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“that damned old business of the war in the members”: The Discourse of (In)Temperance in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

  • Lisa Butler

…plus d’informations

  • Lisa Butler
    Wilfrid Laurier University

Corps de l’article

Have you ever read Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Stevenson[?] It is well worth reading and enforces a strong lesson.

Lucy Maud Montgomery to Ephraim Weber (March 7, 1905)

The circumstances surrounding the composition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are repeated so often by critics that they have achieved a canonic status not unlike that of the actual text. In “A Chapter on Dreams,” Stevenson relates how the novella arose out of the “matter of three scenes” suggested in a dream (248). Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, also tells us that the first draft of the text was written in a matter of days, destroyed, and “rewritten from another point of view,” the entire process taking approximately six days (qtd. in Elwin 96). Fanny’s account, however, neglects to mention that it was her criticism which instigated the destruction of the first draft and the composition of the second. [1] According to Patrick Brantlinger and Richard Boyle, Fanny was disappointed with Stevenson’s “horror story tout simple” and declared that he had missed the narrative’s potential “allegory” (267). Fanny’s allegory—or the other “point of view,” as she calls it—involved the dramatization of the archetypal conflict between the good and evil elements of one’s nature and gave the final text, in Brantlinger and Boyle’s view, a “religious or philosophical gloss” (267). Such a religious or philosophical reading is, perhaps, what Lucy Maud Montgomery had in mind when, in 1905, she recommended the novel to her epistolary acquaintance, Ephraim Weber, on the basis of the “strong lesson” it “enforces” (25).

Most critical studies of Stevenson’s novella refer to these narratives regarding the text’s genesis and the “double” nature of the manuscript. Moreover, a scholarly consensus seems to exist that the second version of the text does, indeed, operate allegorically on a more abstract level, leaving the exact nature of Edward Hyde’s transgressions in Soho deliberately vague and investing the text with a moral centre or “lesson” that has spoken to subsequent generations of readers. [2] But what, exactly, is the moral or “lesson” of Stevenson’s story? For the majority of critics, the novel stages the dangers inherent in leading the “double” life, such a dual existence being the necessary result of a late-Victorian moral climate that demands the repression of all desires deemed illicit or transgressive to the social order. Such repression manifests itself in the “double” life, which, in turn, evokes the terrifying possibility (or inevitability) of the illicit side of one’s nature degenerating from the merely transgressive into the purely evil. This critical reading corresponds to the interpretation put forth by many of Stevenson’s initial readers, for whom the allegory was a “sensationally daring satire on contemporary morality” (Elwin 97).

My own view of the allegory echoes this interpretation, but I wish to situate Stevenson’s moral “satire” more firmly within its own historical and cultural moment. Criticism of the text often tends to read the story as somewhat “timeless,” as an allegory which transcends its own age and articulates an abstract message about the inevitable and essential conflict between the “good” and “evil” elements of human nature. In contrast, I want to argue that Stevenson’s novella arose out of a very particular cultural matrix of fear and concern over the issue of evolutionary “degeneration” and its manifestations in illicit behaviour, especially in the areas of alcohol consumption and sexual expression. Although Brantlinger and Boyle’s characterization of Stevenson’s novella as one “totally lacking in explicit political themes” (274) is technically true, there is a great deal of implicit engagement with many late-Victorian cultural anxieties over the burgeoning field of evolutionary biology and its consequences for the understanding of human behaviour. Moreover, I see the text as addressing those cultural sites most vocal in articulating these anxieties, namely the temperance and social purity movements of the later nineteenth century. Read from this perspective, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a very political text, one which engages the language of (in)temperance to interrogate the potentially destructive results of an evolutionary model which posits the subject as already split between his or her civilized (moral) and barbaric (immoral) selves. The first part of this paper considers the implications of evolutionary theory for the understanding of human—and, by extension, Jekyll’s—behaviour and action, while the second part traces how such an understanding evokes, through the character of Jekyll, the larger anxieties regarding “addictive” behavior in general and alcohol consumption in particular. Finally, I want to chart the “language” of (in)temperance marking Stevenson’s text as it relates to normative constructions of sexuality and speculate on what “lesson” (to hark back to Montgomery) may inform this classic tale of indulgence and denial.

