A Gothic novel has been amply represented in literature and studied well enough, yet it is still unbelievably popular. Edgar Poe, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Bram Stocker, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Shelly, Oscar Wilde and many other writers became famous owing to the Gothic universes that they created.
Evolving with every new story and character created, the Gothic genre in general and some of its most prominent authors in particular definitely deserve being considered a bit closer, and Robert Stevenson with his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of such authors.
Despite the fact that some elements of Robert Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde do not align with the traditional Gothic novel genre, Stevenson’s story still should be defined as Gothic, since it not only creates a compelling Gothic character with a classic story arc, but also develops the character, therefore, contributing to the evolution of the Gothic novel genre.
Gothic Novel and Its Key Features
With a relatively long history and quite a solid heritage, Gothic literature has a number of features that have become the staple of the genre and can be seen as the defining characteristics of the genre. Among the most frequently used ones, such themes as the description of the fallen world and elements of the supernatural should be mentioned (Throwbridge 27)
A Gothic character has also quite a number of features attributed to him/her; acquired in the course of Gothic novel evolution, these character traits define a Gothic hero and at the same time set limitations for the character’s growth. As a rule, a Gothic character develops such traits as emotionality and impulsivity, and often has a dark back story (Throwbridge 25).
Also rendering the issue of the fallen world and the supernatural elements within the realm of the ordinary, the plot of a Gothic novel is traditionally composed of mystery, elements of fear or terror and events leading to the character’s moral demise (Throwbridge 45).
The elements of the supernatural are evident in a number of Gothic novels. For instance, in Wuthering Heights, Bronte mentions moonlight several times as an element of mystery and describes a moonless night to create the atmosphere of suspense and threat: “There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness” (Bronte 121).
The idea of the world demise is also translated into the setting, in which events traditionally take place in Gothic novels. According to the principles if Gothic storytelling, the key events are supposed to take place in a castle, old mansion or in a gloomy background, during fog, rain or cloudiness (Throwbridge 15).
Elements of Gothic settings can be traced in The Namesake, though, technically the novel is defined as a bildungsroman. For instance, Gothic architecture is briefly mentioned in the novel: “he has fallen in love with the Gothic architecture of the campus” (Lahiri 108).
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Analysis
It would be wrong to claim that the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fits the traditional concept of a Gothic narration impeccably; however, the question is whether the alterations made to the genre actually work for the benefit of the story or not.
As far as the use of clichés goes, it seems that the lack of the traditional, well trodden tropes that seemed to have worn out their welcome well before the story was written makes the novel all the more thrilling. The lack of traditional lackluster elements that do not move the story forward and only serve to make the author look lazy clearly makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde unique in its own way.
First, the fact that the novel is set in London, and, more importantly, on one of its busiest streets – at least, in the major part of the narration – sets the novel apart from a range of other Gothic stories. True, Stevenson does render the concept of decay and deterioration at some point when describing Mr. Hyde’s dwelling; however, the majority of the events depicted in the novel do not take place in the London suburbs.
Even the lead, though definitely rubbing elbows with a number of traditional Gothic character archetypes, still differs from a common Gothic interpretation of a protagonist. While in the tradition of a Gothic novel, the leading character is supposed to succumb to temptation of the antagonist, in Stevenson’s novel, Dr. Jekyll is his own worst enemy.
Thus, Stevenson diverges from the traditional method of building a Gothic character and, instead, explores the phenomenon of the latter by looking at his flaws. There is no obvious “bad guy” in Stevenson’s novel, and the lead is clearly no victim of an evil villain; instead, Dr. Jekyll falls prey to his own psychotic mind: “If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also” (Stevenson para. 45).
Although the story is narrated not by the twofaced monster himself, but by his friend, the new angle of viewing the character still enables the reader to consider the situation from Jekyll/Hyde’s perspective and embrace the horror that the character feels: “[…] man is not truly one, but truly two” (Stevenson para. 83).
The last and definitely the most important change that Stevenson makes to the tradition of a Gothic story is the choice to abstain from using the elements of the supernatural in the novel. However, Stevenson does not carve the given element out of the story completely; instead, he replaces it with the mystery of science.
Indeed, when taking a closer look at the change that happens to Dr. Jekyll as he drinks the serum, one will find out quickly that the scene of transformation has a lot in common with the werewolf related folklore and has, in fact, little to do with actual biological processes: the “virtue of transcendental medicine” (Stevenson para. 80), therefore, is miles away from being an accurate description of biological and chemical processes in a human body.
Nevertheless, Stevenson defies the concept of the supernatural and decides to switch it with what can technically be defined as science fiction. Hence, Stevenson practically heralds that the time for science to replace magic has come.
Although traditionally considered a Gothic story, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde creates unique character elements and neglects a number of typical Gothic story elements. The few clichés that are left to identify the story with Gothic novels, however, serve their purpose well by informing the character, defining the story, outlining the key themes and creating a very specific and rather dark mood.
For instance, the “shadow of the fallen world” (Throwbridge 87), though conveyed in a very subtle way, can be easily traced in the transformation of the lead character. The “strong feeling of deformity” (Stevenson para. 9) that the character gave Mr. Utterson can be applied to the general impression of an average citizen when taking a closer look at the things that are basically wrong with society.
A novel that revolutionized Gothic literature by introducing a different character and shifting the emphasis from the collapse of the world to personal regress, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deserves to be ranked among the best Gothic novels ever created.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1846. Web. <http://www.literaturepage.com/read/wutheringheights.html>.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. Print.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Project Gutenberg. 18 Dec. 2011. Web. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42?msg=welcome_stranger>.
Throwbridge, Serena. Christina Rossetti’s Gothic. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.