CS1: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Case Study 1: The Thin Line Between Alter Ego and Split Personality: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Spoiler alert. Trigger Warning. We are not mental health professionals. All our claims are backed up by credible research, which we provide at the end of every article. This post is not meant to be interpreted as expert mental health advice. If you relate to anything below please consult a licensed professional. 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a gothic psychological thriller novella written by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and was first published in 1886. It revolves around Dr. Jekyll, who is an old friend of the narrator, Mr. Utterson. After Utterson gets curious about the odd behavior Jekyll has been displaying, he investigates these manners and comes to the conclusion that Mr. Hyde, a very creepy and indifferent man who is also Dr. Jekyll’s “assistant”, is out to kill Jekyll to gain his possessions. Later it is revealed that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are two different personas of the same person. Dr. Jekyll had always had a desire to be evil, but knew it wasn’t socially acceptable since he was a well-respected doctor. Therefore, he decided to create his own alternative ego by inventing a potion that, after being consumed, would transform him into Hyde–a sinister murderer. However, things get out of hand and soon Hyde takes full control over both personas. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a great example of instances where an alter ego–minus the fantasy potion aspect–can turn into split personality, also known as disassociative personality disorder. Hereby we will refer to the disorder as “DID”. In our very first case study, we will be analyzing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde closely to try to pinpoint where exactly Jekyll lost control over his alter ego.

Firstly, let’s discuss what was happening in the world of psychology when this novella was first published. As mentioned earlier, this story was made public in 1886, almost twenty years after the first record of a patient with DID. DID was formerly known as split personality or multiple personality and was often denied of existence by professionals such as Sigmund Freud. Duality and divided mind had been a source of perennial fascination for literary artists and especially for novelists, and this is particularly true for the Romantic generation and their later 19th century heirs. After much research and many more case studies, the disorder was accepted and many years later we know that DID occurs when an individual unconsciously experiences two or more distinct personalities within themselves and is typically caused by childhood or youth trauma. Alternative (“alter”) ego, on the other hand, is when an individual purposely chooses to shift between their natural personality and their self-created one. The individual is in full control, hence alter ego is not recognized as a psychological disorder. Shifting (no pun intended) the focus back, this story took place in the Victorian Era. To fully understand this story, we have to look at the social norms during the time period it was set in. There was sexual repression, low tolerance on crime, strong social ethic, and all in all, this era was very strict in what you could and could not do in order to not be judged. As we discussed earlier, DID usually gets triggered by trauma, which is exactly what seemed to happen to Jekyll. Jekyll was part of the middle class and therefore had to keep his name and status up to fit societal norms. He had always had an exaggerated evil side to him and had often wanted to let it out. So, he created Hyde, his alter ego, so that he could do all the bad things he wanted without getting judged or paying the consequences for them. 

This is when things get complicated. 

It is said that Hyde was Jekyll’s alter ego, however the more accurate relation is that Jekyll was Hyde’s alter ego. Let that sink in for a second. Most of Hyde’s personality was already deep within Jekyll, hidden by a mask of a well-respected doctor who no one would think could ever do anything bad. Jekyll was who Hyde wanted to become, which is what the purpose of an alter ego usually is, but couldn’t because the evil in him overpowered the goodness. After all the goodness washed away, Hyde took complete control over his alter ego, Jekyll, now shifting personalities whenever he wanted to instead of when the sane Jekyll did. Hyde usually came out at nighttime and committed crimes as sinister as murder then was nowhere to be found when the sun came up because he shifted back to the doctor. Obviously, the alternative personality that was Jekyll integrated the shadow that was Hyde, which is typically not the case since the alter personalities are usually the ones to be triggered, not vice versa. If Hyde had initiated Jekyll, the conscious would have become a slave of the autonomous shadow.

There are many metaphors present in the novella, which play a key role in representing what exactly Jekyll felt of Hyde. One of the major ones that portrays Jekyll’s character is when Utterson was reading the letter that Jekyll wrote to Lanyon, an old friend of his. In the letter, Jekyll asked Lanyon to go to his cabinet and bring its contents (contents were everything that turned him into Hyde) to Cavendish Square as they were. Then he told Lanyon that a man [Hyde] would come to him and he must give the man all the contents of the cabinet. Finally, Jekyll goes on to say, on page 37, “…and that by the neglect of one of them, fantastic as they must appear, you might have charged your consciousness with my death or the shipwreck of my reason.” This means that Jekyll wanted Lanyon to witness what the man did with the things that were in the cabinet, and if he chose not to, Jekyll would die without a purpose. Another metaphor that depicts Dr. Jekyll’s personality occurs when Jekyll sees, for the first time, what Hyde looks like. Instead of having a feeling of disgust, Jekyll feels welcome to the look of his evil, true self. On page 45 he states, “The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition…”. This shows how Jekyll felt thankful that his true self was now getting let out so that he didn’t have to hide behind a mask (“prisonhouse”) anymore. 

The author of this novella, Stevenson, was inspired by Darwin’s studies for Hyde’s character. The studies concern man’s relationship with the animal world, hence why Hyde was created to resemble an animal rather than a human. This story shows the double nature (again, no pun intended) of society, with its antithetical yet judgmental values. This novel is a criticism to the respectability of society, represented by the restraint of Jekyll, that, however, is unable to dominate his human’s instinctive aspect. This novel also gives a great insight into the world of personality disorders and alter ego, which is surprising for the time period it was written in. Much like Jekyll, we all have an alter ego hidden deep inside of us. It’s important to use caution when dealing with another personality because just like Jekyll in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde showed us, Hyde can take control anytime and create a mess.

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