Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

That dénouement we all know now, is that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. Or rather, they are one but not entirely the same: Jekyll has, by dint of allowing free rein to his baser desires, has unwittingly allowed them to not only rise to the surface but to effectively take over, save for one small chink that will finally bring him release. Hyde is the skin that Jekyll uses to, as it were, hide in plain sight; Hyde is Jekyll without a shred of remorse for his behaviour which, though it is only hinted at, seems to encompass sex and violence as well as, ultimately, murder.

Jekyll & Hyde was classed as a ‘fable’ by Stevenson himself. In the 1896 posthumous edition the publishers included not only his shorter literary fables but a preface which described this novella as one of his “semi-supernatural stories … in the composition of which there was combined with the dream element … the element of moral allegory or apologue.” In other words, Jekyll & Hyde was a fable without an explicit moral; readers are expected to draw the moral out for themselves. This lesson seems to be that we all have the propensity to do evil things though most of us resist the temptation; but those who, like Jekyll, attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility for ignoble and wicked actions must of necessity face the consequences of those actions.

Stevenson reportedly — as with Mary Shelley and Frankenstein — was inspired by a vivid waking dream to develop his story. The tale is presented as a series of narratives, first by an omniscient storyteller who introduces Mr Gabriel Utterson the lawyer and his cousin Mr Richard Enfield, who muse on a curious incident involving Mr Edward Hyde, a child and a door. Hyde has “something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable.” Utterson then discusses with Dr Lanyon his concerns about their mutual friend Dr Henry Jekyll and the latter’s relationship to Mr Edward Hyde.

Those concerns are not allayed by Hyde’s reported frenzied attack on Sir Davers Carew. After the murder everything seems to go quiet, Hyde disappears from public view and Dr Jekyll appears to regain a composure he had lost. But Utterson has not lost sight of his suspicions regarding Hyde’s mysterious hold on Jekyll, especially after Dr Lanyon’s unexpected decline and demise. When Jekyll becomes reclusive, Utterson gains the support of Jekyll’s butler and breaks into the rooms where Jekyll has locked himself up; here they find the body of Hyde and a final note in the hand of Jekyll, explaining everything.

The mystery of Jekyll and Hyde is no mystery to us now, but the first readers of Stevenson’s fable must have been very shocked as they grew to realise the truth of the matter, as confirmed in the final revelation. The story must have appealed to respectable Victorian society’s worst fears: the threat from the worst the lower classes (as Hyde appears to be part of) could inflict on them; the dark, almost magical, arts that the renegade scientist might be attracted to; and the latent evil, perhaps a trace of original sin, that might lurk within any or all of them, ready to emerge unless severely repressed.

Nowadays we might not so readily conflate evil with a conventionally unattractive appearance as exhibited by Jekyll’s altered state — even traditional tales likes Cupid and Psyche and other tales of the Beauty and the Beast type warn us against such leaps to judgement — but authors then felt no such constraints. Classic fiction has often favoured simplistic correlations for the sake of narrative.

In psychological terms Jekyll’s alter ego could also be the shadow, an aspect of the personality that writers have explored before and since the publication of Stevenson’s fable. It becomes evident that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (the novella was first published in 1885 without the definite article) is not about a split personality but about Jekyll’s deliberate liberation of his baser instincts, a liberation that leads to degradation, deaths and Jekyll’s own suicide when he realises he has become the shadow he sought to split off from himself.

In one sense Jekyll’s story is the precursor of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”, and who had a shadow that could be separated, even if only temporarily, from Pan. Jekyll, for all his learned sophistication, childishly wants to indulge his primitive instincts by letting his shadow self take over; by consuming the concoctions he has himself prepared he hopes to release his shadow self, and even gives it a new name. Unlike Peter Pan, though, here things don’t end so well.

