A Theological Reading of Jekyll and Hyde.


This piece will engage with the canonical Gothic as it finds expression in the fin-de-siècle. A time of great cultural instability and huge change, this era of Gothic literary history has been a highly productive area for critical examination, as scientific, cultural, social and political alterations fundamentally affected the nature of the Gothic texts produced. Themes around degeneration and corruption are a crucial part of the fin-de-siècle Gothic text and have been well documented by various critics who draw from the rise of scientific theories and cultural anxieties about the nature and status of human subjectivity.[1] Culture was considered to be reaching a tipping point, a movement from enlightenment and hegemonic stability into a potential degraded and lessened future, this concern finding its expression in Max Nordau’s landmark text Degeneration (1892).[2] Those labelled as degenerate were not only perceived ‘as members of an alien ‘race’ but often as monstrous freaks of nature who ‘belied humanity’s claim to evolutionary perfection,’[3] thus anxieties about this potential loss become integrated into the Gothic.

This piece, whilst not seeking to refute or deny these common critical positions, offers a theological reading of fin-de-siècle concerns that seeks to contest theoretical positions around the notion of degeneration.[4] Drawing on a triptych of novels from the era, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Dracula (1897) this piece will argue that theological notions of sin offer new ways of conceptualization for issues of degeneration and decadence that expand the critical field and offer greater depth to these vital concepts. Whilst the figure of the Other may well have been detected and policed through scientific discourses, such a taxonomic approach to normativity systematically destabilised previously held categories of how “normal” human behaviour and subjectivity could be defined. Sin, despite the initial and intuitive link to morality and action, functions not simply as a behaviour or category of behaviour on the individual level, but a condition of existence, manifested on a social or cultural plane.[5] As a result, concerns around degeneration and dehumanization will be read as fundamentally theological anxieties, as the emergence of new knowledge and previously unacknowledged behaviours threatened the coherence and hegemony of particular epistemologies (these include the patriarchal, racist notion of Empire) which were justified by frequent reference to theological or religious reasoning.

Throughout the texts under consideration there is a vacillation or movement between the fear of that which lies beyond the boundaries of accepted knowledge and at the same time a desire, driven by new discoveries, to constantly violate and redefine the limits of the “acceptable.”[6] Jekyll’s interest in transcendent medicine, Gray’s desire for the height of aesthetic experience and the deviance of Dracula all prey upon this vacillation between acceptability and the violation of normative boundaries. As Glennis Byron writes, ‘as concerns about national, social and psychic decay began to multiply in late Victorian Britain, so Gothic monstrosity re-emerged,’[7] yet to consider these concerns without examining the theological discourses which inform them significantly reduces the critical understanding of the scope and efficacy of the narratives in question. Whilst political, scientific and technological changes were all undoubtedly influential and critically productive, the underlying questions of the status of humanity, the nature of morality and the ethical or moral norms of a particular cultural moment are also all deeply informed by theological discourses and are thus productive sites of theological inquiry. The fin-de-siècle theologically-influenced Gothic text performs a double gesture or movement of criticism – refusing to foreclose the theological nature of the fears of the time, whilst at the same terms serving to highlight the necessary, painful and often impossible task of cultural, societal and individual change — what in theological terms is known as repentance. The theological scope of the fin-de-siècle Gothic text is thus, like the texts themselves, constantly held in tension between the two positions, between the possibility of change and renewal and the possibility of falling into sin and corruption.

This piece will firstly outline some of the recurrent critical positions on degeneration at the fin-de-siècle exploring the discourses and historical contexts upon which critics have drawn. This will lead onto a close reading of the three novels in question whereby discourses of degeneration will be synthesised with theological approaches to reveal how these texts exhibit the cultural and spiritual anxieties of the day and prove productive for theological and imaginative engagement with the text in the modern day. This piece will conclude with an examination of the theological and critical implications of this reading for the fin-de-siècle, arguing that a theological reading contributes depth to the current critical understanding and allows for a greater, more nuanced understanding of how theological themes resonated within such a time of cultural anxiety.