I. “the last threads of self-control”

In a letter to Stevenson dated 3 March 1886, John Addington Symonds laments that “Physical and biological Science on a hundred lines is reducing individual freedom to zero, and weakening the sense of responsibility” (qtd. in Stevenson, The Strange Case 142). Although one can only speculate as to what Symonds means by “Physical and biological Science,” his statement is evocative of nineteenth-century evolutionary discourse, as theorized by Charles Darwin in, most notably, The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). For Symonds, “individual freedom,” or, as we might call it, free will, seems to be one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human, and the erosion of this human distinction seems, to him, a terrifying consideration. It is on these grounds that Symonds voices his reservations about Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for it is in Jekyll that Symonds seems to see the culmination of diminished individual freedom; to Symonds, Stevenson’s Jekyll is an unsettling and dangerous manifestation of contemporary evolutionary theory and its implicit challenge to the supremacy of human control and rational thought. As he warns Stevenson, “Your Dr Jekyll seems to me capable of loosening the last threads of self-control in one who should read it while wavering between his better and worse self” (qtd. in Stevenson, The Strange Case 142).

Indeed, the notion that there was not as clear a distinction between the human and animal realms of life as had been previously assumed was one of the central concerns underpinning Victorian anxieties over Darwinian theories of evolution. Inherent in evolutionary discourse is the concept of free will, the assumption being that while animals, through their very natures, are subject to their instinctual drives and desires, humans, by virtue of their superiority of physical and, by extension, mental development, are capable of exercising rational thought and control over their behavior. In highlighting the biological similarities between animal and human life forms, Darwinian discourse contained an implicit challenge to this Victorian worldview. As Martin Danahay asserts in his introduction to Stevenson’s text, “Evolutionary theory was unsettling to the Victorians because it dissolved the boundary between the human and the animal” (20).

Boundaries were, of course, an integral part of the construction of the Victorian worldview. The formation of clearly demarcated divisions within all areas of culture is what allowed late-nineteenth-century British society to put forth an image of social unity and political stability. In reality, however, this image was largely predicated on the cultural denial and suppression of many discordant social movements and ideological pressures, especially with regards to the highly contested sites of racial, sexual, and class difference. The effects of these cultural pressures on the Victorian worldview only served, however, to solidify the societal reliance on divisive boundaries, for, as Elaine Showalter reminds us, “ In periods of cultural insecurity, when there are fears of regression and degeneration, the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender, as well as race, class, and nationality, becomes especially intense” (4).

Indeed, this reliance on “border controls” makes its way into the literature of the period. Kathleen Spencer, for example, identifies the emergence of what she calls the “Urban Gothic” (200) in late-Victorian fiction, a genre that she sees demonstrating “a concern for purity, for the reduction of ambiguity and the preservation of boundaries” (203). The Urban Gothic, Spencer argues, seeks to “reduce anxiety by stabilizing certain key distinctions, which seemed, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, to be eroding” (203). One of these distinctions, as Spencer highlights, is that between human and animal (204). But such a genre, by its very definition, brings the terrors associated with the classic eighteenth-century Gothic tale—the sexual excess, the supernatural occurrences, the immoral, often foreign, villain—into the realm of the familiar—the familiar being the urban space that most late-Victorian readers inhabited. The Urban Gothic, therefore, while attempting to construct and preserve cultural boundaries and distinctions, actually carries within it an implicit challenge to the notion of being able to make such distinctions at all. By incorporating the exotic elements of the eighteenth-century Gothic tale into the quotidian realities of the late-nineteenth-century British city, the Urban Gothic suggests that the cultural threat is not only able to cross boundaries, but that it may actually be contained within the boundary itself. As Daniel Pick argues of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that other late-Victorian text dealing explicitly with the notions of degeneracy and social perversion, “the novel is in one sense committed to the contradistinction of vice and virtue, purity and corruption, human and vampire; but it tacitly questions the possibility of such sharp separations [...] convinced that no complete dividing line lay between sanity and insanity but rather a vast and shadowy borderland” (78). As we shall see later, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also informed by the failure of such distinctions in the face of the inherent ambiguity of the human condition.

David Punter contends that the Gothic is marked by an “awareness that as we discover more about psyche, we become less and less certain that it is, or ever can be, ‘under control’” (210). Punter identifies the “boundaries of the civilized” (183) and “humanity’s supposed place in the hierarchy of natural and divine life” (184) as key concerns preoccupying the consciousness of Gothic fictions, and one can see both concerns operating in Stevenson’s text. But while Punter recognizes Gothic texts as exhibiting “a fear of the barbaric not only from the past but also in the present and even in the future” (183), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde confronts the terrifying consideration of the barbaric within ourselves, a confrontation that largely centers around the challenging of the supremacy of the human will. It is in Jekyll’s confrontation with the darker side of his psyche, as it is manifested in Edward Hyde, that this challenging of the sovereignty of human control occurs. Irving Saposnik takes issue with the readerly and critical tendency to view Henry Jekyll in the doppelgänger tradition, with Hyde being seen as the evil “double” of the inherently morally good Jekyll. For Saposnik, “The time has come for Jekyll and Hyde to be put back together again” (117). Saposnik sees the text as symptomatic of the divisive aspect of Victorian middle-class existence, where surface performance often hid a completely different reality.