Stevenson’s literary fables, which were packaged up by his publishers with the novella in 1896 and in a pocket edition from 1906, will be reviewed separately; the twenty fables, some very brief, are freely available online, for example at

In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book with a name in the title (two, as it happens)

20 thoughts on “Altered state alter ego

  1. Ah, classics… There is something timeless about them, however simple and childish they may seem to the modern jaded readers 😉 Campbell would certainly agree with your interpretation of the shadow nature of Hyde and the universal appeal of Stevenson’s story. But I would also like to point out the fact that shadows often seem stronger and more robust than their ego counterparts – which makes the stories about them moral fables indeed, where evil seems stronger but in the end is defeated despite that fact.
    I guess it’s time for a re-read! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Always time for a reread — it’s so short! Classics aren’t necessarily as childish and simple as I may have implied, however. I could have as easily discussed Utterson at length, or whether London here is really a stand-in for the smoggy smelly Edinburgh that RLS knew so well, or how dangerous city streets were regarded at the time what with anarchist bombers (RLS penned a story around one, I believe) and Irish nationalists and notorious serial killers and frequenters of gin palaces… 😁

      The Shadow, yes, often seen as more robust than the ego counterpart. It’s curious that I’ve read a series of novels recently which seem to have featured a shadow: Frankenstein, The Wizard of Earthsea, A Hat full of Sky and of course this novella. Certainly Frankenstein’s Creature outlasted Victor, and Jekyll had to die to put an end to Hyde, but at least Ged and Tiffany learnt to turn around and face their shadows rather than handing over power to them. Maybe they’re all fables, these books! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a story that we all take for granted we know about, but it’s only the popular culture image that we have, ultimately deriving from melodramatic Victorian staged versions, and which has mostly obliterated the original tale — certainly that was the case for me! Anyway, Jo, it’s a very short piece — I read it in a couple of sessions — and worth a go if you’ve never experienced it before.

      Now, the other fables are something else, as I hope to explore in a separate post! 🙂


  2. It is so interesting to remember our younger self’s reaction to the books we reread decades later, isn’t it? I remember skipping over so many pages in Jane Eyre as an adolescent, because “who cares about the weather?” Ha!

    And yes, the dark alley at night. Nothing good happens there… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve scheduled a post about my penchant for having several books on the go rather than just one, Laurie, my rationale being that they can all throw light on each other (though I really know it’s because I have a grasshopper mind).

      But as a youngster I was more a ‘serial’ reader, rushing through books because I was aware of how much there was out there and desperate to get on with the next fix of narrative. The weather? Pah! Descriptions of scenery? B-o-o-r-i-n-g. Internal soliloquys? Puh-leeze! 🙂

      But, like you, I knew that dark alleys were something to be avoided. What? That’s where the protagonist is heading? Don’t they read books? Don’t they know?! 😀


  3. elmediat

    Excellent analysis. 🙂

    When I used the story with my class, I emphasized two things, how the novella, as speculative fiction, anticipates mind-altering substances (e.g. LSD) that society is now all too familiar with, and how, as a mystery story, the plot structure is non-linear.

    I pointed out that while most people, in current society, had an awareness of the effects of mind-alternating drugs, multiple-personality, and the idiom a Jekyll & Hyde personality, at the time of first publication, these ideas would be totally novel & shocking to the 1886 public.

    An assignment that I gave (tortured) my students was to create a timeline of events. It made them aware of the plotting and how different narrative points of view went into building the mystery towards the shocking reveal at the conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Joseph, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to acknowledge and reply to your comment. I agree that our response to mind-altering drugs is different from a late 19th-century response; however, Victorians weren’t unfamiliar with the societal ills brought about by addictions to gin, laudanum, and absinthe, for example, and Dickens’s unfinished novel about Edwin Drood dealt in part with opium abuse.

      What RLS did, it seems to me, was to imply that not only did the drug achieve an alteration in personality but also, to a visible extent, in Jekyll’s physical appearance — an aspect that Hollywood hasn’t exactly shied against, has it? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. elmediat

        Yes , quite accurate. RLS implied a devolution – Hyde had a pale, dwarfish, troglodyte appearance, and an aura of undefined abnormality. You could say he was a Morlock of a man. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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