Whilst perhaps inevitably reductive it is first necessary to offer a brief outline of the state of Gothic criticism around the fin-de-siècle in order to show the potential scope for theological approaches to the literature. Kelly Hurley’s The Gothic Body, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin-de-Siècle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) proposes that the fin-de-siècle Gothic enacts, almost obsessively, the ‘ruination of the subject’ replacing it with an ‘abhuman’ figure,[8] symptomatic of a broader metaphysical estrangement. This remaking of the subject is linked to a wider cultural anxiety that permeated Victorian culture that had its source in the biological and sociological dismantling of the normative subject. Such an attitude is often repeated throughout scholarly work on the period. Karschay follows Hurley’s lead and links the Gothic fin-de-siècle more explicitly to the work of Nordau and Lombroso,[9] tracing the various disciplinary procedures at work, be they criminological, sociological and medical that sought to contain and police these degenerate figures.[10] In contrast to these theories, Robert Mighall sees the fin-de-siècle Gothic as staging the return of history into the present upon and through the bodies of ‘savages, criminals and degenerates,’ that threaten the civilized present.[11] For Mighall the late nineteenth century Gothic shows the fear of ‘going native,’ a reversion explained by reference to the criminologists and psychiatrists of the day.[12] Knight and Mason go further, arguing that by the time of Jekyll and Hyde ‘religion has been translated into a veneer of bourgeois respectability that can no longer offer a meaningful distinction between the morality of Jekyll and his alter ego.’[13] While these insights are no doubt valuable, this treatment of Stevenson’s work that separates Hyde, through applying these medical, scientific or sociological taxonomies, is critically short-sighted and reproduces without necessary reflexivity much of what the novel itself is critiquing. From here, a turn to examining the novel in detail becomes necessary.

Jekyll and Hyde – The Law and the Divided Self: Fractured Subjectivity and Theology

Of the three novels under consideration, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is perhaps most immediately concerned with scientific discourses. The text follows the narrative of a model of bourgeois professional respectability, Dr Henry Jekyll, who through various chemical experiments manages to create a draught that allows him to take on the identity of Hyde and indulge in various immoral or hedonistic behaviours. Hyde’s appearance, in contrast to that of the eminently well-thought-of Jekyll is ‘hardly human… something troglodytic,’[14] and thus much criticism has focused upon physiognomic or racial and Darwinian discourses and the role class may play in the reading and construction of criminality.[15] Arata frames Hyde as embodying both the fears of a corrupted lower class as well as simultaneously expressing horror at the idle aristocracy that in the age of industrial revolution has fallen into the very worst kind of idle corruption.[16]  Of greater interest here however, is the role of the divided self, given the critical prominence given to the division between Jekyll and Hyde and the subsequent discursive focus on categorising and classifying Hyde’s nature. In the section of the text where Jekyll finally contributes directly to the narrative from the opening the presentation of subjectivity is clearly divided — a division which Jekyll himself seeks to minimize. Whilst the ‘worst of his [Jekyll’s] faults’ is presented as nothing more than a ‘certain impatient gaiety of disposition’ these run into conflict with his ‘imperious desire to carry my head high’[17] – a desire perfectly in keeping with his public personae.  As previously explored in this thesis, (see previous work on Calvinism and James Hogg) this stark division between the appearance of things and the reality that is unseen is a theme common to a certain tradition of Christian theology.[18] The split between what is seen and what is unseen (what in the broadly Calvinist tradition might be phrased as the spiritual vs. the fleshly) lends itself without much difficulty to Jekyll’s moral division.

Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views I had set before me, I regarded them and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame (J&H p.81)

Yet despite the use of the word “shame” Jekyll goes on to claim that he is ‘in no sense a hypocrite’[19] but rather views both sides of his personality and their actions with complete sincerity. There is no lack of genuine feeling, either when Jekyll indulges his vices or practises his more respected virtues, indeed Jekyll goes so far as to practise and refine his profound duplicity of lifestyle. Arata argues that Hyde is no anomaly, but rather the very essence of bourgeoisie masculine behaviour, to argue that degeneration is essential to understanding the subjectivity presented within the fin-de-siècle Gothic seems utterly compelling. However, whilst Arata identifies the class discourses and latent misogyny that permeate this novel of professional men and while this certainly serves to indict a certain presentation of middle-class professionalised bourgeois masculinity, this point does not necessarily approach the divide in subjectivity that Jekyll establishes as being foundational to his own sense of self. This argument also relies upon ignoring or eliding the scope of theological language in the novel claiming that language as a marker of a certain class position, rather than demonstrating anything else. Rather than merely dismiss theological language as a marker of a more fundamental class signification, a turn to theology allows for a less dismissive critical stance and an engagement with the novel in a more theological nuanced way.