This characterization of the Victorian mindset is especially helpful in considering the motivational drive behind Jekyll’s embrace of Hyde. While the creation of Hyde allows Jekyll to indulge his “gaiety of disposition” (76) while maintaining his public reputation, Hyde also serves as the vehicle by which Jekyll loses all sense of instinctual control and rational judgment – those two characteristics that are seen as providing the line of distinction between human and animal. In his creation of Hyde, the figure through whom Jekyll lives out his morally dubious experiences, Jekyll ultimately brings about the situation which will test the strength of his rational will, and his failure to defeat the darker pull of his psyche characterizes the text’s challenging of the sovereignty of human thought and control. As Jekyll relates in his written statement to Utterson, his early life was characterized by a conflict between his moral sense of good, and the infallibility of reputation that resulted from this moral sense, and the enjoyable commission of certain “pleasures” which seemed to contradict and threaten both his moral goodness and his esteemed place in societal opinion:

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.


It is this “duplicity of life” that Jekyll strives to cast off in his creation of Hyde, the figure to whom he can ascribe all of his “undignified” (81) desires and tendencies. For Jekyll, the creation of Hyde allows him to rejoice in the darker side of his nature without risk of social censure: “I was the first [man] 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” (80-81). This “liberty,” however, carries repercussions, and upon the realization that he “was slowly losing hold of [his] original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with [his] second and worse” (83), Jekyll vows to abstain from the transformative process that initially granted him so much freedom.

The weakness of Jekyll’s rational control over his behavior, however, is foregrounded in his inability to carry out his resolution. As he laments in his statement to Utterson, “ [...] I chose the better part [of my nature] and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it” (84). In Jekyll’s lack of will, the theoretical implications of Darwinian evolutionary discourse become clear: unlike the Victorian elevation of the human will as ultimately sovereign over the basic instincts of animal desire, Jekyll’s failure to control his instinctual drive for “undignified pleasures” highlights the blurred distinctions between animal and human life made so tenuous by recent evolutionary discourse. Although Jekyll chooses to renounce the darker side of his nature, he is ultimately found lacking in the will to commit to the decision:

For two months, however, I was true to my determination; for two months, I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensations of an approving conscience. But time began at last to obliterate the freshness of my alarm; the praises of conscience began to grow into a thing of course; I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling after freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.


In his failure to exercise rational control over his desires, Jekyll seems to embody the Victorian paranoia of a degenerate and barbaric human existence. [3] Indeed, the language employed to describe Jekyll’s battle for the command of his existence is strikingly couched in the animalistic imagery of the barbaric: “ [] I was still cursed with my duality of purpose; and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence” (86).

It is the murder of Sir Danvers Carew that ultimately epitomizes Jekyll’s lack of lucid and rational control over his behavior, not only in the commission of the crime itself, but in Jekyll’s reaction to it. Unable to exert his will over his impulses himself, he rejoices in the compromising situation that the murder has produced:

The problem of my conduct was solved. Hyde was thenceforth impossible; whether I would or not, I was now confined to the better part of my existence; and O, how I rejoiced to think of it! with what willing humility I embraced anew the restrictions of natural life! with what sincere renunciation I locked the door by which I had so often gone and come, and ground the key under my heel!


Realizing that he is enslaved to the baser drives of his existence, Jekyll finds solace in the fact that his very liberty and life rest in his ability to maintain his resolution of not relinquishing control over his will. As Jekyll asserts, “I was glad to have my better impulses thus buttressed and guarded by the terrors of the scaffold” (86). The grinding of the key, however, is significant; just as Jekyll needs the threat of arrest to augment his will, his resolution seems to be vulnerable as long as the means of Hyde’s escape still exists—the key. [4] Apparently, even the risk of arrest is not enough to ensure that Jekyll exerts control over his instinctual drives.

II. “The Demon Alcohol!”

The lack of control and compulsive tendencies characterizing Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde may cause one to consider the notion of addiction and, in particular, the addictive quality of alcohol. Indeed, Jekyll achieves this transformation with the aid of a “transforming draught” (84), and, upon his first transformation into Hyde, his euphoric realization of the extent of the evil he had just unleashed is cast in terms of alcoholic intoxication: “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine” (78). This initial simile prefigures alcohol addiction as a structuring theme of the remainder of the text, as Jekyll is subsequently unable to abstain from Hyde in much the same way as an alcoholic is unable to abstain from drink. One easily recognizes the addictive tendencies informing Jekyll’s behavior, behavior which induces Daniel L. Wright to classify Jekyll as, above all, an “addict,” a “man suffering from the ravages of addiction” (254), and the text as a “frighteningly accurate study in addictive psychopathology” (263).

