I will leave you with… do you truly ‘know thyself’?
Singh, Shubh M, and Subho Chakrabarti. “A study in dualism: The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 50,3 (2008): 221-3. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.43624
Greenblatt, S. and Robson, C. (n.d.). The Norton anthology of English literature.