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4. Compare and contrast the ways in which Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon represent different attitudes toward scientific ethics and, perhaps, toward the nature of evil itself.
-Billy Joel; The Stranger
Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written in 1886, is a complex and multilayered novel that has come to symbolize for many in modern culture the very nature of human duality. Set against the backdrop of proper Victorian society and populated almost entirely with “austure,” “sombre,” “reputable” gentlemen, the novel investigates, with a combination of telling detail and sly omission, the nature of evil that Stevenson seems to believe resides in every man.
Dr. Jekyll is first introduced to the reader by way of omission, and from the very first, his character is veiled in half-truth and deception. His good name is associated early in the story with the unsavory character of Edward Hyde, who uses a cheque drawn on Jekyll’s account to pay his way out of an unpleasant situation. As this story is related to Gabriel Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer and longtime friend, we begin to get a feeling that there is much more to be learned about Henry Jekyll and his tenuous hold on his good reputation, but that information may come at a dear price.
Utterson is already aware of a connection between his friend and this Hyde character that makes him profoundly uneasy. In the deepest recesses of the lawyer’s safe he retains a will, drawn by Dr. Henry Jeckyll, which directs Utterson to afford a Mr. Edward Hyde every bit of Jekyll’s property in the event of the doctor’s “disappearance or unexplained absence for any period exceeding three months” (4). Utterson’s attempts to find out more about the relationship that his friend shares with the unpleasant Hyde ends with Jekyll’s general evasion of the topic; he is immediately put off as Jekyll “grew pale to the very lips” (8) at the mere mention of Hyde’s name. Jekyll assures Utterson that he “can be rid of Hyde” whenever he chooses, and begs the lawyer to let the issue drop as “a private matter” (8). Deeply dissatisfied, but respectful of his friends wishes, Utterson strives to do just that.
His investigations take Utterson to a friend he shares with Jekyll, a Doctor Lanyon who “must be the two oldest friends that Henry Jekyll has” (4). Utterson learns that it has been “more than ten years since Henry Jekyll became too fanciful” (4) for Dr. Lanyon, who believes that their old friend has gone “wrong, wrong in mind” and is laboring at “unscientific balderdash” (5), though what, exactly, Jekyll has done to inspire Lanyon’s contempt is never made clear. In this brief exchange between lawyer and physician, though, we are given a glimpse into Lanyon’s character; for all the store he puts by his old friendship taking, as he calls it, “an interest in him for old sake’s sake,” he would rather “see devilish little of the man” (5) than entertain Jekyll and his “unscientific” pursuits. The doctor’s professional ethics, it seems, are far stronger than the pull of old friendships.
As the story continues, Dr. Jekyll’s strange relationship with Mr. Hyde attracts more attention. After the brutal murder of Sir Danvers Carew at the hands of Mr. Hyde, Utterson goes to his friend’s home to confront him about his connections to his unsavory friend and to warn against his continued relationship with a known murderer. Utterson finds Jekyll to be in a “feverish manner” and with a “changed voice” (11), and Utterson receives a letter that Jekyll claims came from Hyde, assuring the doctor that he has fled the reach of police and will no longer trouble his friend. Jekyll assures the lawyer that he is “quite done with [Hyde],” and that his concern for his reputation and character will serve as the motivation he needs to sever the relationship forever. Utterson doubts Jekyll, however; a doubt which is proven first when Utterson questions the butler about the post that arrived that day, and later when he shows the letter to a friend who compares the handwriting from Hyde’s letter with that of an invitation written in Jekyll’s hand. The two were found to be “in many points identical” (13).
The next time we are reacquainted with Dr. Lanyon, when Utterson visits him after being repeatedly denied entry to Jekyll’s home, we find him sick nearly to death. He has had a shock that has upset him so deeply that he himself knows he will never recover, and has “declared himself a doomed man” (14). Despite what he has seen, however, Lanyon remains true to his ethic of confidentiality and discretion; he won’t say what has brought him to the brink of his own demise, but rather insists that Utterson inquire of the matter directly to Jekyll, whom Lanyon now “regard[s] as dead” (14). Confused and deeply disturbed by the respective conditions of his two oldest friends, and wondering how they are connected, Utterson continues his investigations.
