Academic | Essay Contest
Moonlight, Firelight, and Fog: Evocative Scenery in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a dark book, evocative and atmospheric. Part of its power comes from the luminous scenery painted by Robert Louis Stevenson. He uses moonlit nights, cheering firelight, and cloying fog to enhance the themes that are developed by the book's events. Revelation, refuge, and evil itself are all evoked by the intricate backdrops Stevenson creates in this novel.
A clear, cold, yet brightly illumined night: several scenes take place on a night like this. In each, the lonely night is a vehicle for revealing truths that were previously hidden. Jekyll confesses that, as Hyde, "the constellations looked down upon me, I could have thought, with wonder, the first creature of that sort that their unsleeping vigilance had yet disclosed to them" (Stevenson, 107). On such a night, no character can escape the scrutiny of heaven. Utterson, after a long wait, finally catches a glimpse of Hyde on "a fine dry night; frost in the air; [...] the lamps, unshaken by any wind, drawing a regular pattern of light and shadow" (49). A similar night reveals Hydeand his shocking behaviorto Enfield. Such a night, too, reveals Hyde's worst crime. "Brilliantly lit by the full moon," it allows the maidservant to see the horrible murder of Sir Carew (59). In all these scenes, Stevenson uses a backdrop of a clear and lonely night to expose the true nature of his characters and their follies.
In contrast to the unforgiving illumination of the nighttime streets, the setting of a cozy, private room provides a safe haven for the characters. For Jekyll, trapped by his involuntary transformations, his cabinet room is literally his "last earthly refuge" (124). For Hyde, too, the rooms ("furnished with luxury and good taste") that Jekyll rents for him provide a place he can escape from view (63). For Utterson, his private rooms provide a different kind of safety. "The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city [...] But the room was gay with firelight" (68). Utterson's rooms provide a refuge for him from the sinister atmosphere of the day and a chance to collect his thoughts. His cheerful firelight dispels the dark influences of the strange events he has been witnessing. Also, all these cozy, ordinary rooms provide a stark contrast to the menacing image of Hyde, the personification of evil in this story. When his presence begins to invade even these sanctuaries, this very contrast increases the horror of it. Utterson usually feels at home in Jekyll's pleasant front room, "[b]ut tonight there was a shudder in his blood; the face of Hyde sat heavy on his memory [...] he seemed to read a menace in the flickering of the firelight" (53). Stevenson uses quiet, comforting, firelit chambers as settings of safety for his characters. When these rooms are invaded by the presence of evil, the symbolic tranquility of the scenery makes the invasion all the more terrible.
One of the last and most striking scenery elements that Stevenson uses is the dense, sinister, brown fog that arises after Hyde murders Sir Carew. It blots out the very sky"A great chocolate-coloured pall lower[s] over heaven" (62). It is not only sinister; it is also insidious. "[A] lamp was set lighted on the chimney shelf, for even in the houses the fog began to lie thickly" (66). It begins to invade every corner of the city, and it brings out the worst in its inhabitants. Under its influence, Utterson becomes "conscious of some touch of that terror of the law and the law's officers, which may at times assail the most honest" (62). The fog arises when Hyde reaches his most powerful and disappears as both Hyde and Jekyll are trapped and eventually die. Thus, Stevenson uses the fog to represent the same evil that Hyde embodies. It is a pernicious influence that creeps throughout the story, malevolent and frightening, but it gives way to a purer and more natural atmosphere in the end.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is about good and evil, about humanity and identity, about the moral choices a person must make. These themes are present in the events of the novel, but the poignancy with which Stevenson evokes them owes much to the settings he so deftly paints. A night becomes, in his hands, not just a night but a theater for revelations of truth and identity, for good to triumph because evil is revealed for what it truly is. In his hands, a gentleman's room, tastefully appointed, becomes a haven for its master, a representation of the safety and humanity that Hyde's evil increasingly endangers. In his hands, the dark miasma of London fog becomes something menacing and fey, an atmospheric manifestation of the same evil that forms Hyde. All of these scenic elements, juxtaposed, create the powerful, dark air of this book and etch deeply in a reader's mind its universal messages about humanity.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.