Academic | Essay Contest
Jeffrey Daniel O'Brien
Samuel Johnson once said that "By seeing London, I have seen as much of life that the world can show." Though Robert Louis Stevenson grew up in Edinburgh and never lived in the British capital, all of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde takes place in London. True to Johnson's quote, Stevenson presents a broad range of humanity in describing only a few of the city's inhabitants. What allows Stevenson to accomplish this so efficiently is his ability to use the setting to establish the tone, foreshadow events, and develop characters' personalities. His description of London's neighborhoods and the houses within them reinforces his novella's themes of secrecy and man's divided nature.
The first chapter of Dr. Jekyll is titled the "Story of a Door." In essence, the entire novel could be characterized as a story about doors. Doors are barriers, and they introduce an element of secrecy to the work. The purpose of doors in Dr. Jekyll is to keep others from knowing what lies within; they are a way of hiding the truth under the cover of false appearances. Dr. Jekyll is certainly a man of doors, and the description of his seemingly ordinary door is quite meaningful. "The door& wore a great air of wealth and comfort, though it was now plunged in darkness except for the fan-light" (40). Clearly this is representative of Dr. Jekyll's dual nature. The Jekyll side of his character is represented by the door's "air of wealth and comfort;" Jekyll's name garners the respect and admiration of English society. Yet he is a man "plunged in darkness." The Hyde side of his characterhidden behind the cover of doorsbrings an evil darkness into his life, chasing away the light of Jekyll's goodness. Through the symbol of doors, Stevenson introduces the theme of good versus evil, of opposites battling within an individual, without revealing the mystery of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The door provides the first clue to the suspicious events of the novel and triggers Mr. Utterson's curiosity. His interest in Jekyll's door eventually leads him to the tear down Dr. Jekyll's locked door with an ax, and he finally learns the truth of Jekyll's character. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, doors are the great secret keepers; they represent man's desire to hide his true nature from others. Still, the description of the doors is only one way Stevenson develops his message through the physical setting.
Another very important aspect of the book's setting is the London fog. Foggy weather is synonymous with life in London; it is a natural part of living by the sea. But in Stevenson's book, the fog takes on a much deeper meaning. It is present in many of the major scenes in the book, and Stevenson even describes the mist as a "fallen cloud" with lapsarian implications (53). Fog obscures sight and, accordingly, introduces elements of mystery and evil into the story. Fog is especially present when Dr. Utterson visits the homes of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hyde lives in a dangerous part of Soho that is shrouded in fog. Stevenson even suggests that the lamps are left on all day to combat the blackness of Hyde's surroundings; pure light (and the goodness it represents) does not shine there. Clearly, this has meaning beyond the literal level. Through his description of the fog and blackness, Stevenson creates an unsavory atmosphere around Mr. Hyde and adds to the ill feelings and repulsion associated with Sir Danvers' murderer. But even more telling, Dr. Jekyll's house is surrounded by the same fog, suggesting the connection between Jekyll and Hyde. As Jekyll grows more ill and his secret identity begins to consume his life, the mysterious fog begins to enter his home. It represents Dr. Jekyll's hidden life, his compulsion to keep his true identity from others. His home has become a place of secrecy. Fog's negative associations add to the darkness of the novel and hint at the evil that lies underneath Dr. Jekyll's fašade.
Another important element of Dr. Jekyll's physical setting is the description of the Doctor's home. Late in the piece, when Mr. Utterson and Poole come to solve the mystery of Dr. Jekyll's illness, Stevenson provides a full description of Dr. Jekyll's house. Like Jekyll himself, it is divided into two opposite halves. The good, "Jekyll" side is a typical English home, comfortably furnished and inviting. This is where Poole and the other servants, those who are still moral and good, reside. This portion of the home is separated from the other by a garden, a literal dividing line between good and evil. The evil, "Hyde" portion of Jekyll's home is his laboratory, full of scientific equipment and chemicals. It is where Jekyll performed his evil experiments and where he has locked up the beastly Hyde. The description of Jekyll's home is significant to Stevenson's themes in multiple ways. First, it shows Jekyll's and, by extension, man's desire to hide their darker qualities. Jekyll's lab is separated from the rest of his home, and no one, not even his trusted servants, is allowed to enter. This demonstrates man's desire to hide his shortcomings from others. But the division of the house has an even more significant meaning. Jekyll, in one of his last acts of sanity, locks himself inside his laboratory. On the literal level, he does this to protect his servants from Mr. Hyde, but it also symbolizes Jekyll's attempt to avoid his greatest fear. If Hyde can gain control over the entire house, over Jekyll's dual character, then he has gained ultimate control over Mr. Jekyll's soul. By locking himself in his laboratory, Dr. Jekyll insures that Mr. Hyde cannot win. Jekyll secures the ultimate victory for good by sacrificing himself and protecting the world from Mr. Hyde's evil. Without an understanding of Jekyll's home, the meaning of Stevenson's work is entirely different. It seems that evil wins by taking over Jekyll's body. Yet a thorough understanding of the physical setting reveals that goodness wins a subtle victory.
Clearly, the physical setting within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adds to the greater meaning of the work. Ranging from the description of an ordinary London door to the intricacies of Dr. Jekyll's architecture, the landscape of the piece serves to reinforce Robert Louis Stevenson's message about secrecy and internal division, about the conflict between good and evil.