It is significant that Stevenson’s novella, published in 1886, falls roughly into the period between Darwin’s first publications on evolutionary theory and the temperance movements that would characterize British and North American social discourse around the turn of the century. While the effects of these temperance movements would take their most dramatic form in American Prohibition, we see, in Stevenson’s text, the more subtle influence of temperance discourse on cultural perceptions of what Wright calls “addictive psychopathology” (263) and its manifestation within discursive anxieties regarding the animalizing influence of alcohol on an otherwise civilized humanity. Stephen Heath makes the observation that “doctors and medical science are so important in the story, that it is indeed a case” (102). In fact, one may argue that Jekyll is a case study in addiction, particularly alcohol addiction, and that much of the disgust, repugnance, and horror that characterize the reactions to Hyde in the novel stem from the cultural fears surrounding the consumption of alcohol.

The discursive practices of medicine and science play a large role in the late-nineteenth-century configuration of alcohol as a substance that could cause degenerate and barbaric behavior in those who engage in its consumption. Alcohol was often constructed as a force that could cause the drinker to regress into a precivilized state of instinctual gratification, where the higher mental faculties of reason, restraint, and duty fall prey to the physicality of the baser drives of human existence, and, in this sense, contemporary warnings about alcohol often dovetailed with current theories of evolutionary biology. In an ominously titled pamphlet, The Truth About Alcohol, published in the early years of the twentieth century, Ernest A. Hall cloaks his argument of the physical, mental, and moral dangers of alcohol consumption in the formidable discourse of medical science. His language, moreover, bears the definite stamp of evolutionary theory:

Alcohol attacks the different parts of the brain with an intensity in inverse ratio to their development. The parts presiding over the simple functions of circulation and respiration resist the action of the poison the longest, while those connected with the higher faculties of conscience, self-control, and judgment are the first to succumb. These higher centers which should preside over and control the lower functions being set aside by the poisonous effect of alcohol upon the brain, the emotions run riot, love may become passion; joy changes into orgy; courage into recklessness. Self-control [...] being paralyzed, the individual is the sport and play of the lower nature. In fact he falls from man’s estate, from the condition of moral consciousness and responsibility to base animalism.


Notice Hall’s emphasis, here, on the trope of excess: the “emotions” normally experienced in safe moderation—love, joy, courage—transgress the boundaries of temperate behavior and “run riot.” The failure of “Self-control” is specifically highlighted, and this is one of Jekyll’s acute failures once he is under the pull of Hyde. And, just as Jekyll, upon his first transformation into Hyde, experiences a “heady recklessness” (78) that reminds him of wine, Hall invokes the “recklessness” associated with alcohol. Above all, alcohol is characterized by Hall as a substance that will break the bonds of societal discrimination. In other words, it will turn a Jekyll into a Hyde. It is thus quite appropriate that Utterson, upon visiting Hyde’s Soho residence the morning after the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, finds, amongst all the accoutrements of “luxury and good taste,” a “closet” well stocked with wine (49). Wine is here aligned with sociality and appropriately classed behavior in such a way that it suggests the paradox of alcohol’s ironic status as both an overt signifier of social rank and the covert, “closeted” substance threatening the social cohesion and stability cultivated through, and maintained by, such displays of class.

Religion, as well, played a central role in the construction of alcohol as a substance that could unleash the animal within. In particular, religious discourse highlighted the moral laxity and devilish behavior believed to accompany alcohol consumption. Henry Francis Adams, a Baptist preacher in Nova Scotia, gave a sermon in 1888 called “The Demon Alcohol! The Great Demoralizer.” In this address, Adams attempts to link alcohol consumption with social immorality and personal demoralization:

What I assert and have proved is this, that liquor so affects a man’s brain, that mighty organ of thought, that under its muddling influence, he loses his manliness and all control of his passions, and gives expression to words of the vilest character, conducts himself more like a devil than a man. What I assert and have proved is this, that when a man voluntarily becomes a slave to alcohol, that like a mighty tyrant it lowers the moral tone of his heart, forces his moral trend downwards, and so thoroughly DEMORALIZES him, as to move his tongue and hands to say and do what we all call IMMORAL.

For Adams, an individual under the influence of alcohol is “more like a devil than a man,” and, significantly, this is how Utterson characterizes Hyde after their first meeting, lamenting, “‘O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend’” (42). Likewise, Jekyll describes his “sinful” pleasures using similar imagery: Hyde is “That child of Hell” (88)—the “spirit of hell” (85)—who, “long caged,” “came out roaring” (84). Adams’s use of the code word “manliness” is also compelling and may remind us of Poole’s report of Jekyll/Hyde “‘Weeping like a woman or a lost soul’” (65), a feminizing move that suggests a disordered gender identity. It is striking that Adams invokes the notion of slavery, for Jekyll repeatedly characterizes his dilemma in terms of this metaphor: he is “sold a slave to [his] original evil” (78) and was “tempted” until he “fell in slavery” (80). Although both of the preceding passages are specifically Canadian examples of the medical and religious configuration of alcohol as a socially and morally threatening substance, they are representative of a larger North American and British discourse regarding the consumption of alcohol and the necessity of temperance.