Jekyll’s admittance of his own fundamentally divided nature, between the immoral and respectable sides coupled with the use of the term “shame” and his secrecy throughout the text does offset the claim that he was in no way hypocritical. Despite the stated conviction of his own integrity, the linguistic choices throughout the novel bespeak an awareness of a normative ethical standard and his own violation thereof (Jekyll is ostracized from much of the company he wold normally keep reinforcing the impression of generalized ethical norm he has in some sense transgressed.)   From the opening of the novel Jekyll is perceived by others as the very ‘pink of proprieties’[20] yet Jekyll himself is glaringly absent from the opening of the text – the reader is left with words and the impression of other characters, but little by way of direct interaction. He becomes the very cause of or catalyst for the plot through the traces that he has left behind – through the most important, the will delivered to Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s secret relationship with Hyde is exposed.[21] Utterson’s first encounter with the mysterious Hyde is much quoted in criticism on the novel for the reference to Hyde’s troglodytic appearance, yet Utterson goes on to tie this to a theological concern. Hyde’s appearance is described as ‘the radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures its clay continent.’[22] The implication here is perfectly clear — exposure to Hyde’s physical form is only a mere foretaste of the potential spiritual corruption that can be exerted upon those such as Jekyll. Furthermore, Utterson raises the possibility that Jekyll has endangered himself, spiritually speaking, as Hyde’s face bears ‘Satan’s signature’ upon it,[23] and he is concerned that the presence of Hyde is explained through ‘the ghost of some old sin.’[24]

Whilst Jekyll may well indulge both sides of his nature, the terms in which this is presented reflects an awareness that his behaviour is in some sense, running contrary to the commonly accepted or normative moral standards he exists within. His colleagues refuse to associate with him, because of his ‘scientific heresy’ and fondness for ‘unscientific balderdash.’[25] As a medical man, he is isolated from not just the material realities of a scientific community but also he deliberately stands outside whatever normative ethics might govern the practise of medical science through his intent to push the limit of accepted knowledge. Furthermore, the very first moment that he appears in the novel he is described as having ‘something of a slyish cast’[26] about his appearance – implying a certain degree of disingenuousness despite his class status and his treatment by others in the novel. However, the implication here should not be that Jekyll is personally responsible for this duplicity, but rather this hypocritical division of self is one produced by wider discourses. The scientific desire to push the boundaries of knowledge that forms the normative standard of medical science encourages Jekyll’s interests in the transcendent whilst at the same time viewing him with suspicion and doubt. The monstrosity of Hyde is thus not a case of an individual’s moral failing, but a product of the discourses of the fin-de-siècle functioning completely effectively.

Operating and existing in two separate spheres of life, Jekyll’s division of his own self shares much in common with Paul’s description of a split self divided between both moral and sinful activities or in alternative phrasing, between the law and the flesh. Quoting from the Epistle to the Romans proves an excellent case in point:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7: 14-19 NRSV p. 153)

In this section of the Epistle Paul frames in similar terms a comparable dilemma that is mentioned by Jekyll in his “full account” section of the narrative but renders explicit what the Degeneration theorists referred to above, have left as merely implicit. Namely, it is a mistake to consider Jekyll and Hyde as separate or discrete individuals.  Regardless of the sociological, criminological or evolutionary discourses used, to split the subjectivity of Jekyll in two fundamentally alters the ontological framework through which one reads the novel. To treat Jekyll and Hyde separately, as taxonomic categories that allow for insight into the anxieties of the age, effectively renders Jekyll as merely half – a subject rendered deficient by the intrusion of Hyde, or alternatively a subject that has become problematically corrupted by the arrival of Hyde’s presence into consciousness.

