Jekyll and Hyde reflects a great deal of the concerns of late Victorian England, a period of time which has come to be called ‘fin-de-siecle’ which means ‘end of the century’. It was a time of great changes in science, criminology, medicine, society and art. Established ideas of religion, sexuality, and ‘man’s’ place in society came to be questioned, causing a great deal of uncertainty at the time.
Written in 1886, the novel is part of what has come to be called late Victorian Gothic which gave birth to a number of great novels, amongst them Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. There is a fantastic web-site here which tells you all about this:
It was also a period which was called decadent – this is a term used to describe a society in decay and here referred to the idea of excess and degeneration. Oscar Wilde and other artists called the pre-Raphaelites seemed to sum up this idea of excess: they believed in art for art’s sake and rejoiced in the sensual aspects of life. This is quite different from the earlier Victorians with their reputation for being repressed and proper. It was also a period of experimentation – socially, sexually, artistically. Drugs and opium dens found their way into literature too – particularly in the Sherlock Holmes novels.
So put Jekyll and Hyde into the mix and you can see just how the novel reflects these concerns. Drugs? Check. Suggestions of homosexuality? Check. The dangers of modern scientific experiments? Darwin’s theory of evolution, with the atavistic Hyde representing Jekyll’s degeneration? Check.
Two years after the publication of Jekyll and Hyde, the Jack the Ripper murders caused terror and panic amongst the people of London. There was even a suggestion that the book influenced the killings. Many theories about the true identity of the Ripper point to him being a professional man, a doctor,a man of science, a politician. There was even a theory that he might have been a member of the Royal family. If so, the idea that a well respected man could commit terrible crimes seems to chime with the idea of deception, duplicity and double lives in Jekyll and Hyde.
Next up – Dr Jekyll and Gothic