Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be short, but it involves twists intended to shock.
The novella introduces the characters of Utterson and his cousin Enfield, who tells how he saw a man named Hyde trampling on a young girl. To avoid making a scene, he gave a cheque to Enfield which was signed by Doctor Jekyll, Utterson’s friend. This is the first glimpse into the relationship between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. After realising that Jekyll also recently changed his will to benefit Hyde, Utterson worries that Jekyll is being manipulated. Several months pass, and many instances cause Utterson to be suspicious. Utterson and Jekyll’s butler Mr Poole visit Jekyll, only to find Hyde wearing Jekyll’s clothes, and dead from suicide.
Here, they find a letter from Jekyll to Utterson, which explains that he had found a serum that allowed him to transform into his alter-ego ‘Hyde’, allowing him to live an evil life without fear of losing his reputation. Jekyll had stopped transforming into Hyde, but one night did so, and Hyde killed Carew. He started transforming involuntarily, and stocks for the serum were running low. Knowing that Hyde being sought after by the police, he wrote his confession in the form of this letter.
Themes of Jekyll and Hyde
There are many themes to be explored within this novella. Firstly, there is the theme of reputation, closely linked with the idea of the Victorian gentleman. Look at the character of Jekyll, of course, and his reputation as a doctor and the extreme lengths he goes to in order to uphold it, as well as the character of Utterson and his reputation as a lawyer.
Another notable theme is duality, and this in relation to human nature. By presenting Jekyll and Hyde as entirely separate characters pursuing opposite moral codes, Stevenson marries these at the end of the novella, challenging the idea that one can be only good, or only evil.
A theme that may not be so obvious when reading the novel is the tension between the rational and irrational. The novella straddles the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, and rational thought with irrational emotion. For instance, Dr Lanyon’s shock at witnessing Jekyll’s transformation kills him, despite his rational scientific occupation. To explore this theme further, be sure to analyse the characterisation of Utterson, and compare it to his actions in the text, asking yourself whether they line up.
Literary Context of Jekyll and Hyde
There are several lines of context that you will want to explore to prepare for your exam. The text was published in 1886, and is therefore Victorian. It sits within the broad genre of Gothic literature.
Importantly, Darwin’s evolutionary theory was publicised in On the Origin of Species in 1859. The impact of this theory on social change and thought is difficult to overstate. The overarching idea that humans are merely animals was seen to undermine widely held Victorian virtues such as credibility and being civilised. Note the animalistic depiction of Hyde when he is introduced, and think about how this could relate to him being the uncivilised, repressed version of Jekyll.
Another contextual strand worth exploring is the development of science, versus the development of other pseudo-sciences. For instance, Hyde represents the dark side of pharmacology, and how the rapid development of science could surpass human power. On the other hand, popular Victorian pseudo sciences were also prevalent in the novella, such as graphology (finding personality features through handwriting) and physiognomy (knowing a character through what they look like).
Jekyll and Hyde Exam Questions
No matter your exam board, tackling an exam question on Jekyll and Hyde will typically involve you first looking at an extract, and then relating it to the text as a whole.
In general, it is important to deconstruct the extract first, and think about where it fits into the novella as a whole, in terms of sequence of events and character development. Read the extract twice, firstly understanding exactly what takes place, and the second time underlining any language that sticks out to you, or themes that relate to the question.
AQA exam board
Taking the 2014 AQA specimen exam question, the extract was taken from chapter two, where Utterson had just met Hyde for the first time. The question is:
“Starting with this extract, how does Stevenson present Mr Hyde as a frightening outsider?”
For this question, it would be best to underline the use of particular word choices to describe Mr Hyde’s appearance and behaviour as a starting point. You may find phrases such as “impression of deformity”, and those that depict him as animalistic useful. For each annotation you make of the text, you should then think about how you could link it in your essay to the whole text. Remember: for AQA, as the question states, the extract is just a starting point. Ensure that you go beyond this, drawing out the themes of the text as a whole.
Be sure to make your contextual and analytical points integrated with your argument rather than in separate paragraphs: ensure that you use them to further your own argument. For instance, in this question you may want to link the language choices of “impression of deformity” to the impact of evolutionary ideas to Victorian thinking. Linking all of the areas of assessment together will make your essay flow and your argument hold together more strongly.
Edexcel exam board
The Edexcel question structure is slightly different, asking you to focus on the extract in the first question, and then look at an overarching theme elsewhere in the novella. The first question typically asks how Stevenson presents the experience of the characters in the extract. Here, you want to identify which literary techniques are used: think metaphors, juxtaposition, narrative style.
To gain the highest marks, you must aim for an ‘evaluation’ of the ‘interrelationship of language form and structure, and their effect on the reader’. Something that is easy to miss is the last part: evaluating the effect. For instance, if Stevenson uses dark imagery, what effect does this have on the reader, and how does it contribute to their understanding of the text?
In the 2018 Edexcel paper, they ask you to look at the theme of terror elsewhere in the novel. Here is your chance to chose whatever you feel to be most relevant to the theme; think of the moments in the novel where terror is most prevalent, and the characters that most embody that theme.
Interesting Ways to Revise Jekyll and Hyde
Other than the usual ways to revise such as practice essay questions, mind maps and researching context, there are some other ways to revise Jekyll and Hyde that will change up your revision a little. Firstly, there are two film retellings of the story which do stick fairly close to the original plot. The 2017 version only lasts 83 minutes, and so take a break from more intense revision to watch and be reminded of the most important moments of the novella. It may be useful to stop the film after every major scene and write notes about the themes and characters that are present.
Recently, Jekyll and Hyde has been remade into a stage production at the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre. Of course, this has been adapted from the original text, but it is always useful to understand a new interpretation of it, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for your essays. There are several performances coming up that students can get £5 tickets from – this may be a nice chance to have a new experience while still refreshing your memory of the storyline.
Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve
Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.
She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.
Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!