The Self-Defeating Defenses of Jekyll-Hyde:
A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deals heavily, even chiefly, with the external manifestations of internal forces in the Jekyll-Hyde character; because of this, the story nearly demands a psychoanalytic reading at least in some capacity. Although the case of Jekyll and Hyde is no doubt a very strange one, neither the fact of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s psychological problems nor the behaviors exhibited by Jekyll in response to those psychological problems are strange at all. For as Lois Tyson, associate professor of English at Grand Valley State University, states, “none of us is completely free of psychological problems” (14). Psychoanalytical concepts can be efficiently used to explain Henry Jekyll’s actions as various coping, or defense, mechanisms used to deal with his underground, repressed, shameful experiences as Edward Hyde, making Jekyll a prime template for self-examination about one’s own problems, defense mechanisms, and their consequences.
According to Tyson, psychoanalysis helps us “resolve our psychological problems” by focusing on “patterns of behavior that are destructive in some way” (Tyson 14). “I say patterns of behavior,” she continues, “because our repetition of destructive behavior reveals the existence of some significant psychological difficulty that has probably been influencing us for some time without our knowing it” (14, italics original). In other words, people may all engage in isolated destructive behaviors without having psychological problems. But when the behavior is habitual, a problem lies at the root of it. There is no doubt that Jekyll is caught in a pattern of behavior. He repeats his actions, even though he thinks that he can quit at will. And he thinks, later, that, having at last committed a horrific murder, he can, by his remorse, disgust, and force of will, jump the tracks of this pattern and be rid of Hyde from then on. Jekyll is wrong on both accounts. His mistake here can be attributed to denial, which Tyson defines as “believing that the problem doesn’t exist” (18). When Mr. Utterson begins to worry about Jekyll’s relationship with Hyde, Jekyll tells him calmly, “But indeed it isn’t what you fancy; it is not as bad as that. And just to put your good heart at rest, I will tell you one thing: the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr. Hyde” (Stevenson 27). This is a clear example of not acknowledging a problem. Indeed, Daniel Wright points out that “Jekyll’s misplaced confidence in his ability to expel Hyde, as though Hyde were but an unwanted guest rather than an integral part of Jekyll’s being, contributes to Jekyll’s failure to sustain the arrest of his addiction” (260). Jekyll, then, is denying the truth about Hyde, namely, that Jekyll is Hyde, and so he cannot be shooed away by Jekyll alone without considerable outside help. Even in the doctor’s “Full Statement of the Case” he often uses the language of denial. He says, “It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse” and “even now I can scarce grant that I committed it” and finally, “He, I say—I cannot say, I” (Stevenson 98, 100, 112). Although conflicted in his statement, he never fully acknowledges reality.
Another defense seen in Dr. Jekyll is projection. In Jekyll’s case, though, the projection is unique because he is projecting his faults onto an alter ego, a person who really is himself. Jekyll chooses to see Hyde as someone so other than himself, that he can project his own faults onto him. In fact, referring to Hyde, Jekyll ends his full statement by saying, “This is my true hour of death, and what is to follow concerns another than myself” (Stevenson 116). Projection is defined as “ascribing our fear, problem, or guilty desire to someone else, and condemning them for it, in order to deny that we have it ourselves” (Tyson 18). Jekyll admits to “[standing] at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde” and he would “even make haste, where it were possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde” (Stevenson 98, 100). Jekyll describes Hyde as “pure evil” and says that “that child of Hell had nothing human” (96, 112). In these ways Jekyll condemns Hyde for “his” malice, sadism, and degeneracy. Although Jekyll sometimes admits culpability and feels remorse, he at other times practically points his finger at Hyde, as though he were another being, and judges him as being pure evil. Irving Saposnik takes note of the projection (and denial) exhibited by both Jekyll and those in his society. He says
“The harm that was in Jekyll” was in large part the harm of Victoria’s England; and his unwillingness to acknowledge his kinship with Edward Hyde may be likened to everyone else’s intense hatred of his moral twin. The universal hatred directed at Hyde both in and out of the story is a striking verification of the extent to which Victorian England feared what he represented. (Saposnik 116)
Jekyll is exhibiting a common tactic, refusing to admit guilt and take responsibility, and pointing his finger at Hyde in an attempt to distance Hyde’s actions and his own, though of course, Hyde’s actions are Jekyll’s.
