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Dr. Jekyll's Humanism

Maricruz has associates degrees in English and Spanish. Analyzing literature is a favorite pastime.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by Robert Louise Stevenson and published in 1886, is a story about the music of the mind. It has endured a hundred and thirty-five years of interpretation and distortion. Filmmakers have brought a hundred and twenty-three films to the big screen since 1908 (Adaptations), and countless stage productions, radio skits, ‘references to’ and cartoons have littered the viewer’s psyche throughout the last century.

Motion picture starring Spencer Tracy, 1941

Motion picture starring Spencer Tracy, 1941

Is it any wonder that the story is somewhat of a catch phrase? Even the youngest children and the most modern people have some idea of what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is. But what exactly is he? The question has aroused the attention of elevated thought. Many theories subsequently sprung up proving and disproving a Jekyll/Hyde correlation in different fields of psychology, the most common of which are the Freudian id and addiction. It is a book fraught with shocking events and packed on layer upon layer of subtle symbolism, but more importantly it is humanistic psychology which is at the heart of the composition here.

The Theory of Addiction

Because humanism is not commonly spoken in the same breath as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the more traversed theories must be stated. Addiction is the most popular argument in a good Jekyll and Hyde debate. First and foremost, it is a matter of record that Stevenson was regrettably a lifelong addict himself of drugs like alcohol, cannabis, and opium due to his recurring difficulties with tuberculosis (Singh).

Robert Louis Stevenson, (November 13, 1850 - December 3, 1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson, (November 13, 1850 - December 3, 1894)

The use of these hallucinogenic drugs is what arguably prompted much of his darker work. It is therefore theorized that the book was an insultingly obvious display of the changes of character universally produced by addiction. An ingestion of the drug brings this change about and can be extremely insidious. Drug use can also be easily hidden from public perception (Clancey). Jekyll himself states that, “the power of the drug had not been always equally displayed…I had been obliged on more than one occasion to double, and once…to treble the amount,” (Stevenson 113). Is this not the nature of all drugs: more usage necessitates larger dosage? Stevenson would have known from personal experience that the body becomes accustomed to such substances. Another passage seems almost blatantly to announce addiction, “I began to be tortured with throes and longings…in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught. I do not suppose that, when a drunkard reasons with himself upon his vice, he is once out of five hundred times affected by the dangers that he runs through his brutish, physical insensibility,” (Stevenson, 115). Here there seems to be proof that Stevenson was writing about substance abuse. In reality, what disproves addiction entirely is that Stevenson was not a “hidden in plain sight” style of writer. He was a master of subtlety, placing much symbolism in his novels. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is full of metaphor, touching on virtually every aspect of the story and setting. Why would he suddenly adopt an entirely elementary way of expressing such a weighty subject? Perhaps it is because the story was not about mere physical addiction at all. Addiction factors in as a byproduct to the true topic, psychology. The drug was only a means of bringing about what was already present in a hidden place, hence the name Hyde: another metaphor. It is metaphoric of the “giving in” of a closet case. It was the freedom with which Hyde acted completely unbridled by conscience which Jekyll was addicted to.

The Theory of the Freudian Id

A psychological milestone, the Freudian id, presents the psychoanalytical equivalent of the popular addiction theory. It is generally thought to be Stevenson’s premise for this story by those who subscribe to a psychological interpretation. The theory is discussed in great length by the writer Vladimir Nobokov in a Jekyll and Hyde breakdown. Nobokov explains that though the Greek root of the name “Hyde” is expressive of a pocket of parasitic liquid in a person’s body, Hyde is not in fact separate from Jekyll (10). He is tightly laced within him. They are very much the same man as evidenced by Jekyll’s hypocrisy and inability to forgive (Nobokov, 10). Jekyll is upstanding and flawed as most all human beings are. What this story demonstrates is the super-ego, Jekyll, the ego, a kind of Jekyll residue whose reason is horrified, and the id which is base and instinctual, Hyde; the id normally being buried deep within the subconscious.


This diagram of sorts displays the generic pattern for most personality types: good, reasonable judgment, and bad are all fundamental elements of consciousness. Only in this tale, the undesirable bits of Jekyll are ejected into the world under the influence of a noxious drug (Nobokov, 11). A specific passage of Jekyll’s confession supports the Freudian theory. “I learned to recognize the duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date…I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin,” (Stevenson, 104-105). This can easily be interpreted as an interesting specimen of the Freudian id. It is not the business of this essay to disprove that; the Freudian perspective only helps to support an ultimately humanistic grand picture.

The Theory of Dualism

Dualism is, as well, largely referenced side by side with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This is a very old philosophical concept which suggests that there are opposing elements in the universe, material and essence. According to the ancient Greek take on dualism, consciousness is a two-part awareness consisting of an infinite soul confined in a finite body. This truth creates the natural friction which defines evil (Singh). Dualism also takes its place in a humanistic hypothesis that Jekyll is in fact neglecting his basic needs, the demands of his vessel, in an effort to conduct life in a way which his spirit dictates. These two opposite pulls ultimately destroy him.

A Metaphor for Humanism

Many of the factors which lead to Dr. Jekyll’s ultimate destruction can be categorized under Humanism, which is a relatively recent school of thought. Introduced in the 1950’s by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist with a Masters in experimental behaviorism, Humanism is rather innovative. Maslow believed in studying exceptionally sophisticated individuals in an effort to understand “healthy” mental anatomy.

Abraham Maslow, (April 1, 1908- June 8, 1970)

Abraham Maslow, (April 1, 1908- June 8, 1970)

Once familiarized with the natural inner-workings of the unafflicted human mind, he published a theory involving “Self-Actualization.” Maslow’s theory states that high functioning human beings have universal drives to better themselves and their connection to the world around them. We are therefore always subconsciously striving for perfection.

