Context of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

After reading the Curious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I realised how the context of the story shapes it massively so that the 19th century reader would interpret the text in a different way to how we do now.

Victorian Era

The Victorian Era is the period of 19th Century where Queen Victoria was on the throne and ruler of Great Britain. Victoria was one of the longest rulers ruling for 63 years. During her reign the British Empire still remained making Britain a superpower.

Work houses were set up and feared by the old, young, poor and orphaned. Work houses were plagued with poor conditions and those who would otherwise be on the streets. Families there were split up and divided in these often overcrowded places. Children were put to work as chimney sweeps and down mines, and very few went to school. Poorer children would work from age five in factories, farms or worked as servants.Victorian London was full of pollution due to the Industrial Revolution that was gripping the country. The smog features heavily in books from this era. Factories were dangerous places where people were often exploited.

Slums grew in many cities and due to the over crowding in poor housing disease spread quickly. One in five of children born in the 1830s and 1840s had died by the age of five. Tuberculosis (TB) was a deadly disease that claimed between 60,000 and 70,000 lives in each decade of Victoria’s reign.

Gothic Genre

The Gothic genre became popular in the 19th century with authors such as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. Some of the key features of the Gothic Genre are: the weather, the supernatural, mystery, gloom and horror.

Due to fog that constantly plagued London during this era, this Gothic feature is throughout the book. The fog hides and conceals, so serves as a mask to hide the evil deeds of Mr Hyde and Mr Hyde himself. The fog also increases mystery and tension drawing the reader further into the mystery.

The Supernatural features throughout the book along with ideas of religion and dualism. Mr Hyde’s creation is an unnatural event caused by Jekyll’s determination to separate himself. The creation of the potion and the transformation are both described vividly, with strong and disturbing imagery.

A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; 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; for there before my eyes—pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death—there stood Henry Jekyll.

This description with this vivid imagery highlights the unnatural/supernatural nature of the transformation, “His face became suddenly black … seemed to melt and alter”. The colour black, especially in gothic literature has connotations of death and the idea that the transformation and death are so close is a constant idea, “a man restored from death”. The ‘black’ of the transformation is replaced by the “pale” Jekyll, this contrast of dark and pale is used to highlight the two natures further. The “[melting]” of the facial features is something that could be found in a horror movie today. “Reeled, staggered, clutched” is the rule of three and the use of these three verbs is used to emphasise the physical transformation occurring.

Further the book has been linked to dualism. Dualism is the belief that the soul and the body are separate, Stevenson explores this idea in a different way looking at the differences in a person, “I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness”. This exploration of the two halves of a person, the moral and good versus the evil and immoral is shown through the physical forms of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Origin of Species

Stevenson references beasts when talking about Mr Hyde, and this is intentional and more relevant in this text that in modern texts, as in 1859 Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species explaining how we evolved from apes. This was published 27 years before the Curious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but had a profound effect on the Victorian society that was very Christian and therefore against this discovered that apposed the Genesis creation story told in the Bible. Suddenly “ape-like fury” are more relevant and intentional then a 21st century reader might realise. The comparison of Mr Hyde and animals shows how evolved and moral man is a stage further away from beast and the potion strips Dr Jekyll of his humanity turning him into the animalistic Mr Hyde.

Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper was a famous serial killer of the Victorian Era who operated in White Church, an area of East London, who killed 5/6 women. The Ripper operated between August and November 1888, and their identity is still unknown today. The murders were violent and bloody, the bodies left mutilated. The case of the Serial killer was popular and well known so would be heavily in the reader’s mind when Stevenson published his book the next year.

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