Throughout the novel, the correlates and areas of similarity between Jekyll and Hyde are striking.  Jekyll himself admits to Utterson that despite his own apparent incoherency of manner on the subject, he has ‘a very great interest in Hyde,’[27]a loaded reference to the fondness to duplicity that has marked his life. Hyde also has huge freedom in Jekyll’s home – with Jekyll giving explicit orders to servants and staff that Hyde is to be obeyed just as they do for Jekyll.[28] Furthermore, in the wake of the vicious murder of Danvers Carew, Hyde’s murder weapon is discovered to be Jekyll’s possession – given to Jekyll by Utterson himself.[29] When Hyde is eventually tracked down, the separation between Hyde and Jekyll becomes even more difficult to maintain. Despite residing in a particularly dingy quarter of Soho, the rooms Hyde rents are ‘furnished in luxury and good taste,’ along the same lines of fashion enjoyed by Henry Jekyll.[30] However, as already pointed out, Hyde is not some sort of supplement or add-on to Jekyll’s moral self, but is rather a product of the moral discourses that have informed the construction of this apparent model of moral respectability and to treat them separately, is something of a mistake. Hyde is, quite literally, an externalisation and embodiment of the moral failings and tensions within Jekyll’s own subjectivity. Rather than attempt to wrestle with any kind of theological introspection, an example of which is provided by Paul in the letter to the Romans, Jekyll uses the tools of fin-de-siècle modernity to attempt to solve the problem once and for all. Rather than grapple with the tension of both law and flesh (to phrase the issue in Pauline terms) Jekyll, a product of an age of moralism rather than theology, simply prefers to forcibly externalize the tensions and moral failings which go so far in defining the nature of subjectivity. In short, there is no divided self – only a singular self, torn between the law and the desires of the flesh – riven by the need to aspire to ‘exacting aspirations’ whilst simultaneously being guilty of a ‘profound duplicity of life.’[31]

Despite the constant references to the scientific and medical throughout the novel, the problem of the self is most clearly stated in theological terms. Jekyll wistfully wonders if each side of his self ‘could but be housed in separate identities’ as such a split would allow for his good half to proceed through life without further spiritual endangerment or moral trouble. Despite the critical notion of such desires being linked to evolutionary, sociological or criminological concerns, Jekyll frames it in the language of theology and salvation:

The unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely, on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. (Stevenson, p. 82.)

Even the arch historicist Robert Mighall acknowledges the signification of the ‘theological path of righteousness and the notion of social betterment’[32] that the passage reflects. With this in mind, and given the comparison to the section of Romans, Jekyll and Hyde will be read as an attempt to solve the theological dilemma experienced by Paul through the application of medical means. The eventual catastrophic failure of Jekyll’s endeavour thus attains greater significance, as Stevenson’s novel suggests that the application of these discourses could never satisfactorily contain or defeat Hyde. The externalisation or splitting of subjectivity through the discourses of medical authority and modern science are doomed to fail in their quest to resolve the dilemma expressed in Romans 7 and heightened in Stevenson’s novella. It is for this reason that the approaches mentioned above are, at best, critically limited. By framing Hyde in the terms of evolution, criminology or biology, subjectivity is, even tacitly, externalized once more. The implications of this notion of degeneration, or what might be termed the common critical stance on the fin-de-siècle Gothic, can only frame Hyde as a lingering problem that could or should be solved — the failure to do so being the true cause of the anxiety which gives rise to Stevenson’s text. In short, treating Hyde as an evolutionary, bio-medical or criminology anxiety only risks repeating the doomed endeavour of Henry Jekyll himself – namely attempting to solve through historicist or scientific discourses what is, at root, a more metaphysical issue.[33]  In contrast, a theologically inflected reading of the novel sees the split between the two as a concretizing of a pre-existing issue in the construction of subjectivity whilst problematising the concept of evil. Hyde is consistently framed in terms that present him as both simultaneously human and less than human, he gives an ‘impression of deformity without any malformation,’[34] as Utterson expresses it after their first meeting. Hyde, throughout the novel is both human and less than human, present and absent.[35] As Zoë Lehmann Imfeld expresses it, ‘the ghost-story demon is given its horror because it cannot be…it is at once impossible and recognisable.’[36] Hyde is both ontologically lacking and somehow perverse, and thus can be read within Augustinian terms. The two foundational premises which the Augustine argument rests upon are firstly an ontological lack — there is something missing from Hyde which, whilst unable to clearly articulate, those who come across him seem very aware of. Evil, is in short, not an existing thing, but rather an absence. Secondly, Augustine’s theory of evil extrapolates an anthropological conclusion for the human subject from this first premise – namely evil involves a perversion of the imago Dei in its effects upon the individual.[37] Throughout the novel Hyde is described in these terms, as somehow less than human, smaller and more animalistic than the urbane Jekyll. Despite this upon describing Hyde’s appearance on his first discovery of the shift between these two aspects of his subjectivity, Jekyll mentions Hyde’s stunted nature and troglodytic appearance as being nothing like his own. However, gazing at Hyde’s reflection in the mirror he is ‘conscious of no repugnance,’ for ‘this too was myself.’[38] (my emphasis) Despite the descriptive markers that externalize Hyde and attempt to establish a clear separation between him and Jekyll, this moment of self-revelation adds credence to understanding Hyde as expressing the perversion and negation of Jekyll’s ontology; a theological disaster framed in scientific terms. The two figures are not separable, but rather serve as an exposition on the nature of man’s ontological flaws.