The term Self-Actualization refers to that point at which someone reaches his/her full possible potential (Ciccarelli, 366). But full potential is not static; in other words, what goes up must come down. Humanism suggests that this kind of perfection, though always sought, is only attainable during peak experiences - a moment in time when someone achieves that full potential or ideal self, only after having fulfilled all fundamental needs (Ciccarelli, 367). After reaching a peak experience, a person will then fall back down the pyramid of the Hierarchy of Needs based on the situation. The Needs Pyramid consists of eight levels of fundamental needs that every human possesses.


The demands of each level must be met before the next level of needs can manifest as wants or issues. The first two levels revolve around basic needs, like food, shelter, and safety. The next two are concerned with love, acceptance and esteem. The fifth level is a personal need to know and understand the world or environment. The sixth is a need to experience beauty and symmetry. The next level is Self-Actualization where one is completely fulfilled and reaches full potential, and the last level is one of legacy, or transcendence - the point at which someone wishes to help others reach Self-Actualization (Ciccarelli, 367). Maslow claimed that Self-Actualizing people exhibit certain characteristics such as awareness and acceptance of themselves, openness and spontaneity, the ability to enjoy work and see work as a mission to fulfill, the ability to develop close friendships without being overly dependent on other people, a good sense of humor, and the tendency to have peak experiences that are spiritually satisfying (Personality).

This is a psychological diagram of Dr. Jekyll’s affliction to begin with. He was, in reality, suffering from his own instinct to “Self-Actualize.” His drive to better himself was so overpowering it finally reached the point of obsession. His problem lay in the fact that he was not allowing himself to travel up the Needs Pyramid through the natural course of time and opportunity. He denied himself the fulfillment of the third and fourth level: the needs of love, acceptance and esteem. Without the essential fulfillment of these needs he could not travel any higher and that is what tortured him. He could not accept himself as he truly was. He makes this plain in his last confession, “And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public,” (Stevenson, 103). Acceptance of one’s self is key in having a healthy mental state, and this was Jekyll’s first display of Humanistic handicap.

Once Jekyll’s self-esteem began to decay his maturity, common sense, and true decency disappeared altogether. His guilt, coupled with his roaring unfulfilled needs, created Hyde. This is where Freud’s ingenious “id” fits in, as above mentioned. Jekyll’s lower nature was viciously monstrous due to years of denying himself and ‘hiding’ his true nature, even from himself:


“The pleasures which I made hate to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions, I was often plunged into a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity,” (Stevenson, 110). He resented the need to be good, yet still, even as such a stark concentration of depravity, still he needed acceptance. This is evidenced in Hyde’s attitude, “…but he loathed the necessity, he loathed the despondency into which Jekyll was now fallen, and he resented the dislike with which he was himself regarded. Hence the ape-like tricks that he would play me, scrawling in my own hand blasphemies, etc…” (Stevenson, 123). This is the behavior of a recalcitrant child who actually only needs love and acceptance, as well as discipline of course.

Some might point out that Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was published long before the founder of Humanism was even born. Though logical, such an argument is not broad enough for the profound writer. Louis Stevenson’s writing was a release of creativity unstoppable. What happened to Stevenson during the writing of this book is a prime example of the clarity of inspiration; a clarity quite capable of pioneering a profound psychological concept. Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, wrote this description in reference, “I don't believe that there was ever such a literary feat before as the writing of Dr Jekyll. I remember the first reading as though it were yesterday. Louis came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days,” (Strange..). The unique enthusiasm of mid-draft is one which easily grasps uncommon concepts and uncharted ideas. Universal truths and philosophical perspectives on life are all uncommonly clear when inspiration is at its highest. Stevenson was, simply, way before his time.


Creativity put aside, it is also theorized that this is a book about identity crisis, and the solution to any identity crisis would be to integrate the persona with the shadow. Jekyll could not do this in a natural way (Auclair). Jekyll’s situation furthers one of the most common psychological precincts: we must take care of ourselves before we can become better people. This is what the story is truly about. It is about humanity, and everything that entails. In reality, any way in which the story is presented, be it addiction, duality, identity crisis or psycho-pathology, it can be simplified to one statement. The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde states simply that we must learn to bend a little or we’ll break. This is why it has drawn so much fascination from around the world: “Much of the interest in Stevenson’s tale lies in its status as a moral allegory about the human character, not as an exploration of Jekyll’s uniquely conflicted psyche,” (Stern).

Works Cited

Auclair, Marie. “Psychological Interpretation.” Interpretations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 29 Apr. 1996. Web. 18 May 2013.

Ciccarelli, S. K. & White, J. N. Psychology. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2009. Print.

Clancey, John. “General Interpretation.” Interpretations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 29 Apr. 1996. Web. 18 May 2013.

Nobokov, Vladimir. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By Stevenson. New York: New American Library, 2003. Print

n.p. “Adaptations of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Wikipedia. 5 May. Web. 18 May 2013

n.p. “Personality – Humanistic Theories.” SparkNotes LLC, 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013

n.p. “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Wikipedia. 18 May 2013. Web. 18 May 2013.

Singh, Shubh, and Subho Chakrabarti. "A Study in Dualism: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Indian Journal of Psychiatry 50.3 (2008): 221-3. ProQuest. Web. 18 May 2013.

Stern, Simon. Rev. of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louise Stevenson. Vol. 18 No. 4 Apr. 2008. Pp. 356-359. Web. 18 May. 2013.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” New York: New American Library, 2003. Print.


Deborah Minter from U.S, California on August 20, 2021:

Fascinating tale of the human psyche! This analysis is a wonderful breakdown of the intriguing novel.

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