Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Duality of Human Nature

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde centers upon a conception of humanity as dual in nature, although the theme does not emerge fully until the last chapter, when the complete story of the Jekyll-Hyde relationship is revealed. Therefore, we confront the theory of a dual human nature explicitly only after having witnessed all of the events of the novel, including Hyde’s crimes and his ultimate eclipsing of Jekyll. The text not only posits the duality of human nature as its central theme but forces us to ponder the properties of this duality and to consider each of the novel’s episodes as we weigh various theories.

Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two,” and he imagines the human soul as the battleground for an “angel” and a “fiend,” each struggling for mastery. But his potion, which he hoped would separate and purify each element, succeeds only in bringing the dark side into being—Hyde emerges, but he has no angelic counterpart. Once unleashed, Hyde slowly takes over, until Jekyll ceases to exist. If man is half angel and half fiend, one wonders what happens to the “angel” at the end of the novel.

Perhaps the angel gives way permanently to Jekyll’s devil. Or perhaps Jekyll is simply mistaken: man is not “truly two” but is first and foremost the primitive creature embodied in Hyde, brought under tentative control by civilization, law, and conscience. According to this theory, the potion simply strips away the civilized veneer, exposing man’s essential nature. Certainly, the novel goes out of its way to paint Hyde as animalistic—he is hairy and ugly; he conducts himself according to instinct rather than reason; Utterson describes him as a “troglodyte,” or primitive creature.

Yet if Hyde were just an animal, we would not expect him to take such delight in crime. Indeed, he seems to commit violent acts against innocents for no reason except the joy of it—something that no animal would do. He appears deliberately and happily immoral rather than amoral; he knows the moral law and basks in his breach of it. For an animalistic creature, furthermore, Hyde seems oddly at home in the urban landscape. All of these observations imply that perhaps civilization, too, has its dark side.

Ultimately, while Stevenson clearly asserts human nature as possessing two aspects, he leaves open the question of what these aspects constitute. Perhaps they consist of evil and virtue; perhaps they represent one’s inner animal and the veneer that civilization has imposed. Stevenson enhances the richness of the novel by leaving us to look within ourselves to find the answers.

Read more about the theme of human nature in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The Temptation of Curiosity

Throughout the course of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, many characters face the choice to either adhere to the socially-approved constructs of dignity and reason or succumb to the temptation of curiosity. The “curiosities” featured in the novella range from an interest in mysticism and the supernatural to unexplored behaviors, both of which present a direct challenge to the Victorian ethics that serve as the narrative’s backdrop. This rigid moral code, which emphasizes the importance of a respectable public identity, personal repression, and preserving order, heightens the degree of temptation that an exploration of the unknown can invite. The notion of temptation itself even goes against Victorian sensibilities as it involves giving in to some form of internal desire. As a result, the temptation of curiosity poses a significant threat to the stability of the novella’s world.

The most obvious example of this theme is Jekyll’s desire and ability to create Hyde. In this scenario, Jekyll succumbs to two different temptations, one being a longing to act on his suppressed, morally-questionable thoughts and the other being his scientific curiosity. Both of these interests lead to his creation of Hyde, and although this development satisfies him for a time, Hyde ultimately becomes Jekyll’s fatal flaw. This outcome seems to suggest that while there are possibilities beyond the limited world-view that Victorian London embraces, pursuing those possibilities can be dangerous and destructive. The horrific outcome of Jekyll’s experiments reflects the era’s anxieties about the emergence of new forms of science and new ways of thinking. 

Although their close adherence to Victorian values influences their behavior, Mr. Utterson and Dr. Lanyon also face the temptations of curiosity, and Stevenson’s primary focus on their perspectives creates a similar experience for the reader as well. Mr. Utterson continually attempts to offer to others logical explanations for the strange circumstances surrounding Jekyll, but privately, he allows his imagination to take over. He has nightmares, for example, about what Hyde might do after Mr. Enfield tells him the story of Hyde and the little girl. Similarly, Dr. Lanyon strictly adheres to known, material sciences but lets his curiosity get the best of him when he stays to watch Hyde transform back into Jekyll, a choice which leads to his death. These private submissions to the temptation of curiosity reveal that even those who appear to uphold Victorian ethics cannot fully resist the draw of the unknown. This concept is one that Stevenson ultimately creates for the reader as they make their way through the text. Telling the story from a third person limited point of view works to build suspense and intrigue, the reader’s curiosity finally satisfied when they reach the novella’s end. Stevenson ultimately seems to invite questions regarding the value of curiosity.

The Importance of Reputation

For the characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, preserving one’s reputation emerges as all important. The prevalence of this value system is evident in the way that upright men such as Utterson and Enfield avoid gossip at all costs; they see gossip as a great destroyer of reputation. Similarly, when Utterson suspects Jekyll first of being blackmailed and then of sheltering Hyde from the police, he does not make his suspicions known; part of being Jekyll’s good friend is a willingness to keep his secrets and not ruin his respectability. The importance of reputation in the novel also reflects the importance of appearances, facades, and surfaces, which often hide a sordid underside. In many instances in the novel, Utterson, true to his Victorian society, adamantly wishes not only to preserve Jekyll’s reputation but also to preserve the appearance of order and decorum, even as he senses a vile truth lurking underneath.

Read more about the theme of reputation in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.