This article brings Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the lens of disability studies by exploring the role disability plays in the creation of Mr. Hyde as a villain. Utilizing both historical and current understandings of disability, this article discusses how Mr. Hyde's social and cultural disconformities are reliant upon the understanding of Hyde as "deformed." "What Makes Mr. Hyde So Scary" contends that what makes Mr. Hyde so frightening to other characters, and perhaps to readers as well, is not inherent evil, but disability itself.
What Makes Mr. Hyde So Scary?: Disability as a Result of Evil and Cause of Fear
"There was something queer about that gentleman — something that gave a man a turn…you felt it in your marrow kind of cold and thin…it went down my spine like ice" (Stevenson 39). This statement describes an encounter with Mr. Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and it describes just one of the many fearful reactions caused by this man. Since the story's publication, its plotline has become commonly known. In conjunction, Mr. Hyde's position as a frightening villain or monster is also widely accepted, but is this position really understood? Why is Mr. Hyde so terrifying, causing literally chilling reactions for other characters in the book? Some would suggest that Hyde is simply evil and that is what scares us, but such an answer doesn't explain why the sight of Hyde is terrifying. Evil after all isn't visible. Or is it? In both literature and film villains and monsters are shown to be evil not simply through horrible deeds, but also through visible disfigurement or impairment. Indeed, physical disability has come to signify deviance in our culture (LaCom 547). Perhaps this is where the answer to the fear of Mr. Hyde lies. In looking closely at the text through a critical disability studies lens, it appears that Mr. Hyde is not only frightening because he is evil which causes his unidentifiable disability, but also because he appears outside of the typical controlled contexts that people with disabilities are expected to be in. Combined, three factors result in the terror that Mr. Hyde infamously causes for the story's characters and readers alike.
Mr. Edward Hyde is a part of Dr. Henry Jekyll. He is, as Dr. Jekyll himself puts it, "the evil side of [Jekyll's] nature" brought into existence by a mysterious drink created in Jekyll's laboratory (Stevenson 55). Mr. Hyde is the embodiment of unfulfilled desires and experiences that Jekyll must forgo in order to be a reputable member of society. By consuming the color-changing drink, however, Dr. Jekyll is able to temporarily be Mr. Hyde. By undergoing this change, Jekyll as Hyde can live out his evil or selfish desires and, after returning to himself, fix whatever horrible things Hyde has done. It's a form of escape that seems at first truly ideal: Jekyll lives a seemingly perfect life and gets his kicks in an entirely different body and life. As Dr. Jekyll puts it, "all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil and Edward Hyde alone in the ranks of man, was pure evil" and "that child of Hell had nothing human; nothing lived in him but fear and hatred" (55, 63). As this quotation shows, Mr. Hyde is characterized in absolutes and in intensely negative terms. He is described as having "complete moral insensibility and insensate readiness to evil" (60).
In the course of the text, however, Mr. Hyde is only seen to do two real acts of evil. He first tramples a small girl (after which she lives and he gives the family a retribution check) and he later kills an innocent elderly gentleman. Granted, these are not two easily forgotten acts, but are they enough to result in the description of Hyde as "wholly evil" (55) or the statement that "if I ever read Satan's signature upon a face it is on that of [Mr. Hyde]" (16)? One must wonder how people can be so sure about him, and perhaps ask what else there is about Mr. Hyde that makes "the look of him, even at a distance, [go] somehow strongly against the watcher's inclination" (14). There must be something more in order for a man to say that one look from Hyde "brought out the sweat on me like running" (7). In a closer look at the text one finds that in addition to characterizations of evil, it is also said that there is a "haunting sense of unexpressed deformity" (23) about Mr. Hyde. It is in such descriptions as this where the concept of disability begins to factor into what makes Mr. Hyde so scary.
In the appendix of Martha Stoddard Holmes' Fictions of Affliction, Mr. Hyde is listed among the characters with "unspecified disabilities" (Holmes 199). Such a category is appropriate because while there are several references to Mr. Hyde as being "deformed somewhere" or of giving "an impression of deformity," nothing specific about this deformity is ever stated (Stevenson 9, 15). This lack of detail may be difficult for a television- and movie-oriented audience in need of descriptive images, but it probably would not have been significant or impeding for Victorian readers. As Holmes states in her introduction, Victorians did not particularly distinguish between mental and physical disability; rather, most people assumed a "meshing" of mind and body, where the two were equally connected as well as equally healthy or ill (13). Therefore, Mr. Hyde did not need a particular physical or mental trait, to be considered disabled, but only the suggestion of one.
Physical deformity or impairment has often been traditionally seen as connected to a bad mental or spiritual state of being. This connection, within disability studies, is referred to as the moral model of disability. This model of, or attitude toward, disability is not necessarily a conscious choice, but simply the fact that "somewhere in the backs of our minds we associate disabilities with sin, evil and danger" (Bowe 109). This attitude appears in the text in reference to Mr. Hyde as in the statement that "evil…had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay" (Stevenson 55). Just as Victorians did not particularly distinguish between mind and body, the moral model does not regulate which comes first, the evil or the disability. As a result it is not clear if Hyde is disabled because he is evil or if he is evil because he is disabled. The two are not necessarily perceived to be the same, but are so intensely linked in the back of our minds that it becomes hard to not make the assumption of their coexistence. Given this societal connection between evil and disability, it is important to now explore disability adds another layer of fear and aversion toward Mr. Hyde that is not present when viewing him as simply evil.