The fear that seems to be implicit in the medical and religious discussions of alcohol is that the consumption of liquor will inevitably spawn immoral, deviant, and criminal behaviors. Marie-Christine Leps has identified the nineteenth century as a period which experienced “radical transformations” in “Western ways of perceiving and processing criminals” (1). Indeed, she highlights how social and legal discourse moved from viewing criminal activity as the narrow domain of moral degenerates to a “general acceptance of crime and criminals as normal, inevitable occurrences to be faced with rational methods of control” (1). With Darwinian and temperance discourse, however, we see how it is possible to both support this broader understanding of crime as the “normal” and “inevitable” result of societal interaction, while still subscribing to an older theory of criminality that pathologizes criminals as “moral degenerates.” Within an evolutionary model of alcohol consumption that posits the drinker as a primitive and barbaric regression of civilized “man,” all of humanity is rendered vulnerable to moral degeneration and subsequent criminal behavior. Thus, in that evolutionary theory emphasized the inherent barbarism in a seemingly civilized humanity, alcohol began to be seen as the element that could break through the tenuously civilizing aspects of culture and unleash the animal within. In this way, alcohol came to be viewed as the barbarizing force that would drive the virtuous to commit deviant and criminal acts. Thus, the rhetoric of temperance voiced by Hall and Adams spoke to the necessity of containing this threat through the regulation of one’s behavior and the denial of the pleasures that alcohol could afford.

One of the numerous (re)interpretations of Stevenson’s story, Valerie Martin’s 1990 novel, Mary Reilly, makes an explicit connection between alcohol and the commission of violent acts. Upon hearing of the housemaid Mary’s childhood trauma at the hands of her viciously abusive father, Jekyll observes that she must hate him. Mary, however, constructs her father’s brutality as an uncharacteristic transformation brought about by his excessive drinking. As she explains to Jekyll, “‘He was a different man then—he even looked different, sir, as if the cruel man was always inside him and the drinking brought him out”’ (28). [5] This notion of carrying another person inside one’s self is, of course, the possibility upon which The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rests. In the opinion of Mary Reilly, alcohol was the precipitating factor that unleashed the barbarity of her father’s “other self” and drove him to commit vicious, criminal acts. Similarly, Jekyll drinks a “transforming draught” (84) that allows him to give rein to his criminally deviant desires. As Jekyll relates in his written statement to Utterson, his “aversions to the dryness of a life of study” (80) were contributing factors that drove him to his creation of Hyde. Indeed, through Hyde, Jekyll is able to transcend the “dry” life and release his “other self.”

III. “no harm in a voluptuary”

In Stevenson’s novella, Jekyll fails to remain “dry” in the face of temptation. The exact nature, however, of the “undignified pleasures” (81) which drive him to embrace Hyde remains frustratingly vague in the text. Nevertheless, there is a compelling critical tradition of reading Jekyll’s transgressions as sexual in nature. Heath, for example, argues that the novella is informed by the burgeoning field of nineteenth-century sexology and its construction of specific sexual “perversions” and identities. The novella is, for Heath, a portrayal of a perverse male sexuality displaced into violence (103-04). Similarly, Showalter identifies a subtext of homosexuality in the story and characterizes Stevenson’s text as “a fable of fin-de-siècle homosexual panic” (107). [6] Significantly, both readings emphasize the conflict between Jekyll’s sexual desires and identity and his cultural moment, and it is this conflict that I now wish to consider. In both readings, Jekyll struggles to abstain from pleasures branded “immoral” or “undignified” by the cultural forces of late-Victorian society. In this sense, Jekyll’s struggle can be read in a more general way as representative of the contemporary struggle between the forces advocating sexual abstinence or temperance and the liberal voices arguing for a more moderate approach to sexual expression.