A third defense Jekyll employs is avoidance which Tyson defines as “staying away from people or situations that are liable to make us anxious by stirring up some unconscious—i.e., repressed—experience” (18). It is obvious that Jekyll represses the experiences he has as Hyde because he tells us that his situation “was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience [. . . .] And thus his conscience slumbered” (Stevenson 99-100). If Jekyll is able to feel so at ease, then he cannot be allowing the full import of his actions as Hyde to come to the forefront of his mind, his conscious. He must be pushing them under and making himself believe it is not really he who is committing the acts. Jekyll’s avoidance can be seen in his increased reclusiveness as he gets worse. At one point, Jekyll resolves to do good, and he comes out of his seclusion (Stevenson 46), signifying he had been in seclusion before. But soon thereafter we read, “On the 12th, and again on the 14th, the door was shut against the lawyer [Utterson]. ‘The doctor was confined to the house,’ Poole [Jekyll’s servant] said, ‘and saw no one.’ On the 15th, he tried again, and was refused” (46). Utterson finds this “return of solitude to weigh upon his spirits” (46). Daniel Wright makes a similar observation. He notes that
the addict withdraws from his accustomed society and recedes into an unhealthy solitude. Similarly, Jekyll declares, ‘I mean from henceforth to lead a life of extreme seclusion’ (p.69); consequently, according to the narrator, ‘The doctor, it appeared . . . more than ever confined himself to the cabinet over the laboratory. (Wright 259)
What Jekyll does is avoid contact with people who may confront his inexplicable behavior and thereby bring to mind the repressed experiences of Hyde. Jekyll is avoiding contact with those experiences for recalling them is more than he wants to deal with.
One more significant statement concerning psychoanalytic theory that ties into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is made by Tyson. She says, “Until we find a way to know and acknowledge to ourselves the true cause(s) of our repressed [. . .] guilty desires [. . .], we hang onto them in disguised, distorted, and self-defeating ways” (15). The theme of repression of guilty desire is a common one in literary criticism of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To begin with, literary critic Gordon Hirsch says, “The monstrous double, Mr. Hyde, is presented [. . .] as a gothic signifier of repressed desire” (223). Indeed, he mentions the “repressive modes favored by this [Victorian] society,” and says that Mr. Hyde “impress[es] ordinary folk as horrible, monstrous, and murderous because [he] manifest[s] aspects of the self—monstrous passions—that are ordinarily suppressed” (234, 227). Malcolm Elwin says that Jekyll is “seeking relief for his repressed insticts” (97). In “The Divided Self,” Masao Miyoshi even states that Dr. Jekyll found “gaiety and respectability” mutually exclusive—that “a respectable pleasure would be a contradiction in terms” (104). Psychoanalytic theory concerns itself with the formation of individuals as part of their families; similarly, one can treat one’s society as a sort of family, as it shapes people’s upbringings in powerful ways. It may be a parent or a societal custom that is either protective, oppressive, demanding, or helpful, whatever the case may be. As noted, Jekyll’s particular society demanded an unrealistic level of propriety. Indeed, “Victorian man was haunted constantly by an inescapable sense of division” according to some (Saposnik 108-9). Concerning Jekyll, it need hardly be said that he holds onto his guilty desires in ways that are “disguised, distorted, and self-defeating.” First of all, his very purpose in conjuring up Hyde is disguise and the freedom it brings. Jekyll admits that
men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete. Think of it—I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory door, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll. (97-8)
Ultimately, of course, Dr. Jekyll’s distorted pattern of behavior leads to self-defeat. In fact, readers having seen his spiral downward in the narrative, the final scene of confrontation between Jekyll-Hyde and Utterson uses almost that very phrase: “and by the crushed vial in the hand and the strong smell of kernels that hung upon the air, Utterson knew that he was looking on the body of a self-destroyer” (Stevenson 70, emphasis added).
The purpose of reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde psychoanalytically is not merely to point out the hamartia of a more modern tragic protagonist. This would amount to projection of our own. Rather, by identifying Jekyll’s self-defeating methods of dealing with haunting experiences, critics and readers are driven to introspection about the ways in which they choose to confront or hide from their own problems. Both running away and passing the blame are un-constructive and perhaps destructive ways out of admitting and confronting difficult or shameful memories or desires.
Elwin, Malcom. “The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson.” The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion. Ed. Harry M. Geduld. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983. 95-98.
Hirsch, Gordon. “Frankenstein, Detective Fiction, and Jekyll and Hyde.” Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde After One Hundred Years. Ed. William Veeder and Gordon Hirsch. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1988. 223-246.
Miyoshi, Masao. “The Divided Self.” The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion. Ed. Harry M. Geduld. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983. 104-105.
Saposnik, Irving S. “The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion. Ed. Harry M. Geduld. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983. 108-117.
Wright, Daniel L. “‘The Prisonhouse of My Disposition’: A Study of the Psychology of Addiction in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Studies in the Novel 23 (1994): 254-267.