The text itself provides much evidence for this understanding of Jekyll and Hyde’s complex intertwining as being a principally theological issue rather than something best explored through degeneration theory. After the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, Hyde disappears and ‘a new life began for Dr Jekyll.’[39] This new life entails not just a reconnection with friends but piety too, for as the novella explains, ‘whilst he had always been known for charities, he was now no less distinguished for religion.’[40]Sadly, such a newfound life of repentance and charity proves unsustainable. As a result, one of Jekyll’s few friends, the more scientifically and medically orthodox Dr Lanyon sustains a fatal shock – the issue that causes it is ‘accursed’ and when pressed Lanyon begs ‘in God’s name, go, for I cannot bear it.’[41] The fatal shock that kills Lanyon is not just the discovery of the true nature of the connection between Jekyll and Hyde but also the failure of normative medico-scientific discourses to provide a satisfactory response to the fracture in subjectivity that Jekyll’s work has, quite literally, made flesh. The shock which ultimately kills Lanyon is not the discovery of Hyde and Jekyll as one person, but rather the truth that within him there are the same fractures, moral failing and depravities as reside within Henry Jekyll — in short, the procedures by which degeneration and depravity are safely taxonomised and externalised are revealed to be insufficient. As is revealed later in the text within Lanyon’s own record of events, he observes the connection between Jekyll and Hyde not in the coolly dispassionate language of medical science but rather in a state of religious inflected terror. He is warned by Hyde that his ‘sight will be blasted by a prodigy to stagger the unbelief of Satan.’[42] Despite Lanyon’s retort that he hears ‘with no very strong impression of belief,’ he consents to stay and witnesses the transmutation of Hyde into Jekyll:

He put the glass to his lips and drank at one gulp…and as I looked, there came, I thought a change — he seemed to swell — his face became suddenly black, and the features seemed to melt and alter…and at the next moment I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror. O God! I Screamed, and O God! Again and again (Stevenson, p. 80)

Lanyon’s encounter, and the subsequent realizations that this experience carries, finds no other language to express itself than that of theology. His letter recording the events end with a bleak note that ‘I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard and my soul sickened at it.’[43] In addition, Jekyll’s take on the argument between him and Lanyon, mentioned never directly, but in writing to Utterson again frames the issue theologically. As Jekyll speaks to Utterson,

You must suffer me to go my own dark way. I have brought on myself a punishment and a danger that I cannot name. If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also.[44]