Michel Foucault has been instrumental in our reconsideration of Victorian England as a society characterized by extreme sexual repression. The nineteenth century, as Foucault details in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, was, in fact, a period of intense discursive growth in all matters sexual, to the point where sexuality became one of the dominant ideological issues. Indeed, Jeffrey Weeks charts how normative constructions of sexuality helped to sustain the growth and hegemony of a newly-powerful middle class. “[S]exual respectability,” contends Weeks, “expressed the aspirations and lives of the middle class. Only secondarily was it for export to other classes” (32). A normative bourgeois sexual code, therefore, became the dominant model of sexuality, and this model, as Lesley A. Hall demonstrates, was predicated on a vision of sexual restraint and temperate behavior. This vision manifested itself in the “social purity” campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s, campaigns which virulently agitated against any form of sexual activity deemed excessive or even expendable, including the sexual relations conducted within heterosexual marriage. Indeed, a “pervasive ideology of marital continence” (Hall 61) informed the rhetoric of this movement, with many campaigners actively opposing the transmission of any contraceptive information on the argument that, freed of the fear of reproductive consequences for sexual behaviour, Victorian men and women would freely submit to sexual indulgence. [7]

The social purity movements, moreover, subscribed to the evolutionary model of the human subject outlined earlier in this paper; this subject is always already split, perpetually torn between the less-evolved, “animalistic,” and, hence, “immoral” side of his or her nature and his or her higher, more “moral” self. Such a representation of the human subject underpinned contemporary anxieties over alcohol consumption and led to the temperance movements advocating nothing short of abstention. Likewise, evolutionary theory fuelled anxieties over sexual excess, and a similar rhetoric of temperance and abstention sprung up around the site of sexual expression. As we have seen, cultural apprehension over alcohol consumption makes its way into Stevenson’s text in the form of the “transforming draught” (84) which releases Jekyll’s transgressive “double.” It is my contention that the text is likewise marked by a language of (in)temperance evocative of the contemporary “social purity” movement and its calls for sexual restraint and abstention.

Jekyll consistently describes his moral dilemma through a discursive model of (in)temperance. For Jekyll, his indulgence in “undignified pleasures” (81) is at odds with the moral imperatives of a Victorian bourgeois culture that insists he repress such “immoral” desires. That Jekyll wanders precariously close to the seedier side of Victorian culture is hinted at throughout the text; his house, for example, though exhibiting a “great air of wealth and comfort,” is situated among others “decayed from their high estate and let in flats and chambers to all sorts and conditions of men” (42). Like Utterson’s stroll down the “by-street” of possible prostitution (32), Jekyll’s residence situates him in a context that suggests illicit activity. Moreover, the house, while being the one beacon of respectability among the “decayed” multitude, is, as Utterson tells us, “plunged in darkness except for the fanlight” (42). Thus, the “fanlight” of Jekyll’s original morality is dominated by the darkness of his “immoral,” transgressive desires. Indeed, Jekyll has internalized the dominant ideology which represents his desires as “dark” and “sinful;” as he tells Utterson, he is the “chief of sinners” who must travel his “own dark way” (56). And, although Jekyll never reveals the nature of his “undignified pleasures,” his language of shame and guilt is resonant of social purity rhetoric: he yearns to lay “aside restraint and plunge[] in shame” (76) but feels compelled to “suffer smartingly in the fires of abstinence” (84). Furthermore, Jekyll characterizes his inner conflict as one informed by the “perennial war among my members” (76), a phrase evoking a corporeal—or, more specifically, genital—conflict. Significantly, Jekyll describes his predicament as representative of the archetypal moral dilemma familiar to all: “Strange as my circumstances were, the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man” (84). Arguably, there is no “debate” more “old and commonplace” than the conflict between the freedom of sexual expression and the normative codes imposed by culture.

Stevenson thus invests his text with a language of failed temperance that speaks to contemporary anxieties over “animalistic” and excessive manifestations of sexuality. In seeming opposition to this language of intemperance, however, is the presence of a certain bleakness in the text, a bleakness that leads Saposnik to foreground the “air of fierce austerity pervad[ing] the story” (110). Indeed, for a novella so preoccupied with “undignified pleasures”—and the sense of excess that such a phrase evokes—the tone is oddly restrained and the imagery often spartan and gloomy. Moreover, this restrained, temperate language operates as a compelling foil to Jekyll’s rhetoric of intemperance, and it is in the character of Utterson that we find, at least initially, the most compellingly embodiment of this ethos of temperance and restraint. In this sense, Saposnik’s characterization of Utterson as the “moral norm of the story” (110) is quite apt. Even more so than the “norm,” however, Utterson seems to represents the ideal in Victorian models of temperate behavior. The initial catalogue of his characteristics is heavy on adjectives connoting restraint and abstention. As a man who is “cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse” (31), as well as “undemonstrative at the best” (31), he spurns excess in all its forms, denying himself those pleasures he enjoys and engaging in others only as a strategy to fend off something worse: “He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years” (31). Significantly, he resides on “Gaunt Street” (40), and the description of his physical frame—“lean, long, dusty, dreary” (31)—supports the developing image of a spartan figure hardened almost to asceticism.

