Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde · Reading skills

The Importance of Envelopes in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

victorian-envelope-interesting-letter_360_02aebf049fb5833eef935bfe1915284eThis is the second in my blog posts about the importance of ‘things’ in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (see here for the first one on ‘lamp posts’!) Inspired by ‘thing’ theory, these posts attempt to delve deeper into the meaning and symbolism of various objects in the novella. This time, it is the turn of the envelope. In the novella, envelopes contain all kinds of enigmas, some of them official documents, others are notes from old friends. They pass through various hands and seem to grow as the novella progresses to the point that the last envelope contains all the stories that will allow Utterson (and the reader) to piece together the mystery. This extract is taken from ‘The Last Night’:

On the desk, among the neat array of papers, a large envelope was uppermost, and bore, in the doctor’s hand, the name of Mr. Utterson. The lawyer unsealed it, and several enclosures fell to the floor. The first was a will, drawn in the same eccentric terms as the one which he had returned six months before, to serve as a testament in case of death and as a deed of gift in case of disappearance; but in place of the name of Edward Hyde, the lawyer, with indescribable amazement read the name of Gabriel John Utterson. He looked at Poole, and then back at the paper, and last of all at the dead malefactor stretched upon the carpet.

“My head goes round,” he said. “He has been all these days in possession; he had no cause to like me; he must have raged to see himself displaced; and he has not destroyed this document.”

He caught up the next paper; it was a brief note in the doctor’s hand and dated at the top. “O Poole!” the lawyer cried, “he was alive and here this day. He cannot have been disposed of in so short a space; he must be still alive, he must have fled! And then, why fled? and how? and in that case, can we venture to declare this suicide? O, we must be careful. I foresee that we may yet involve your master in some dire catastrophe.”

“Why don’t you read it, sir?” asked Poole.

“Because I fear,” replied the lawyer solemnly. “God grant I have no cause for it!” And with that he brought the paper to his eyes and read as follows:

“My dear Utterson,—When this shall fall into your hands, I shall have disappeared, under what circumstances I have not the penetration to foresee, but my instinct and all the circumstances of my nameless situation tell me that the end is sure and must be early. Go then, and first read the narrative which Lanyon warned me he was to place in your hands; and if you care to hear more, turn to the confession of

“Your unworthy and unhappy friend,


“There was a third enclosure?” asked Utterson.

“Here, sir,” said Poole, and gave into his hands a considerable packet sealed in several places.

The lawyer put it in his pocket. “I would say nothing of this paper. If your master has fled or is dead, we may at least save his credit. It is now ten; I must go home and read these documents in quiet; but I shall be back before midnight, when we shall send for the police.”

The envelope is a container of secrets and its symbolic significance to the novel should not be underestimated. Firstly, the envelope serves several purposes: the word itself derives from the French enveloppe meaning ‘to wrap around’. It is rich with layers of meaning:  to be enveloped by something or someone is an intensely emotional, physical, sensual and even erotic feeling. We can be enveloped in fog, alienated from our surroundings, our visual senses rendered inadequate by a natural, ethereal and diaphanous envelope; a lover’s arms can envelope us, help us to feel safe and loved, wanted, desired; a mysterious stranger, enveloped in a black cloak, standing silhouetted against a full moon; or an army, enveloping a village, threatening its very existence. And the envelope, what delights that can contain: unwanted bills; threatening letters; missives from a lover; explosive packages filled with hate and death.

There is something intrinsically tactile about the envelope: one has to fold documents to insert them into the pocket; in their many guises they are held shut by a seal which might be wax or a gummed strip. It is easy to see them as metaphors for secrets, for hidden identities, for stories within stories. Its physical construction resembles a pouch, and of course one can easily extrapolate from this the notion of the envelope as a womb, where something is born: ideas, conversation, love, hate, memories …

The documents within this envelope reveal all of Jekyll’s secrets, and from them the story of his compact with evil unfolds itself to Utterson. The envelope within an envelope is like a labyrinthine narrative exploration into the dark heart of Jekyll’s soul, Russian dolls of secrets within secrets. And of course, the labyrinth is a mythical, archetypal space of danger, death and desire. Theseus’ quest is not more than just a monster hunt. The minotaur was himself a hidden secret, the bastard, unnatural child of the union between Pasiphae and a Cretan bull, rejected by his mother and her husband, Minos, the hybrid beast is imprisoned in a complex labyrinth and fed the flesh of innocent youth.

At the centre of this labyrinth of envelopes is a similar story of hidden secrets, unnatural births and rejection. The minotaur’s hybridity, half-human, half-animal, is echoed in Hyde’s atavism. He is compared regularly to an ape (“ape-like fury”, “ape-like tricks”, “ape-like spite”); he is “something troglodytic” and “bestial”.