Despite the general critical insistence upon the concretizing[45] of Hyde as a medical and scientific breakthrough within the text the emergence of Hyde is framed as a moment of horrific theological revelation. The disingenuous Henry Jekyll goes so far as to tell the reader of his narrative that he ‘will not enter deeply into this scientific branch of my confession,’[46] as he recasts his scientific quest into a quasi-Gnostic revelation of the ‘doom and burthen of our life.’[47] Jekyll implicitly references Scripture in his articulation of his attempt to bring forth Hyde — ‘plucking back that fleshly vestment, even as a wind might toss the curtains of a pavilion.’[48] The Scriptural referent here is Matthew 27:51, whereby at the moment of Christ’s death the curtain that separated the holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was not simply plucked aside, but torn in two. In an echo of the crucifixion Jekyll seeks to go beyond the limits of physical human nature, but where Christ’s transcendence is both suffering and sacrificial reuniting God with fallen mankind through the atonement, Jekyll’s suffering is for reasons of ego. Rather than seek to reunite God to man through substitutionary atonement, Jekyll’s moment of pushing aside the veil fundamentally divides man from himself.  Just as with Christ on the cross, Jekyll’s first dose of the formula inflicts a ‘horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death,’[49] yet as Christ rises to glory, Jekyll rises as Hyde, a figure he labels as ‘alone in all the ranks of mankind,’ a figure of ‘pure evil.’[50] The formula he discovers Jekyll claims, is ‘neither diabolical nor divine, it but shook the doors of the prison house of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.’[51] Yet despite the scriptural allusion here, Jekyll falls far short of the mantle of Paul he lays claim to. Unlike Paul, Jekyll’s ‘virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion.’[52] Once again, the text repeatedly links Hyde’s rise and dominance to Jekyll’s own moral or theological passivity. His fondness for undignified pleasure and an aversion to the dryness of a life of study[53] are long standing factors which Jekyll has no metaphysical or theological resources to deal with and thus it comes as no surprise when Jekyll describes his increasing vulnerability to Hyde as a ‘falling into sin.’[54]

Jekyll’s lack of pious aspirations is what he blames for Hyde’s ontological fallen-ness but from a man who has from his earliest memories practised both moral and theological hypocrisy this should come as no surprise and is consistent with Jekyll’s disavowal of his own moral responsibility. The final pages of Jekyll’s full statement of the case goes into some detail to explain Jekyll’s attempts to reconcile between the disparate parts of his own subjectivity. Hyde and Jekyll become entwined in terms of their living arrangement, their class position and even their finances as Jekyll goes out of his way to ensure the he ‘might enter on that of Edward Hyde without pecuniary loss.’[55] What noticeably fails for Jekyll is any attempt to reform his behaviour. In the wake of the murder Jekyll frames his actions as an act of repentance and conversion. Taking his draught ‘Henry Jekyll, with streaming tears of gratitude and remorse, had fallen upon his knees and lifted his clasped hands to God.’[56] Once more the novella refers to the veil as Jekyll’s sense of self-indulgence was ‘rent from head-to-foot,’[57] and what follows is described in terms of spiritual torment. With prayers and tears Jekyll seeks to undo his own experimentation and reunite his subjectivity into a coherent whole. Yet despite his recommitment to the markers of positive morality — his acts of charity and his ‘labour to relieve suffering,’ [58]— Hyde proves irresistible. After a few brief months of propriety and outwardly respectable behaviour, it was ‘as an ordinary secret sinner that I at last fell before the assaults of temptation.’[59]

The passage sets up a telling paired opposition between the secrecy of Jekyll’s “sin” and the public attempts at atonement. Jekyll’s response to his theological blunder in concretizing aspects of his own subjectivity is revealed as woefully insufficient. The discourses of science may have motivated his initial experiments but it is through theology that Jekyll articulates the impact that Hyde asserts. Whilst the work of degeneration theorists has conceptualised Hyde as an abhuman subject or the re-emergence of a more barbaric past into the civilised present,[60] a theological understanding of the novella and of degeneration more generally adds greater depth to critical understanding of the text. Rather than see Hyde as an aberration or addition to subjectivity, a theological understanding of degeneration presents Hyde as an inextricable part of modern subjectivity itself. Hyde the monster is not a figure which has returned from the past, or an expression of devolved humanity — rather, the horror of the text flows from the reality that Hyde expresses an aspect of modern subjectivity that cannot be easily or safely externalised away. In a novella so preoccupied with the scientific taxonomies of the fin-de-siècle these discursive techniques are revealed as being utterly insufficient to deal with the fundamental fracture in subjectivity detailed in Romans by Paul.  At the close of the text, Jekyll, having finished the last of his scientific elixir, realizes that it is ‘the last time, short of a miracle, that Henry Jekyll can think his own thoughts and see his own face.’[61] What this neglects is the reality – Jekyll is not being replaced by an external force, but is simply unable to maintain a coherent subjectivity that aligns with the normative standards and discourses of his cultural moment. The techniques and discursive practises which shape his being — medical training, class position and bourgeois morality fail to resolve this division between the different aspects of his self, and thus, by implication are revealed as insufficient on a systemic level, for not just Henry Jekyll, but for all. Removing a theological or metaphysical awareness from criticism and analysis of the text serves only to continue the same error that dooms Henry Jekyll. As Fred Botting acknowledges, these scientific theories only serve to ‘expose the instability of the dualities that frame cultural identity.’[62] Degeneration, understood theologically is not simply a historical concern or the product of the barbaric past re-emerging, but something inextricably bound up with the nature of human subjectivity itself. Thus, any attempt to externalise it or concretize it through the tools of modernity, no matter how sophisticated those tools may be, is doomed to failure.

