Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde Controversial Suicide In Gothic

Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde Controversial Suicide In Gothic
Copyright © Photograph by American Broadcasting Company
Stephen Arata examines the effect of the late-Victorian era’s perceived decline on late-nineteenth-century fiction, underlining the multiplicity of readings that degeneration theory allows due to the difficulty in defining the term. The various disciplines upon which degeneration encroached ranged from biology, criminology, psychology and art. Likewise, scholars identify the late-nineteenth-century Gothic link with fears of a dangerous lower-class “race”; the relocation of the era’s Gothic fiction to urban environments; the loss of stability of the human identity and the emergence of the “abhuman”; or the connection between immorality, aestheticism and degeneration.

However, contemporary research does not address the incidence of suicide in late-Victorian Gothic fiction, nor does it acknowledge the emergence of suicide as a Gothic trope. It has been discussed that the popular nineteenth-century consideration of suicide was a symptom of degeneration and thus a necessary outcome. The suicides in the novels discussed below give an insight into the era’s debates and attitudes towards the phenomenon of suicide and degeneration by exploring the representation of some late-nineteenth-century Gothic characters and the possible link between these degenerate figures and their suicides.

Stephen Arata discusses the similarities between Mr Hyde and the late-nineteenth-century perception of lower-class degenerates, likening the descriptions of Mr Hyde to Cesare Lombroso’s atavistic criminal man. Julia Reid outlines Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s1 interests in evolution, inheritance and the “savagery” of man’s ancestors. Neither, however, examines Dr Jekyll’s suicide, despite suicide becoming increasingly integrated into degeneration theory. This section investigates whether Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde is representative of a late-nineteenth-century degenerate. By determining Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s engagement with wider nineteenth-century theories, I begin to unravel the significance of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde motifs for suicide.

British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley believed that the moral sense, which encompassed such faculties as social instincts, will and reason, elevated humans to a position above that of the animals and that without the moral sense: “ stripped of all his essential human qualities and degraded almost to his bare animal instincts.”3. Dr Jekyll’s moral sense is eradicated by his “draught” which strips away his “respectability” and allows him to “spring headlong into a sea of liberty.” The upper-class doctor becomes his hidden “other,” a physical manifestation of primitive instincts and desires which then undermine the “higher” human faculties.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s interest in evolution developed while studying at the University of Edinburgh. During this period Thomas Henry Huxley delivered “the most publicised event of 1868” in the University of Edinburgh, a lecture entitled ‘On the Physical Basis of Life.’ Thomas Henry Huxley claimed that all life descended from protoplasmic substance. In 1863, Thomas Henry Huxley had claimed that humans were related to the ape: “it is quite certain that the ape which most nearly approaches man is either the Chimpanzee or the Gorilla.” Thomas Henry Huxley’s work on the human relationship to the ape preceded Charles Robert Darwin’s own ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) in which Charles Robert Darwin underlined the likelihood that man had descended along with other species from a common ancestor and that man himself had descended from the ape. Absorbing these standpoints, which were increasingly common by the latter part of the century, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s Mr Hyde resembles an ape; he is “troglodytic,” “ape-like” and appears “like a monkey.” Stephen Arata says that the middle and upper classes adopted the term “degeneration” to describe deviances within the lower classes but now found the concept turned upon themselves as their own vulnerability was exposed. Through Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson links the beast and the degenerate and postulates the existence of both within the upper class (Dr Jekyll’s world).

The “dormant” Mr Hyde had previously been without physical form but could now “usurp” the “civilised” Dr Jekyll. Mr Hyde represents Dr Jekyll’s predisposition to sin which was strong enough to “usurp” the moral “offices” of life. Stephen Arata notes that the similarities between Mr Hyde and Italian criminologies and physician Cesare Lombroso’s Gothic “born criminal,” are behaviourally and physiologically evident. Cesare Lombroso believed that the degenerate was biologically determined, an idea that is evident in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde through Dr Jekyll’s admission that Mr Hyde had always existed within him. Stephen Arata claims that Cesare Lombroso’s work would have been instantly recognisable to Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s readership. Donald Lawler says the same: “ Lombroso’s basic ideas had gained currency by the 1880s through evolutionary psychologists such as Stevenson’s friend James Sully4.” Referring to the relationship with James Sully, Donald Lawler suggests that Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson would himself have had access to ideas on criminal anthropology.

Cesare Lombroso alleged that the criminal acted on impulse, motivated by their bestial roots and an instinct to kill. These degenerates resembled “savages,” remaining morally and physically undeveloped due to an arrested evolution. Likewise, Mr Hyde is described throughout the story as “pale and dwarfish” and “something hardly human.” Cesare Lombroso concluded that a degenerate was “an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.” This nature was, says Cesare Lombroso, a direct result of a biologically-determined inheritance: “the most horrendous and inhuman crimes have a biological, atavistic origin in those animalistic instincts.” Henry Maudsley had previously stated: “no doubt such animal traits are marks of extreme human degeneracy.” These “animal marks” were perceived to be transmitted through inheritance. In 1878, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson and Richard Proctor published articles in the same issue of Cornhill Magazine5. ‘Hereditary Traits’ discussed the concept of the inheritance of vices and biological determinism of criminal or immoral behaviour.

Richard Proctor felt that if an individual is predisposed to sin then he should be prevented from transmitting this trait. Dr Jekyll also “found within himself” the tendency to sin: his instincts are concealed by an upper-class desire to be “distinguished” but ultimately he is powerless against his hidden predispositions. The concern that a man’s bestial instincts could govern his behaviour led to a debate about the treatment of criminals.

Removing the individual from society was, to Richard Proctor, the only way to prevent the spread of this propensity to violence. He believed that suicide could be a predetermined hereditary action. Cesare Lombroso wrote that “ demonstrates the irresistible violence of the passions that drive criminals.” He feared that if an individual was capable of violence against himself then he could be capable of violence against others. Suicide thus became a means of “stamping out” the degenerate.


Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (November 13th, 1850 – December 3rd, 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer. His most famous work is “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”
The concept of the “moral sense” will be addressed further in another article. It was essentially a nineteenth-century term which encompassed thoughts, emotions and feeling as well as social instinct, willpower and the ability to reason. In short, the “moral sense” was considered to be those evolved mental faculties which separated humans from the animals.
Henry Maudsley was often published and reviewed in periodicals like the Fortnightly Review, one of the most widespread review journals of the latter part of the nineteenth-century. Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson and Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde both published in the Fortnightly Review. As a reader of the Fortnightly Review, and with Henry Maudsley being reviewed in many non-specialist journals of the era, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson may well have come across his work.
Donald Lawler 1988, 273. James Sully references this friendship in his autobiography (1918, 215).
The Cornhill Magazine (1860–1975) was a Victorian magazine and literary journal named after the publisher’s address at 65 Cornhill in London, United Kingdom.
Sarah Genner
Editor & Proofreader
This article has been edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a successful British Direct Response Marketing Copywriter, voice actor and artist.

Would you like to discover just how her copywriting skills can get your business a higher conversion rate?

Do you have a particular subject you are passionate about you would enjoy seeing covered by one of our staff writers? We would like to reach out to our readers and take your suggestions into account for future articles. We invite you to leave a message for us in the comment section below stating what subjects you would be thrilled to read in future articles. If you also have some constructive criticism about this article we would be happy to read your feedback in the comment section.


Click here to post a comment


Get the Bulletin Insider delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to our bulletin and get exceptional updates and brainstorm promotions

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.