Furthermore, Utterson and Poole’s final encounter with Jekyll/Hyde involves a labyrinthine search into the dark heart of Jekyll’s lair, his living space itself resembling a physical envelope. Here is Utterson’s description from the chapter entitled ‘The Last Night’:

The far greater proportion of the building was occupied by the theatre, which filled almost the whole ground storey and was lighted from above, and by the cabinet, which formed an upper storey at one end and looked upon the court. A corridor joined the theatre to the door on the by-street; and with this the cabinet communicated separately by a second flight of stairs. There were besides a few dark closets and a spacious cellar. All these they now thoroughly examined. Each closet needed but a glance, for all were empty, and all, by the dust that fell from their doors, had stood long unopened. The cellar, indeed, was filled with crazy lumber, mostly dating from the times of the surgeon who was Jekyll’s predecessor; but even as they opened the door they were advertised of the uselessness of further search, by the fall of a perfect mat of cobweb which had for years sealed up the entrance. Nowhere was there any trace of Henry Jekyll, dead or alive.

Stevenson’s description of Jekyll’s laboratory has a geometric precision about it, with the various connecting passages contributing to a feeling of spatial disorientation. The cobwebs and dust add to the sense of this being the lair of a beast, creating an atmosphere of peril, mystery and dread. At the centre of these catacombs is of course Jekyll/Hyde, the beast that lies in waiting. This is not the first time we have encountered a labyrinth in the novel: Stevenson refers to the ‘labyrinths of the lamplighted city’ during the description of Utterson’s dream earlier in the book, at the centre of which is the faceless horror that Utterson believes to be Mr Hyde. What is interesting, however, is that it is not a living thing that Utterson and Poole find at the heart of this labyrinth, but a packet of letters, bearing Utterson’s own name and containing the solution to the mystery of Henry Jekyll’s disappearance. Is there something symbolic about Utterson finding, at the centre of this web of horror, an envelope bearing his name?

Utterson’s name itself refers to the act of speaking –the verb ‘to utter’, an utterance, an act of speaking. As an adjective, it suggests absoluteness, completeness; dig a little deeper and it means to put forged money into circulation. It derives from the old English ‘utera’ (meaning ‘outer’) itself a variation on the Dutch word ‘uiteren’ which means ‘to make known’, or in Shakespeare ‘to expel, put forth’. Etymologically, it can also convey a sense of being out of place, extreme, excessive. There is something abject about the notion of these meanings of ‘utter’, a thing that is expelled and alien. Of course, ‘Utterson’ also reminds us of ‘uterus’, a place where all humans are born and itself an anatomical labyrinth (in fact, Freud sees the labyrinth as representative of ‘anal birth’ (“the twisting paths are the bowels and Ariadne’s thread is the umbilical cord”). I quite like the idea of Utterson being a doppelganger of Jekyll – both men repressing their own desires. Perhaps this is why Utterson fails to see a face in his dream, for it is his own face that he fears seeing. Utterson himself is a metaphor for the dark secrets of Victorian society (and much has been made of the possible homoeroticism in the novella of course); he is both repulsed and fascinated by Jekyll’s story. It may well be that Stevenson, in naming Utterson thus, was suggesting there was more to him than meets the eye.

Perhaps this gives us a clue to the importance of Utterson seeing his own name on the envelopes situated at the heart of Jekyll’s labyrinth. Utterson as a man of upright sensibility is the epitome of the Victorian gentleman who represses his own inhibitions and desires. The sight of his own name on the envelope is itself the writing on the wall (another phrase used in the book, referring to a Biblical warning of impending doom) for Utterson – a sort of Dantesque ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’. Buried then within the labyrinth of envelopes is a warning to the curious, to the Victorian obsession with discovery and exploration; to their breaking down of the barriers between the old and the new, religion and science, the rational and the irrational.

Envelopes then are more than a mere narrative device, a cipher. Instead, they function to lead the reader into the many circles of Jekyll’s hell; they are a metaphor for the multi-layered narrative threads; they act as a symbol of containers of secrets, womb-like, bearing monstrous secrets.

Or they might just be envelopes.

Of course, I could also talk about the envelope as a symbol of mass production, of the rise of technology, and of the subjugation of humans to machinery. It’s a bit of a stretch, but for the association we can thank Karl Marx. In Das Kapital, Marx refers to the making of the envelope as a pure example of the changing face of the means of production.

But that’s for another time!

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Envelopes in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

  1. My favourite literary (and cinematic) device: the mise-en-abîme (sometimes spelled mise-en-abyme). Frames within frames, reflections of reflections …


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