The realization of this failure is what kills of the conventional, orthodox and religiously sceptical Dr Lanyon in a moment of sheer theological terror, but the realization contained within the text extends further still. To recognize the failure of scientific, medical or criminological discourses in dealing with evil is to recognize that Jekyll and Hyde embody the ‘Christian paradox of evil as both nothing and something.’[63] Thus, with the failure of the scientific and medical discourses to safely externalise and separate Hyde from Jekyll the reader too is challenged by the ontological connection between the two figures. Stevenson’s novella is not something the reader simply observes, as in the manner of a scientific exercise, but becomes something that demands participation on the part of the reader. As Imfeld argues, we participate in a ‘theological anthropology’ through which we come to learn more not just about the ontology of Jekyll but of ourselves. In a letter written to a friend, Stevenson shows great awareness of the impact of this ontological paradox and its effect upon the reader in reference to another great literary exploration of evil, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment:

Many find it dull: Henry James could not finish it: all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness. [Henry] James did not care for it because the character of Raskolnikoff was not objective; and at that I divined a great gulf between us, and on further reflection, the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of to-day, which prevents them from living in a book or character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators to a puppet show. To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves may enter, and are tortured and purified.[64]

Stevenson’s acknowledgement that those who participate within the horror novel as readers may find it a traumatic experience, a site of torture but also potential purification or redemption. Despite the grim end reached by Henry Jekyll, the novella still offers the potential for change, for redemption even if the experience of it is sometimes painful. This possibility however, requires a willingness to engage and participate within the theological nature of the text, and not, as Stevenson writes, stand afar off.  Despite the bleak note that Jekyll’s statement ends upon, the theological framework of the novel and the metaphysical questions it provokes in its reader do offer some modicum of hope. Through participation — that necessary act of entering the ‘room’ one may move beyond degeneration, towards a kind of purification, what we may in theological terms, call repentance.


End notes 

[1] Key studies include Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the fin-de-siècle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) as well as Andrew Smith, Victorian Demons: Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the fin-de-siècle, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004) plus Kirsten MacLeod, Fictions of British Decadence, High Art, Popular Writing and the fin-de-siècle, (London: Palgrave, 2006). 

[2] As Nordau himself writes, ‘the disposition of the times is curiously confused; a compound of feverish restlessness and blunted discouragement…the prevalent feeling is that of imminent perdition and extinction.’ See Max Nordau, Degeneration, (New York, Appleton & Co, 1895) p. 2.

[3] Stephen Karschay, Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin-De-Siècle, (London: Palgrave, 2015) p. 3.

[4] For a stern rebuttal to these studies, see Robert Mighall, A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares, (Oxford, OUP, 1999) particularly the introduction where he criticises the Gothic critic’s apparent obsession with interiority.

[5] The evidence of this requires only the most cursory glance through the Old Testament but particularly the prophetic books Isaiah to Malachi.

[6] Hurley labels this ambivalence to the natural sciences as one of the key markers of the fin-de-siecle Gothic text. See Hurley (1996) p. 18.

[7] Glennis Byron, “Gothic in the 1890s” in A Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter, (London, Blackwell, 2000), p.132

[8] See Hurley (1996) p.1-2.

[9] See Nordau, Degeneration (1895) and Cesare Lombroso, Crime, Its Causes and Remedies, (Boston, Little Brown and Company, 1899/1911)

[10] See Karschay, (2015) particularly the Introduction.

[11] Mighall, (Oxford, OUP, 1999) – Both the introduction and Chapter One.

[12] See Mighall p. 139.

[13] Mark Knight and Emma Mason, Nineteenth Century Literature and Religion: An Introduction, (Oxford, OUP, 2007) p. 176.

