A Black Sneering Coolness: Reflections On The Nature of Evil From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

What is evil really? Webster’s defines it thus: morally bad or wrong; wicked. Causing ruin, injury or pain; harmful. Characterized by anger or spite; malicious. I can tell you for certain that evil is alive and well, but it is not a particularly popular axiom.

There are some men who have dared to admit the truth. Man indeed faces a great struggle, a war within the soul and a war against the soul by others. Robert Louis Stevenson in his story “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” describes the duality that resides in man. Speaking as Dr. Jekyll he says, ‘It was on the moral side and in my own person that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man. I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could be rightly said to be either, it was only because I was radically both. Describing the struggle that men face he says, “It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together, that in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins should be continually struggling.”Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll wished to escape the struggle of fighting against his warring natures, so he sought to separate himself by drinking an experimental potion. The potion would transform Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll could thus maintain two identities. As Dr. Henry Jekyll he would remain a co-mingling of good and evil, a doctor who chose to restrain his evil impulses to live a moral, respectable and upright life. Hyde, however, would be pure evil. In Hyde he could engage his evil nature to the fullest. Jekyll notes, “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 of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.” Thus Mr. Hyde was “born.”

All who met Hyde were repulsed by him. One man who collared Hyde after Hyde had just run down a child said of him: “He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought the sweat out on me like running.” He described him as having a “black, sneering coolness.” Mr Utterson. Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer friend, sought Hyde out. He desired to see who the upright Dr. Jekyll had left his fortune to. After laying eyes on him he said of Hyde, “O my poor Henry Jekyll! If ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend!”

Dr. Jekyll describes his transformation into Hyde: “There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, happier, lighter in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown, but not innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself at first breath to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and that thought in that moment braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations and in the act I was suddenly aware that I had lost stature.” This Jekyll attributes to the face that this side of his nature was ‘less robust and developed.’

Dr. Jekyll takes a first look at himself in the mirror: “Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll. Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believer to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body, an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This too was myself. It seemed natural and human. In my eyes it bore a livelier image of the spirit and seemed more express and single, than the imperfect and divided countenance I had hither to been accustomed to call mine.

At first Jekyll was able to control the experiment. He drank the potion, turned into Hyde and participated in his licentiousness: “All that time my virtue slumbered, my evil kept awake by my ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion…” He continues, “The pleasures which I made haste 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 wonder at my vicarious Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydedepravity. This familiar that I called out of my own soul, and sent forth alone to do his good pleasure, was a being inherently malign and villainous, his every act and thought centered on self, drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture or another; relentless like a man of stone.”

After awhile though, the allure of being Mr. Hyde became too great. As Dr. Jekyll he was “growing towards an elderly man.” As Hyde he was “free from restraint, lively, young.” Stevenson writes: Henry Jekyll stood aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde, but the situation was apart from ordinary laws and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.”

Hyde had his own sleazy residence but could come and go at Dr. Jekyll’s at will. He had a key. One morning Dr. Jekyll awoke in his own bed at Cavendish Square as Edward Hyde. This marked a turning point. Dr Jekyll notes, “This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgment, and I began to reflect more seriously that ever before on the issues and possibilities of my double existence.” He goes on to say: “That part of me which I had the power of projecting had lately been much exercised and nourished; it had seemed to me of late as though the body of Edward Hyde had grown in stature……..I began to spy a danger that, if this were much prolonged, the power of voluntary change be forfeited, and the character of Edward Hyde become irrevocably mine.”

Alas, Dr. Jekyll’s reflections came to late. Jekyll swears off becoming Hyde for two months, but in the end he succumbs again to the transformation. “My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring. I was conscious when I took the draught, or a more unbridled, a more furious propensity to ill………..I had voluntarily stripped myself of all those balancing instincts by which even the worst of us continues to walk with some degree of steadiness among temptations; and in my case, to be tempted, however slightly, was to fall.” Jekyll goes on to describe what it felt like to be Hyde: “Instantly the spirit of hell awoke in me and raged. With a transport of glee, I mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight in every blow; and it was not until weariness had begun to succeed that I was suddenly in the top fit of my delirium, struck through the heart by a cold thrill of terror. A mist dispersed. I saw my life to be forfeit, and fled from the scene of these excesses, at once glorifying and trembling, my lust for evil gratified and stimulated, my love for life screwed to the topmost peg.” Initially once he has transformed back into Dr. Jekyll, he is “smitten with gratitude and remorse.” and penitently prays to God. But later he says, “as the acuteness of remorse began to die away, it was succeeded by a sense of joy. He feels renewed in his effort to lead the good life as Dr. Jekyll. Hyde would be blamed for the murder and Jekyll vows to never become him again. “I resolved in my future conduct to redeem the past, and I can honestly say that my resolve was fruitful of some good.”

