Celebrating Self-Discipline in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwThis evening, I read a thread on Twitter which presented an interpretation of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde which I fear is all too frequent. Utterson was seen as a repressed Victorian gentleman who would do well to admit honestly, as does his old friend Jekyll, that he has a darker side to his nature. According to this interpretation, we should see human nature as Jekyll does: ‘not truly one, but truly two’. In other words, we should be ready to give up hope of achieving any kind of integrity, any kind of self-discipline. Virtues such as temperance are to be scorned as mere hypocrisy. Embracing such a view of human nature means instructing our pupils in the impossibility of any kind of noble self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It is a counsel of despair. As an antidote to this gloomy outlook, I’m posting here an exemplar essay which we use at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, which offers a very different interpretation. It aligns with our belief that self-discipline is not only possible, but necessary. Instead of dismissing of the efforts of Utterson to mortify his selfish appetites, we celebrate them.

Read the following extract from Chapter 1 (‘Story of the Door’) and then answer the question that follows.

In this extract, which is the opening of the novel, Stevenson introduces the lawyer Gabriel Utterson to the reader.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. “I incline to Cain’s heresy,” he used to say quaintly: “I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.” In this character, it was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of downgoing men. And to such as these, so long as they came about his chambers, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour.

‘Gabriel Utterson is the real hero of the novel’.

Starting with this extract, explore how far you agree with this opinion.

Stevenson’s 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published the year before Sherlock Holmes appeared in print, but it shares many characteristics with Conan Doyle’s famous series of detective stories. Among these is the contrast between an ordinary, typical Victorian gentleman and an eccentric genius who does extraordinary things. Gabriel Utterson is rather like Dr Watson in many respects, because he represents normality in contrast to the outlandish exploits of Dr Jekyll. But a key difference is that unlike Dr Watson, it is Utterson rather than Jekyll who is doing the detective work. He is piecing the clues together through the first eight chapters of the novel, and the reader shares in his puzzlements, as they share in his final discovery of the key to the mystery in chapters nine and ten.

But is Utterson the hero of the novel? That depends upon what we mean by ‘hero’. If we mean someone who has many admirable characteristics, then Utterson suits this description better than Jekyll. Utterson proves himself to be a loyal, brave and self-disciplined gentleman: in many respects, one could argue that he is a model of Victorian morality, in contrast to Jekyll, whose rebellion against accepted moral standards leads to his destruction.

In this opening paragraph, Stevenson takes some care to characterise the man who will be keeping the reader company for much of the narrative. A key to his personality is his reserve. He speaks rarely and never smiles. His undemonstrative personality will be crucial to his role in the story as it unfolds. Utterson is a man who can be trusted with secrets, and his discreet attitude to any information that relates to his friends is symbolised by the safe in which he locks Jekyll’s will, and later the letter which purports to be from Hyde, but which he believes to have been forged on his behalf by Jekyll. Strictly speaking, this letter should have been handed to the police, as potential evidence in a murder case, but Utterson’s loyalty to his friends, even his friends who are ‘downgoing men’, means that he would rather lock their secrets away than reveal them to anyone.

Stevenson also emphasises Utterson’s self-discipline in the extract. He deliberately drinks gin (which was particularly cheap in 1886) and avoids fine wine in order to ‘mortify’ his appetites. This private act of self-restraint illustrates a larger point about his character: he will not follow selfish impulses, which once again makes him a contrast to Dr Jekyll, who pampers his selfish nature through his ‘adventures’ as Hyde, whose ‘every act and thought centred on self’. Later in the novel, we witness Utterson restraining his desires in a more serious matter, when he is tempted to open Lanyon’s narrative before the death of Jekyll, but he overcomes this temptation, and locks the narrative in his safe. In contrast to Jekyll, who seeks a ‘solution of the bonds of obligation’ by becoming Hyde, Utterson obeys the ‘stringent obligations’ of ‘professional honour and faith to his dead friend’.

Stevenson also makes clear in his opening that Utterson reserves judgement. He avoids passing judgement on ‘downgoing men’, and is ‘inclined to help rather than to reprove’. As a result, he manages to maintain friendly relations with them, and maintain the hope of being a ‘good influence’ upon them. As the narrative unfolds, we see this characteristic amply illustrated in his determination to maintain his friendship with Jekyll, whatever his reservations about the connection with Hyde, and despite the strange behaviour of his friend. His offers of help are rebuffed by Jekyll in Chapter Two, but he renews them in Chapter Five, after the murder of Carew, when he agrees to take the letter from Hyde. He even begins to see the link between Jekyll and Hyde in a better light when he reads the letter. He is eager to look for the best in others and avoid judging them unless he has conclusive evidence, a characteristic which is underlined by his profession as a lawyer.

Finally, Stevenson leaves the reader in no doubt of Utterson’s courage. This is most clearly illustrated in Chapter Eight, where Utterson must confront a man whom he believes to be a murderer, armed with only a poker. Even the reserved Utterson is described as ‘very pale’ after he hears the voice of Hyde coming from the cabinet, but he masters his emotions and agrees to break into the cabinet with Poole, then calmly goes about searching for evidence following their discovery of the body of Hyde.

In conclusion, it is certainly possible to see Utterson as the hero of the novel, due to his loyalty, generosity, courage and self-discipline. Perhaps we could see the novel as having two heroes. The doomed Jekyll is its tragic hero, destined as he is to be destroyed by his self-indulgence and his misuse of power. Just as in Shakespeare’s tragedies there are always characters who obey moral laws and restore order, so in Stevenson’s tragedy Utterson fulfils this role. But Utterson is considerably more interesting as a character than the typical Shakespearean restorer of order. Utterson may seem rather stiff to modern readers, yet he remains ‘somehow lovable’.

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