[14] Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories, (London, Penguin Classics, 1979) p. 40

[15] See Stephen Arata, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-siècle: Identity and Empire, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 33-4. As well as Karschay, p.89-91 plus Julia Reid, Robert Louis Stevenson: Science and the fin-de-siècle, (London, Palgrave, 2006.)

[16] Arata, p. 36

[17] Stevenson, p. 81.

[18] Particularly Calvinist discourses, which, thanks to the influence of his childhood nanny, Stevenson was well acquainted with. See Jenni Calder, RLS: Life Study of Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Chambers, 1990)

[19] Stevenson, p. 81.

[20] Stevenson, p. 33.

[21] The relationship between lawyer and client seems comparable analogous to the secrecy and confidentiality of the confessional – one can imagine a more “Catholic” writer could have written a similar tale with a priest in the role of discoverer.

[22] Stevenson, p. 40

[23] Ibid.

[24] Stevenson, p. 41.

[25] Stevenson, p. 43, p. 36.

[26] Ibid p. 43.

[27] Stevenson, p. 44.

[28] Stevenson, p. 41.For more on the spatial aspects of the novel see Linda Dryden, The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003) particularly, p. 102-108

[29] Stevenson, p. 47-8.

[30] Stevenson, p. 49.

[31] Stevenson, p. 81

[32] Mighall, p. 147.

[33] As Reid articulates it, ‘Stevenson attributes degeneration to modernity’s attempts to stifle the savage elements which have survived in the modern psyche.’ Yet despite this insight, the metaphysical implications are not engaged with, remaining as a purely psychological insight ignoring the theological language of the novel and the long history of theological engagement with precisely this point. See Reid, (2006), p. 98.  

[34] Stevenson, p.

[35] Utterson’s tongue in cheek remark that ‘if he shall be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek’ highlighting the extent to which Hyde remains ontologically speaking, rather difficult

[36] Zoë Lehmann Imfeld, The Victorian Ghost Story and Theology: From La Fanu to James, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) p. 29.

[37] For perhaps the finest introduction to the Augustinian approach and the contemporary merits of the argument, see Charles T. Mathewes, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, (Cambridge: CUP, 2004)

[38] Stevenson, p. 84.

[39] Stevenson, p. 56.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Stevenson, p. 57.

[42] Stevenson, p. 79.

[43] Stevenson, p. 80.

[44] Stevenson, p. 58.

[45] I hesitate to use terms such as “the creation of Hyde” for reasons that, thanks to the previous argument, I trust to be somewhat self-evident.

[46] Stevenson, p.83.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Stevenson, p. 82.

[49] Stevenson, p. 83.

[50] Stevenson, p.85

[51] Ibid – the Scriptural reference here is to Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 16:16-40, where an earthquake frees the apostle Paul and Silas from a jail cell, yet despite what Jekyll claims, neither run forth, but stay where they are to save their jailer from committing suicide after losing his prisoners.

[52] Stevenson, p. 85.

[53] Ibid

[54] Ibid.

[55] Stevenson, p. 86.

[56] Stevenson, p. 91

[57] Ibid.

[58] Stevenson, p.92

[59] Ibid.

[60] See Hurley (1996) and Mighall (1999) respectively.

[61] Stevenson, p. 96.

[62] Fred Botting, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1995) p.91.

[63] Imfeld, p. 30

[64] Robert Louis Stevenson, Letter to J.A.  Symonds, 1886,



2 thoughts on “A Theological Reading of Jekyll and Hyde.

  1. Great piece.

    While I agree with your reading and I think it’s valuable and necessarily, you might at some point want to contrast it with the antithesis of a conventional Gothic theological reading, i.e., that the “sin” of the Gothic protagonist is not degeneracy but the DENIAL of his degeneracy — the yearning to surpass the imperfections of the human body and mind, with the power of science taking on the role of the tempter.

    On this reading, it is the failure of the Gothic protagonist to accept their natural human degeneracy (literally, in Dorian Gray’s case) and their rebellion against God, who wants humans to be mortal, limited in intelligence and physical prowess, and most of all to age and die — leads to their downfall. Man can only perpetuate the evil and pettiness of his nature in his attempts (whether by science or by magic) to escape it. The Tower of Babel will always fail.

    As I say, this is a very common and unoriginal reading and not at all intended as a counterpoint to your reading, but rather is a fruitfully different reading that might helpfully be contrasted with it at some point.

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