As a lawyer, Utterson is aligned with the legal and moral codes of his culture, a position that leads Showalter to declare him a “spokesman for the Law of the Father and the social order” (109). A representative of this patriarchal Law, and a “lover of the sane and customary sides of life” (37), he reinscribes the normative codes through his own behavior. And, although we are told that the lawyer drinks gin and encounter him, throughout the text, sampling alcohol, he is given the appellation of the “dry lawyer” who has the unique ability of “sobering” his “light-hearted and loose-tongued” friends (44). Perhaps most significant for our consideration of rational control and the power to sustain it, Utterson, unlike Jekyll, is able to exercise restraint and postpone the gratification of his desires; although he experiences a “great curiosity” regarding Lanyon’s cryptic letter and wishes to “disregard the prohibition and dive at once to the bottom of these mysteries,” Utterson respects Lanyon’s wishes and foregoes his own gratification under the imperatives of “professional honour and faith to his dead friend” (56). Utterson’s wish to “dive at once to the bottom of these mysteries” evokes Jekyll’s metaphoric description of his transformation as one which allows him to “spring headlong into the sea of liberty” (80-81). The “sea” of gratification, however, is one from which Utterson is seemingly able to refrain.

Lurking underneath this veneer of self-control, however, is a definite sense of sensual energy not always successfully repressed. Throughout the text, Stevenson’s representation of Utterson as “austere” and “undemonstrative” (31) is undercut by numerous tantalizing contradictions: Utterson might consume gin to “mortify a taste for vintages” (31), for instance, but this strategy clearly fails him on some level, as he is deemed by the narrator to be, along with all of Jekyll’s “old cronies,” a “judge[] of good wine” (44). Later in the text, his response to Poole’s unexpected visit and his look of distress is to offer him a (conveniently handy) glass of wine (59). We might read these apparent contradictions as symptomatic of the “white-hot haste” under which Stevenson claimed to have written The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, an assertion made in a March 1886 letter to F.W.H. Myers in defense of the numerous narrative and logical inconsistencies in the text highlighted by Myers in a previous letter to Stevenson (qtd. in Stevenson, The Strange Case 129). Such inconsistencies, however, are strikingly appropriate, for Utterson offers us a more subtle (and, in that regard, perhaps a more compelling) dramatization of the duality that will become so thematically central to the narrative and to the eventual characterization of our protagonist, Jekyll.

Indeed, the sense of Utterson as a split figure, a man whose surface control hides the reality of a sensuality coded dangerously intemperate, is evoked in the first paragraph of the text, where we are told that, “at friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk [...]” (31). Utterson’s vital energy, normally hidden from his “talk” but released by wine, is here imagined in terms of an inner light, a “beacon,” that shines through his customary shroud of self-control. The repression and subsequent disclosure of Utterson’s inner sensuality is thus conveyed through coterminous images of light and shadow; consider, for example, the setting for his conversation with Mr. Guest over a bottle of wine:

The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind. But the room was gay with firelight. In the bottle the acids were long ago resolved; the imperial dye had softened with time, as the colour grows richer in stained windows; and the glow of hot autumn afternoons on hillside vineyards, was ready to be set free and to disperse the fogs of London. Insensibly the lawyer melted.


Utterson is cast, here, as a figure susceptible to the pleasures afforded the flesh by wine and comfortable surroundings, and, in a scene described by William Veeder as “almost parodic of conventional seduction” (145), Utterson’s enjoyment takes on specifically sexual connotations. The odd juxtaposition, moreover, of the striking sensuality of the fireside hearth—its vibrant images of “rich” colour, bright light, and soothing heat—with the sluggish portrayal of a “sleeping” fog obscuring a “drowned city” foregrounds a similar sense of Utterson as a figure whose inner energy is likewise “drowned,” but nevertheless alive. Even within the image of the “sleeping” fog, we recognize the existence of an unruly, seething vitality that refuses to be completely concealed: despite the “muffle and smother” of the fog, the “procession of the town’s life” still makes its presence felt, “as of a mighty wind” (52).

So far, the language characterizing Utterson’s austerity and abstention fails to evoke the specific realm of sexual pleasure. It is compelling, however, that the opening chapter of the text, which is also the reader’s first introduction to Utterson, places him within the context of illicit sexuality, in the form of prostitution. On their weekly Sunday stroll, Utterson and Richard Enfield, the “well-known man about town” (31), travel down the following street:

It chanced on one of their rambles that their way led them down a by-street in a busy quarter of London. The street was small and what is called quiet, but it drove a thriving trade on the weekdays. The inhabitants were all doing well, it seemed and all emulously hoping to do better still, and laying out the surplus of their grains in coquetry; so that the shop fronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen. Even on Sunday, when it veiled its more florid charms and lay comparatively empty of passage, the street shone out in contrast to its dingy neighbourhood, like a fire in a forest; and with its freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note, instantly caught and pleased the eye of the passenger.


