Historiography Saturday: Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde

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In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a Victorian parable so integrated into popular culture that its adaptations alone have their own Wikipedia page, the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll devises a drug that allows him to become an alter ego not restricted by expectations of respectability. The two halves coexist until the Hyde personality begins to take over and commits murder; facing discovery, Hyde commits suicide, ending both their lives.

Although the novella is clearly an allegory, Stevenson resisted applying a specific meaning to the Jekyll-Hyde duality. However, scholars have suggested that one possible interpretation might be that Jekyll creates Hyde as an outlet for his homosexuality, an attraction that would be unthinkable for a respectable physician to act upon.It is important to note that while many adaptations add a female love interested (or at least lust interest) for Jekyll, the original only contains two women, neither of which is even given a name. In 1885, the year before Strange Case was published, the Labouchere Amendment was passed, criminalizing sodomy and leaving homosexuals vulnerable to blackmail; the repeated references to a fear of blackmail could be read as references to the Amendment. One critic has gone so far as to suggest that the character is a stand-in for Stevenson’s own attraction to men, though her textual evidence is spotty. Regardless of authorial intent, the tale does take on a different spin when read as a tragedy of the repression of same-sex attraction.

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