In Victorian England, and still somewhat today as well, the male body is, as James Adams explains it, a "central locus of masculine authority," meaning a man's "status thus derives from, and is made visible in, his body" (Adams 151, 152). In a time when "athleticism and physical stamina" were associated with "true masculinity and moral strength," the disabled body was considered unmanly, and often un-human (LaCom 547). Throughout Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mr. Hyde is referred to in ways that take away not only his manhood, but his personhood as well. For example, Mr. Enfield states "It wasn't like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut" (Stevenson 7). Mr. Utterson declares that Mr. Hyde "seems hardly human!" (16). Dr. Lanyon calls him "a disgustful curiosity" (48). Through such descriptions, Mr. Hyde becomes not a man, not a person, but some thing to be feared and hated. It is through viewing Mr. Hyde's disabled body as monstrous and sub-human that Dr. Lanyon can state that "there was something abnormal and misbegotten in the very essence of the creature that now faced me — something seizing, surprising and revolting" (48). It is also through this view that the disabled body becomes something to fear, for it not only represents evil as already established, but as deviance, the unexplainable and the unknown.
Despite seeing people with disabilities as abnormal or inhuman and associating them with sin or evil, Victorians did not always necessarily fear them in the way Stevenson's characters and readers fear Mr. Hyde. English society at the time had ways of exerting legal and social control in order to keep people with disabilities contained thus subduing the instinct to fear them. By keeping people with disabilities in prisons, workhouses and freak shows Victorian society created a boundary between the "normal" and the "abnormal," allowing those on the normal side to feel safe from the possible evil and monstrosity of the abnormal (LaCom 548, 550). In Victorian England, people with disabilities "were decidedly constituted as a social problem in need of a program of management" (Holmes 191) which often took a paternalistic form such as "in factories and workhouses, where managers often described their employees and inmates as children and themselves as father figures" (LaCom 551).
Echoes of such paternalism exist between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Dr. Jekyll claims to have "had more than a father's interest" while he says "Hyde had more than a son's indifference" (Stevenson 59). Mr. Hyde, however, rejected Dr. Jekyll as a controlling father figure, coming into existence without Jekyll's permission while he slept. As Dr. Jekyll puts it, "I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse" (59). In short, Hyde was taking over. He was rejecting Dr. Jekyll as a father figure. Rather than being confined and controlled, as people with disabilities were at the time, Mr. Hyde crossed the boundaries and dared to enter "normal" society and wreak whatever havoc he could on those who mocked, feared or rejected him. The "murderous mixture of timidity and boldness" (15) ascribed to Mr. Hyde early in the text eventually becomes pure boldness and inability to be socially controlled. This rejection of rules, this crossing of boundaries, is the final cause of the fear of Mr. Hyde. The fact that he can be free with his uncontrolled, evil, disabled body, and that "normal" society is potentially no longer safe from him, is terrifying to characters in the stories, to readers then, and to a degree one may or may not wish to admit readers now as well.
It can now be concluded that what causes a man to feel "a shudder in his blood" (16) in the presence of Mr. Hyde is not simply one aspect of his character. Instead, it is the combination of evil, disability and inability to be controlled that makes Mr. Hyde so scary to characters in and readers of Stevenson's tale, even today. Evilness creates Hyde's disabled body (or vice versa) and when he, an evil, disabled, sub-human becomes uncontrolled, it is terrifying. Mr. Hyde crosses the boundaries that protect "us" from "them." But there is one more description of Hyde, the most in-depth portrayal in the book, which has yet to be explored. It reads:
Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these points were against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him. "There must be something else." said the perplexed gentleman. (Stevenson 15-16)
Here Hyde is acknowledged as possibly evil, possibly disabled and possibly capable of murder, yet even in recognizing all three factors, Utterson feels there is something else that is disturbing him. It could be that once Utterson realizes all three of these things are true about Hyde, his fears have been legitimized, but there is another possible reading as well. Perhaps this "something else" cannot be found in the character of Mr. Hyde at all, but in Mr. Utterson himself, in non-disabled society, in ourselves. If the combination of evil, disability and inability to be controlled does not fully explain the viewer's fear, could it be then that the possibility of uncontrolled evil and disability in all of us causes the multi-layered fear of Mr. Hyde? Perhaps, it is not Mr. Hyde we're scared of at all, but the parts of ourselves we fail to recognize, yet know we contain.
Sami Schalk is a graduate of Miami University with degrees in Creative Writing and Women's Studies and a minor in Disability Studies. Currently, she is an MFA student at Notre Dame, incorporating her passion for social justice into her poetry as a form of activism.
- Adams, James Eli. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
- Bowe, Frank. Handicapping America: Barriers to Disabled People. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1978.
- Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2007.
- LaCom, Cindy. "'The Time is Sick and Out of Joint': Physical Disability in Victorian England." Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 120.2 (2005): 547-552.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ed. Roger Luckhurst. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.