Academic | Essay Contest

Elizabeth Faiella

Elizabeth Faiella "Such unscientific balderdash...would have estranged Damon and Pythias." (15)

Are the mortal and the immortal doomed to be divided? Does a bridge exist between the world of reason and the world of the supernatural? Can and should such a bridge be crossed by scientific means? These are the questions that Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde battle over, the questions that tore their friendship apart a decade before the story begins. Lanyon, the epitome of reason and logic in science, dismisses the value of "transcendental medicine," (70) while Jekyll, himself an unhappy victim of the collision of scientific and spiritual worlds, bitterly accuses Lanyon of "the most narrow and material views." (70)

The relationship between the two doctors, however, is enigmatic—much less is spoken about their scientific and moral disagreements than is subtly implied. When we first meet Jekyll, it is in the form of the strange and unearthly Hyde, whose very descriptions are written in terms of the supernatural. He is "hellish" (8) and "damnable," (10) is compared to Satan (9), is called an "extraordinary looking man," (12) and is marked by an aura of uncanny hostility that repulses all who see him or speak with him; already, we connect Jekyll's alter ego with the paranormal. Conversely, our first encounter with Lanyon finds him to be as normal and down-to-earth as Hyde was unearthly—where Hyde is extraordinary, Lanyon is unquestionably ordinary. Lanyon is "hearty, healthy, dapper, red-faced" and has a "boisterous and decided manner," (14) qualities that are as far from Hyde's mysterious, threatening behavior as they could be. Through this descriptive language, Stevenson highlights differences in character and appearance that are symbolic of deep dissimilarity in approaches to science and morality—Jekyll does not hesitate to straddle the line between the mortal and the immortal, while Lanyon is firmly rooted in mortality and natural laws.

This disparity is underscored by Lanyon's decline into illness and emotional instability in the weeks after witnessing Hyde's disturbing transformation into Jekyll. Seeing the rational and the spiritual come together through science shakes the very basis on which he has built his life and his scientific philosophy—reason, predictability, natural laws. The realization that science can connect man with the supernatural—that Jekyll's theories are correct—is too much for Lanyon, and he "shall never recover" (39) from the shock of it. Speaking to Utterson, he uses phrases such as "for God's sake" and "in God's name;" (40) he can no longer escape the spiritual world, and, now that he must look it in the face, his own death is certain.

Not only do the two men differ in what they view as a morally appropriate approach to science; Stevenson hints at conflicts over the nature of evil as well. While Jekyll meddles with and attempts to manipulate evil in his experiments and is limited not by moral trepidation but by concern for his own safety, Lanyon sees this as "moral turpitude" that he "cannot, even in memory, dwell on...without a start of horror." (71) Jekyll sees evil as something almost tangible, which can be worked with and experimented on in just the same manner as he might test chemicals in his laboratory. For a while, he sees it as a means to escape the upstanding and well-regarded Jekyll and become Hyde, liberated from moral compunction of any sort. (79) When Lanyon but hears of this duality, he avers that he "cannot bring [his] mind to set on paper" (70) such a nonchalant interaction with evil. Trifling with evil, Lanyon believes, is neither practical nor moral; hence the shock and distress brought on by his bizarre and horrifying encounter with the transformed Jekyll.

At the conclusion of Stevenson's dark and disturbing tale, neither viewpoint is found to hold complete truth. Although Stevenson makes it clear that Lanyon is wrong to believe contact with the spiritual world through science was impossible, Jekyll himself finds that he was wrong to think it possible to harness the supernatural. Both deaths are symbolic—with Lanyon dies the idea that science must be subordinate to the spiritual; with Jekyll, the prospect of the spiritual being subordinated to science. Damon and Pythias, separated by scientific perspective, are brought together by death.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995.


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