What comes to pass between Jekyll and Utterson is extremely telling to the characters of all the men involved. After Jekyll-as-Hyde commits suicide, Utterson comes to learn, though the letters his friends have delivered into his hands with instructions that they be read only when certain events have come to pass, what has happened between them. What he learns tells us much about the attitudes and behaviors of Jekyll and Lanyon.
As Jekyll loses more and more of his control over his “experiment,” he comes to find that he must rely on the support of Dr. Lanyon for his own survival, and that the favor he asks of his old friend is what causes the mortal shock that Lanyon suffers. Lanyon grants his friend’s strange and unseeming request to enter into his chambers and bring back a particular drawer – a drawer that contains the ingredients to a potion that form the foundation of Jekyll’s “unscientific” experiments. When Hyde, on the run from the police following the murder of Sir Danvers, appears at Lanyon’s door, Lanyon’s curiosity overcomes his ethics, having “gone too far in the way of inexplicable services” (25) to not see the matter through. Jekyll/Hyde, however, mindful of the disagreements between himself and his friend, warns Lanyon to consider very carefully what his is about to witness. “[A] new province of knowledge and new avenues to fame and power shall be laid open to you, here, in this room, upon the instant,” he tells Lanyon, “and your sight shall be blasted by a prodigy to stagger the unbelief of Satan” (25). Before he drinks his potion to turn himself back to the Jekyll form, however, he reminds Lanyon to recall his “vows” and that “what follows is under the seal of [their] profession” (25), thereby assuring Lanyon’s silence in the matter and, to a point, protecting both of their reputations.
Jekyll’s letter to Utterson gives us a good look into the man’s character and thinking. He tells of his investigation into “the relief of sorrow and suffering” and of his coming to the recognition that “man is not truly one, but truly two” (26). He sought to find a way to separate the two halves so that the “unjust could go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil” (26). Jekyll was, in short, looking for an easy way out of the complexities and complications of human nature and was excited to have seemingly found one.
Jekyll found that he was “braced and delighted” (27) in his Hyde persona, released as he was from any feeling of moral obligation and free to do as he chose. He was “conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome” (27) as Hyde, and he enjoyed the freedom that persona afforded him in the face of a society which valued order and propriety so highly. He noticed, early on in his experiments, that his “evil side…was less robust and less developed than the good,” (27), though it quickly came to pass that this would change.
Jekyll comes to quickly recognize, however, that his discoveries bring with them a heavy cost. Recognizing, albeit too late, that had he taken a “more noble spirit” with his experiments, had he been “under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all might have been otherwise” and he may have “come forth an angel instead of a fiend” (27) He notes that the drug “had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine” (27) but, rather, afforded an open door to the personality which most desired it. He discovers that he lacks the strength to resist the pull of the drug and the freedom it offers, and eventually the doctor falls into slavery (28) to his own discovery. He becomes disassociated and refers to himself in the third person, not knowing how to adequately describe his thinking as either personality. He finds himself reverting to the Hyde persona without the drug, going to bed as Henry Jekyll and waking as Edward Hyde (29) until it comes to pass that he requires the drug to return to himself as Jekyll. He fails to see how wrong his experiment is, even as he forges letters and lies to the authorities and his dearest friends for his double, believing that he “sat beyond the reach of fate” (28).
In an investigation of human behavior, it may well be that while Lanyon stands for the ideal of professional and personal ethics, Jekyll is far more represents the fallibility of human nature. He “chose the better part” of himself “and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it” (29), all the while shielding his friends from the ugly truth of what he was doing. When he finally finds himself at a point where he can no longer endure – or control – his own behavior, he realizes that it’s far too late to go back. Suicide, even, is beyond Jekyll’s ability to contemplate because he “find[s] it in [his] heart to pity” (32) Hyde, even beyond the point of the ruin of his better self. In the end, he finds the courage “to release himself at the last moment” (33), though one is left to wonder, given all we learn about Jekyll and his inability to stand against his Hyde personality, whether his final act was one of courage or of cowardice.