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This essay was written on May 16th 2012 by Jens Deriemaeker, student of Applied Linguistics in Hogeschool Gent, Belgium.


Gothic fiction is a literary genre that primarily incorporates themes of mystery and horror. Especially in the late nineteenth century, it mainly centres on morality and the conflict between good and evil in the human soul. This body of work will focus on how exactly these two themes are treated by Robert Louis Stevenson in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (first published in 1886), and Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray (amended version published in 1891). First, a brief overview will be given of both novels. Secondly, this essay will focus on what exactly is the definition of morality and how being immoral results in a double life. Lastly, more attention will be paid to the portrayal of good and evil.

In Stevensons Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dr Henry Jekyll is a renowned doctor who has been struggling to conceal his evil urges and lead the life of a well-respected gentleman among his fellow-men. Upon reaching years of reflection, Jekyll recognises the dual nature of man: I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. (Stevenson 2003, 55) Jekyll creates a drug that is supposed to literally separate the two natures the unjust and his more upright twin, as described by Jekyll (Stevenson 2003, 56). Although Jekyll hesitated long before testing the drug on himself, he eventually gives in to the temptation of a discovery so singular and profound (Stevenson 2003, 57), drinks the potion and is transformed in Edward Hyde, his evil counterpart, a relentless brute who commits several crimes, including even murder. Wildes novel shows a remarkable resemblance to Stevensons, a work which, according to Mighall (2002), Wilde knew and admired. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the writer presents us with a young man named Dorian Gray, who is the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Gray meets Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonist, who argues that pleasure is the only thing worth pursuing in life. Captivated by this view, Gray realises that his beauty is only temporary and will one day fade. Consequently, he wishes to sell his soul to make sure the portrait painted by Hallward would age rather than he: How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. It [the portrait] will never be older than this particular day of June If it were only the other way! [] I would give my soul for that! (Wilde 2003, 28)

Gray is gradually corrupted and plunges himself in debauched acts while his portrait displays each sin he commits as a disfigurement or as a sign of aging.

Morality and double life

When discussing the inner struggle between good and evil, it is important to give some thought to how these terms good and evil are exactly defined. Morality is an abstract concept and therefore many views exist on what is morally good and morally wrong. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray were both written in the late nineteenth century, during Queen Victorias reign. Thus it is safe to assume that the moral views in these novels are, in fact, Victorian. A characteristic of Victorian morality is that it advocates a low tolerance of crime. It is in this aspect that Hyde is indeed immoral or evil. Hyde is a menace to society, committing his initial crime (or at least the first one that is given in the novel) by trampling a young girl in the streets of London and leaving her screaming on the ground (Stevenson 2003, 7). About a year later, Sir Danvers Carew, a Member of Parliament, is brutally murdered by Hyde for no apparent reason. In addition to rejecting illegal activities, Victorian morality also has come to imply prudery, hypocrisy, sexual repression, and rigid social control (Mitchell 1996, 259). This means that topics concerning human sexuality were deemed taboo, particularly homosexuality, which made it almost necessary for homosexuals to lead a double life (discussed further down). This, by Victorian standards, immoral behaviour is mainly covered in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which contains some homosexual hints (Hallwards adoration for Gray, Grays relationship with Lord Wotton). The treatment of women in the novel (who are weak and naive) implies that only men are fit and worthy companions for each other; it seems as though Wilde was trying to propagate homosexuality (which comes as no surprise since Wilde was a homosexual himself). Persons that have multiple identities, in this context Jekyll/Hyde and Dorian Gray, lead a double life; one in which they lead an exemplary life of outward respectability and walk the path of righteousness, and another in which they indulge in their immoral, illegal and shady activities. In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde this is very clear: Jekyll obviously leads or tries to lead the moral life and Hyde the other. As for Dorian Gray, this is most evident when he attends a society gathering only twenty-four hours after committing a murder: He [] felt keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life. (Wilde 2003, 167) The contrast becomes even more striking when Gray visits the opium dens of London after this gathering.

Depiction of good and evil

It is noticeable that the evil nature is portrayed in both novels as something unnatural, inhuman, even hideous and loathsome. Jekylls alter ego Hyde, for example, is described as:

[] pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, [] 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. (Stevenson 2003, 16) Furthermore, Hydes actions occur without thought, which is a somewhat animalistic feature. Jekyll, on the other hand, does have a conscience, living in a constant state of repression and being concerned about his reputation as a man of stature. In addition, Jekylls appearance is also in stark contrast with Hydes; he is described as a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty (Stevenson 2003, 19). This, however, is not the case for Wildes Dorian Gray at least not at first; as a matter of fact it is quite the opposite. While Gray himself is in fact the immoral self, it is the portrait that bears the gruesome marks that represent its owners evil deeds. It isnt until Gray decides to destroy his portrait raged after seeing that the portrait did not change back after committing a good deed, and unknowingly committing suicide that the repulsive features of the portrait are transferred to him, and the painting is returned to its original state: When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man [] He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they examined the rings that they recognized who it was. (Wilde 2003, 213) An interesting point is made by Robert Mighall (2000) who writes in his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray that, although Gray is hedonistic, his response to Hallwards accusation that he has made Lord Henrys sisters name a by-word Take care, Basil. You go too far (Wilde 2003, 145) suggests that he does have some regard for his reputation. In the end, Gray himself recognises that his portrait functions as his conscience, bringing melancholy across his passions and marring many moments of joy (Wilde 2003, 212).

The contrast between good and evil in these gothic novels is obvious. Edward Hyde and Dorian Gray are both criminals wanting to be freed from their conscience Henry Jekyll and Grays portrait respectively. In order to indulge in their secret desires, leading a double life is inevitable. Stevenson and Wildes villains are portrayed as cruel and disgusting, their acts as animalistic and corrupt. It is beyond dispute that both novelists have done an excellent job in presenting us with the darkest aspects of human nature.

Mighall, R. (2003). Introduction to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. London: Penguin Books. Mighall, R. (2003). Introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Penguin Books. Mitchell, S. (1996). Daily life in Victorian England. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. Stevenson, R. L. (2003). The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror. London: Penguin Books. Thompson, B. (Producer) & Parker, O. (Director). (2009). Dorian Gray [DVD]. United Kingdom: Momentum Pictures. Wilde, O. (2003). The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Penguin Books.