Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: Science vs. Religion

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  • 0:04 The Strange Story
  • 1:08 A Sign of the Times
  • 2:01 The New Narrative
  • 3:25 The Devil on Your Shoulder
  • 4:50 Does Life Imitate Art?
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kevin Watson

Kevin has taught college English and has master's degrees in Applied Linguistics and Creative Writing.

In Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' religion and science are as much at odds in the novel as they were in 1860s England. In this lesson, you'll learn about scientific discoveries, how they conflicted with religion and how this is reflected in the novel.

The Strange Story

Did you ever wish you could toss the rules, be someone else, and not be held responsible for your actions? In Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, an ordinary man of science finds a chemical mix that liberates his evil self. Henry Jekyll lives in Victorian England in the 1860s at the height of the country's imperial power. Society's rules were strict and class structure was rigid, all reinforced by the Church of England. The upper classes had high expectations and pressures to behave rightly.

In the story, Mr. Utterson, Jekyll's lawyer, lives this rigid life as a devout follower of religion, but without much interest in science. Dr. Henry Jekyll feels that pressure and finds a release from it through Mr. Hyde. He is the opposite of Utterson in this respect, and finds the avenue to the supernatural not through religion but through science. Like a modern-day drug addict, he leaves behind his upstanding self and becomes another person.

A Sign of the Times

So what inspired this tale? Like many stories, Stevenson gathered a new idea for a plot through his contemporary society, including religion and science. Besides the pressures of Victorian society, by 1850 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. New inventions were popping up, and production was booming. The British Empire was a global conduit for the sharing of ideas.

Across the ocean in America, Edgar Allan Poe's dark romanticism explored the dark side of man. In 1866, the year the tale of Jekyll and Hyde was published, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment explored the distorted mind of a murderer. Also that year, Dr. Sigmund Freud set up a clinical psychology office in Vienna to study the hidden impulses of the unconscious. The mind, with its brilliant light and darkest shadows, was being discovered.

The Duality of Man
Duality

The New Narrative

By the 19th century, science was providing answers the church could not, so this created a duality of thinking. Some distrusted science, certainly and above all Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species. Darwin's theory of evolution unearthed a new narrative where the human race developed slowly and progressively from a primitive form to modern man over millions of years. Until then, the only accepted story was Genesis where man was created instantly in a world six days old.

Some people, like the lawyer Utterson in Jekyll and Hyde, had no interest in science. Utterson reads the Scriptures nightly till the church bells signal bedtime. He tells Jekyll in reference to Hyde that he ''read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.'' Others describe Hyde as not exactly human. Soon Utterson can't believe his eyes when he sees ''a pious work'' with blasphemies written in Jekyll's handwriting when he was Hyde. In all respects, the Devil lives in Hyde. Like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein nearly seventy years before, the evil Mr. Edward Hyde is a product of science. And as Dr. Lanyon, a former friend of Jekyll puts it, Dr. Jekyll's ideas are nothing more than ''scientific heresies''. Dr. Lanyon disagrees with Jekyll's scientific recklessness, in contrast with Utterson's rejection of science altogether.

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