In the last few decades of nineteenth century Victorian England, the moral disposition that Queen Victoria had ushered in with her rule began to be challenged. Individuals questioned the authenticity of morality in both public and private life. It is not a mistake that two literary works close in time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) both present characters who fail miserably to control the evil inherit in their own hearts.
Stevenson’s work presents a man named Dr. Jekyll who concocts a potion that transforms him into a hideous being: Mr. Hyde. Up to this point, the local officials, including the narrator, Mr. Utterson, have searched for Edward Hyde, wanting to prosecute him for crimes he’s committed in London (the beating of a little girl and murder of an old man). One night, they discover Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Dr. Jekyll’s lab coat, and a slip of paper containing Jekyll’s full confession.
In his narrative, Jekyll explains how he felt with his dual identity:
“Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believe to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome.” (Stevenson 64)
Jekyll has two sides to his personality; on the one hand, his refined, socially accepted persona “shines” with the aura of truth and righteousness that Victorian society so highly esteems. He desires good works for the benefit of the common good. Yet at the same time, this trait may be a mask at best, for his darker instinct, after he takes the potion, is “plainly” discernable. No one can mistake its identity. Its presence is undeniable. But does that mean that Jekyll’s upright character is merely a fabrication to deceive others as to his true intentions? Is Hyde a more accurate manifestation of the doctor’s soul? If he had been true to his holier side, he would have rejected the monster’s image outright, not “welcome” it as he does. It seems as if Hyde serves as a relief from social responsibilities; after using all his moral energies living up to the expectations of others, he finds pleasure in expressing what he’s kept hidden all along. His “idol” ego, the secret desire to be seen and worshipped by others, runs free at last, ready to experience the world.
Yet the monster leaves an imprint of “decay” on Jekyll’s features, hinting that disastrous consequences await the doctor who has decided to unleash his dark side. Jekyll still believes evil to be “the lethal side of man.” Both his own life and the lives of others soon become victim to the doctor’s wicked half. As his experiments with Hyde increase, Jekyll realizes that the situation has gotten out of hand. Knowing that his reputation as the morally upright doctor is in jeopardy, he seeks to undo what he has done. Jekyll says,
“I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensation of an approving conscience. But time at last began to obliterate the freshness of my alarm; the praises of conscience began to grow into a thing of course; I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as if Hyde struggling for freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.” (Stevenson 70)
When Jekyll attempts to repent from his past decisions, he finds that his efforts fail. Though living a more saintly life comforts his conscience, the desires he thought he had obliterated return full force, even stronger than the solace of a guiltless mind. In addition, his moral reformation soon becomes less attractive, a matter “of course.” Living free from remorse becomes a drudgerous, boring routine, exciting no fun in his life. Because of this, Hyde returns to wreak havoc on Jekyll’s life. Over the course of “time,” believes Jekyll, individuals regress back into their sinful ways, no matter how sincere their repentance. Trapped between two competing desires, Jekyll comes to the only conclusion that makes ultimate sense: suicide. He ends his narrative with the phrase, “Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (Stevenson 78). With the singular identity of “Henry Jekyll”, ironically, the depressed doctor struggles to rid himself of what he finds most repugnant even as secretly longs for it: a divided identity. Being hopelessly split in this way, he has no choice but to give up in despair.
Oscar Wilde’s tale of the youthful Dorian Gray is similar to Jekyll’s plight in many respects. Dorian, having a portrait of himself splendidly fashioned by a friend, Basil, wishes that his youth would never end. His desires stem from over-the-table conversations with another acquaintance, Lord Henry. Lord Henry encourages Dorian to view life as a Hedonist; the only aim of life is to live as freely as possible without any regard for morality or social constraint. At first, following Lord Henry’s philosophy proves enjoyable to Dorian but soon has its consequences. In his rush to live as wildly as possible, he breaks the heart of his girlfriend, Sibyll Vane. Sibyll commits suicide as a result, causing Dorian to seriously reflect on his decisions. Though he eventually dismisses his guilt concerning Sibyll, he soon becomes sucked into a whirlwind of licentiousness and debauchery, living like a man with no moral center whatsoever. But the strangest thing is that he never ages as he grows older. His youth remains as fresh as ever, as if he is magically enchanted.
And there soon arises another intriguing mystery for Dorian; Basil’s portrait, once showing Dorian’s beautiful features, now reveals a hideous likeness of Dorian containing putrid flesh and decay. Dorian decides to reveal this unpleasantness to Basil one night. Horrified at what he sees, Basil says, “ ‘Pray, Dorian, pray. What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also’” (Wilde 138). Basil believes that the portrait serves as a message: Dorian has lived an immoral life and is in need of salvation. His soul is in a corrupt state, destined for eternal damnation. For Basil, salvation is found in Christianity, where an individual repents from their sins and begins pursuing a holier existence. There is confidence in Basil that, though Dorian has indeed lived sinfully, he can just as easily reform his ways and become a better person.
Basil’s solution is so despicable in Dorian’s eyes, however, that he ends up killing Basil for even suggesting it. The narrator describes Dorian’s anger, “The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything” (Wilde 138-139). Basil’s worldview seeks to hunt down and destroy that which opposes it, naturally engendering anger in what defends it. Dorian seems to suggest that when people are preyed upon due to their natural instincts, they’ll rebel. When individuals are constrained they sense danger and respond in self-defense. Otherwise, they will lose touch with their true selves. Dorian confesses to Basil that there is a “heaven and a hell” in all of us, complimenting Jekyll’s symbolic division with Hyde. He may feel horrified at the portrait’s grotesqueness, but that is not enough to change his mind about how he lives.
Only time will do that, just like time changed the disposition of Jekyll into returning to his sinful slavery. But in Dorian’s case, time leads him, long after Basil’s murder, to reconsider his actions, not to relish them. He even begins to give the Bible credit as he has his final conversation with Lord Henry, blaming him for his destructive philosophy, and warning him with a rhetorical question: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” The words of Christ confirm to Dorian that he has been wrong all along, that there are real and lasting consequences to the choices he has made. The young man comes to the conclusion that he must reform himself. At least until the book’s end.
Dorian arrives at the secret chamber where Basil was murdered. He thinks about his decision. The narrator says, “In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self. He recognized that now. But this murder-was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never” (Wilde 191). After finally assessing his situation, Dorian defends his evil ways: as a respectable man in society he was merely being an untrustworthy hypocrite, saying one thing and doing another. He wasn’t being true to himself. And the only reason he wanted to be good was in hope of possible pleasure, which he never received. Confessing to Basil’s murder would be an insult to his true nature, an insult to why he is the way he is. There is no need for reformation. In his anger, Dorian destroys the picture, for it reminds him of his intolerable secrets. But in so doing, he kills himself, revealing a magical connection between Dorian the portrait and Dorian the actual man. In dismantling the picture, Dorian dismantled his own persona.
What do we glean from both of these literary classics concerning the matter of freedom and restraint? One side stands for the desire to be morally and ethically pure, a blessing not only to one’s own self but also to others. It is one’s duty to be socially responsible and to follow the ways of truth and righteousness. But then again, this quest can grow wearisome to the one who wants to experience life to the fullest, the individual whose only happiness consists in being as free from unnecessary rules as possible. Conflict ensues when desires change, putting people in perpetual mazes. The struggle is desperate. We either accept ourselves as the mysteries we are, or, in our attempt to be singular and perfect, destroy ourselves. Jekyll cannot live without Hyde and vice versa. The only conclusion is that we must learn to live with ourselves, for if we don’t, then we set up our own demise.