Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic of late Victorian Gothic. Just a glance at the little wordle I’ve created shows just how the novel fits neatly into this category. But for those of you not sure about what Gothic is then here’s a brief explanation.
Gothic was used to describe early horror stories which dealt with outrageous tales of mad Princes imprisoning their wives/enemies/family members in dark, dank dungeons with walls which dripped blood. Stories such as The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and others from the late 18th and early 19th century seemed to capture the imaginations of the public at large. Later on, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein laid down the foundations for modern Gothic, but it was an American living in Richmond, Virginia who would go on to make the Gothic his own. His name? Edgar Allan Poe. His short stories – The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Masque of the Red Death and The Tell-Tale Heart amongst others – updated the gothic, took it out of medieval castles (mostly) and made the horror very human. For Poe, the horror was in the psychology of the human mind, his protagonists driven insane by human emotions such as jealousy, desire and a hunger for power.
So what do we expect to find in a gothic story? Well, more than anything, gothic is about DECAY. Whilst the early gothic stories dealt with decaying bodies, decaying family lines, decaying castles and crypts, Poe’s stories – and the stories of the later Victorian gothic – tended to deal with the decay of the spirit, the soul, the mind – and even the decay of society.
So in the gothic story, expect to find:
- confinement and imprisonment – stories will have a claustrophobic feel to them (Poes’ The Cask of Amontillado has its protagonist wall up his rival and leaves him to die a terrible death)
- decaying and degenerating families and communities – the decline of families is common throughout Poe: see The Fall of the House of Usher. A modern cyber-gothic novel, Neuromancer by William Gibson also explores this theme. If you think about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also gothic.
- mad, isolated individuals – Psycho by Robert Bloch (or Alfred Hitchcock if you prefer)
- family curses and superstitions (Hound of the Baskervilles)
- locked rooms and prohibited spaces (I love the story of Bluebeard – check it out)
- buildings as the site of human decay (think Dracula’s castle, for example, or any haunted house narrative)
Take a look at this graphic which outlines some of the conventions of the gothic
Think about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. How does it fit this pattern? In fact, by applying these conventions, we can see how cleverly Stevenson both conforms to but also updates the gothic novel.
- Jekyll is the victim; but he is also the torturer in the form of Hyde who is associated with evil.
- A recurring motif throughout the novel is the labyrinth – particularly the laboratory within Jekyll’s house. Utterson also speaks of a labyrinth when he dreams about Hyde early in the novel. Locked doors, barred windows are all common motifs, too.
- The atmosphere is continually gloomy – just think of the way Stevenson returns to descriptions of fog and dark, silent streets.
- And of course, Jekyll is ‘fascinated’ by Hyde – or at least, that part of himself which rejoices in evil.
So there you have it – a fairly brief introduction to gothic and some ways in which Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde fits the gothic picture. Hope this helps.