With its “thriving trade” and “florid charms,” the “coquetry” of its merchants in laying out their wares, and the “air of invitation” suggesting “rows of smiling saleswomen,” the street is highly evocative of the illicit pleasures afforded by prostitution, and the placing of the “austere” and “undemonstrative” Utterson within this space of suggested carnality and vice may speak to the potential for sexual transgression lurking beneath Utterson’s façade of spartan temperance.

Indeed, Utterson’s extreme temperance seems to mask the illicit and excessive elements of his character. Showalter reads Utterson’s “self-mortification” as “an effort to stay within the boundaries of masculine propriety” (110), and the text often hints at his possible “immorality.” He is explicitly invoked, for example, as a man having many friends of ill repute. As the “last good influence in the lives of downgoing men,” he is celebrated for his “approved tolerance” of the “misdeeds” of others (31), but his association with these “downgoing men” can also suggest a failure on his part to exercise the proper discrimination and discretion in choosing his associates: “his affections, like ivy, were the growth of time, they implied no aptness in the object” (31). Moreover, besides the initial scene in the first chapter, which places him within the realm of illicit sex, he is also represented as comfortable with the nocturnal life of urban culture: as the “seeker” of Hyde, he prowls the streets amid “the low growl of London from all round,” hiding in doorways to avoid detection (39). We thus see in Utterson a complex staging of the coexistence of outward restraint with the hint of a threatening inner sensual energy, and, while we might find in Utterson such a study of intemperate desires held, however tenuously, in check through temperate behaviour, in Jekyll, we see the consequences of sexual excess that strategies of temperance fail to contain.

Of course, one must remember Stevenson’s insistence that Jekyll’s moral dilemma not be reduced to a simple conflict of sexuality. As he wrote to John Paul Bocock in November 1887,

There is no harm in a voluptuary; and none, with my hand on my heart and in the sight of God, none—no harm whatever—in what prurient fools call ‘immorality’. The harm was in Jekyll, because he was a hypocrite—not because he was fond of women; he says so himself; but people are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality. The Hypocrite let out the beast Hyde—who is no more sexual than another, but who is the essence of cruelty and malice, and selfishness and cowardice: and these are the diabolic in man—not this poor wish to have a woman, that they make such a cry about.

Selected Letters 352

This passage is striking for several reasons. First, it illustrates Stevenson’s well-documented aversion to the bourgeois values and moralism of his time. [8] As Linda Dryden has pointed out, Stevenson subscribed to a “more complex theory than the popular opinion on morality could encompass” (84), a theory in which human happiness is predicated on both conformity and transgression. Stevenson had maintained, in a spring 1886 letter to Symonds, that “happiness is a question of morality—or of immorality, there is no difference” (Selected Letters 311), and we see in this statement the centrality of Stevenson’s belief that humanity must be allowed to combine the satisfaction achieved through social and moral respectability with the freedom of occasional indulgence in those acts deemed “immoral” by the social order. In Stevenson’s view, the “prurient fools” of bourgeois culture have reduced his allegorical narrative to a moralistic warning against the “immorality” of illicit sex, and the vehemence of his reaction against this reductive reading, and his recognition of the “inverted lust” (emphasis mine) of the “prurient fools,” speaks to his own theory of morality and human happiness. For Stevenson, “There is no harm in a voluptuary,” and the denial of one’s sexuality, in his view, results in an “inverted lust” that becomes a destructive and foolish obsession. Paradoxically, the contemporary social purity movement, with its repressive focus on sexual expression, makes such a reductive reading of the text so popular and compelling.

If Hyde succeeded in stoking the fires of contemporary obsessions over sex, perhaps it is because Stevenson, himself, is implicated in the ”inverted lust” of his historical moment, for, despite his best efforts in arguing against a sexual reading of Hyde, he betrays, elsewhere, his anxiety over the sexual subtext of his novel. In the same spring 1886 letter to Symonds in which he made his claims about morality and human happiness, Stevenson, like Jekyll, lamented “that damned old business of the war in the members”: “Jekyll is a dreadful thing, I own; but the only thing I feel dreadful about is that damned old business of the war in the members. This time it came out; I hope it will stay in, in future” (Selected Letters 310). The language is slippery, and it is difficult to pin down the exact meaning of the pronoun “it” in this sentence. Is Stevenson referring to his own sexual anxieties and “inverted lust,” or to his reluctance to engage with explicitly political or social (and, hence, non-allegorical and “sensational”) issues in his fiction? Although Stevenson’s tale can be read on this allegorical level as a dramatization of the metaphysical conflict between the “evil” and “good” sides of human nature, the text is also productively read as a critique of a late-Victorian discourse of temperance and its efforts to regulate human behavior. In his creation of Jekyll—a man torn between personal desire and the cultural imperative of restraint—Stevenson stages the tragic potential of a Victorianism where denial is untempered by indulgence.

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