For a brief time Jekyll remains “good.” But it was as his own self, and “ordinary secret sinner” that “I at last fell before the assaults of temptation.” Jekyll muses, “There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul. And yet I was not alarmed; the fall seemed natural, like a return to the old days before I had made my discovery.” Jekyll’s fall came about just like King Nebuchadnezzar, with one proud thought: “After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbors; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at that very moment of that vain-glorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering. These passed away, and left me faint; and then as in its turn the faintness subsided, I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde. A moment before I had been safe of all men’s respect, wealthy, beloved – the cloth laying for me in the dining room at home; and now I was the common quarry of mankind, hunted, houseless, a known murderer, thrall to the gallows.” From that point on Jekyll could not longer control turning into Hyde. He turned into him “at all hours of the night and day” and he would “leap almost without transition” into Hyde. He says,“The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll.” Though Jekyll tries desperately to make a new draught, it is without efficacy. He believes his first formula had some kind of unknown impurity in it which he cannot now replicate. In the end the respected Dr. Jekyll is completely given over to the diabolical Mr. Hyde, a wanted murderer. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Stevenson’s story is essentially about a man who is living a double life. Granted he has found the unique ability to be a “truly separate self” when he is doing his evil, that the rest of us do not have the luxury of being. Though Hyde initially starts out as smaller and less developed physically, he eventually comes to be stronger than Jekyll and finally to overcome him totally. Stevenson is suggesting something here about our sin nature. The more we give in to it, the more robust it becomes. As Jekyll realized when he was Hyde, that sin nature felt natural to him. Giving in to it did not really seem like something foreign. One may think that the reality of a person living a double life is rare, especially one so drastically different as Dr. Jekyll versus Mr. Hyde. Perhaps in this extreme it is rare, but I in general a double life is not nearly as rare as one might think. For examle both men and women can be domestic abusers. By day they might seem like the nicest person you would ever meet, but at night they go home and are brutal to wives, husbands and children. Some of these people hold prestigious jobs and are active in community service and church. Yet the reality is, they lead a double life. If we really could see who they are, as their intimate partners see them, we would be as repulsed by them as people were by Hyde. Hyde exemplifies well many traits of evil. By nature evil is cruel. It is contemptuous, bold and brazen. Some evil people delight in their evil, which is to be sadistic. Hyde is man who thinks he can do what he wants and somehow get away with it. Many people who lead a double life do get away with it for a long time. Manypeople get away with sin in general for a long time. Yet even though Dr. Jekyll found a way to make a separate self who could be pure evil while he remained a co-mingling of good and evil, he found that the influence of that evil eventually consumed him. Jekyll was aghast at Hyde’s antics and tried to cover them over, which reflects the enormous energy one must expend to live a double life. The most powerful lesson of the story to me is that Dr. Jekyll did not “fall” as Hyde, but he “fell” as himself. The thing that brought him down was his own “simple, ordinary pride.” The greatest double life of all is to be self-righteous. It is to pretend to be good and virtuous and upright, when the reality of your heart is dark. Christ called such people “white washed tombs.” He said, “You people look good on the outside, but inside you are full of dead men’s bones.” Dr. Jekyll had begun to feel pretty good about his cover up scheme. In fact he felt so good about it, that he actually felt he was more virtuous than other men. As soon as he had that thought, Hyde took over and he was never again able to contain him. Perhaps the greatest lesson of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is this: Never think yourself a “righteous” man. This is the greatest form of pride, and pride always goes before a fall. Always remember that any righteousness you possess is simply that which has been imputed to you by Christ’s death on the cross. The greatest of all evils is to be a self-righteous man.