On Hyde’s purity of evil

Kevin asked yesterday whether I thought Edward Hyde was “purity of evil/selfishness incarnate,” and whether he had “*any* redeeming qualities.” Let’s take a look at the evidence.

The first time we hear about Hyde involves a description of one of the two violent crimes he commits that are witnessed and described in the novel. This first one involves him running into a little girl on the street, upon which he “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds like nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see.” And this is exactly what, for me, was off or generally disappointing in the book: the evil sounds like little to hear, though everyone keeps insisting it is hellish to experience.

Everyone who encounters Hyde, from Mr Utterson to Dr Lanyon to Dr Jekyll’s servants to strangers in the street, seems to have a physical reaction to his evil. Their blood runs cold, they can feel it in their marrow, they are repulsed, they are disgusted. They can tell there is something not right about this man. Jekyll recognizes this:

I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde, none could come near to me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

But what does that mean? Yes, we witness two violent crimes, where there is no doubt of the malevolence of the criminal and little question of remorse. Self-preservation is the closest Hyde comes to regret, or so it appears. But these are, as far as I can tell, the only real examples of “evil.” Stevenson seems to harp on the purity of evil in Hyde, first in the third-person narration section, where all the characters insist on it, then again in the person of Dr Lanyon, then again in the person of Henry Jekyll. But as for what evil is, that bit seems less than fully explained.

Dr Lanyon’s letter to Utterson provides almost a perfect example of same:

What he told me in the next hour I cannot bring my mind to set on paper. I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and my soul sickened at it, and yet now, when that sight has faded from my eyes, I ask myself if I believe it, and I cannot answer. …As for the moral turpitude that man unveiled to me, even with tears of penitence, I cannot, even in memory, dwell on it without a start of horror. I will say but one thing, Utterson, and that (if you can bring your mind to credit it) will be more than enough. The creature who crept into my house that night was, on Jekyll’s own confession, known by the name of Hyde and hunted for in every corner of the land as the murderer of Carew.

I’m not trying to let the murderer of Carew off light here. I guess a gratuitous and unrepented (by the actual perpetrator, Hyde, as opposed to Jekyll, who does regret the action) murder could be “evil.” But, you know, this crazy moral turpitude, unveil it to me. Otherwise, all I can do is take everyone else’s word for it: Hyde is pure evil. (Note that I haven’t addressed the selfishness question; there are lots of other ways, I think, to look at Hyde—e.g., the absence of inhibition. Also, does he have any redeeming qualities? Well, he doesn’t go around murdering people all day, I suppose.)

And now, have at me again!

6 comments to On Hyde’s purity of evil

  • Ah, great stuff.

    “Self-preservation is the closest Hyde comes to regret, or so it appears.”

    How about Hyde’s suicide?

    Self-preservation goes out the window (not the middle one!)

    Is there any room here to argue that Hyde kills himself as an act of other-directed mercy?

    As for your frustration, that “the evil sounds like little to hear, though everyone keeps insisting it is hellish to experience,” perhaps Stevenson is experimenting with non-mimetic representations of foulness/evilness and just not doing a very good job of it, as Crowley does, for instance, in Little, Big – where he non-mimetically represents a host of uncanny moods.

    Have a great weekend.


  • Ah, the suicide. Great question! Some thoughts:

    Jekyll says in his letter that “Jekyll…projected and shared in the pleasures and adventures of Hyde, but Hyde was indifferent to Jekyll, or but remembered him as the mountain bandit remembers the cavern in which he conceals himself from pursuit,” and that, if he chose one over the other, “while Jekyll would suffer smartingly in the fires of abstinence, Hyde would not even be conscious of all that he had lost.” Hyde might be unable to have feelings toward Jekyll in the same way that Jekyll has feelings bout Hyde.

    Hyde seems to be genuinely afraid of being apprehended for his crimes, something that itself is not really explained. He goes well out of his way after his first crime and even more so after the murder to avoid arrest or detection—why? His concealment means that he cannot go on committing evil acts, so what is the difference to him between house arrest and prison? It seems to me he has a more animal fear of harm to his person than anything else (and this goes with all the primitivism, his “apelike” nature), and has a basic horror of being hanged. Suicide keeps him safe from himself being attacked by others.

    But I wouldn’t say you couldn’t argue the other, that it was an act of mercy.

    perhaps Stevenson is experimenting with non-mimetic representations of foulness/evilness and just not doing a very good job of it

    Now you mention it, I think this is something I never do very well with, so he may be doing a fine job of it and I’m just not getting it.

  • Because I suffer from a mild version of literary OCD, and because I find this little book so terribly fascinating, I’ll hazard one last remark, and am curious to hear your thoughts.

    We know that Jekyll is concerned about his public persona, his reputation. And we know, too, that he’s a composite of what’s good and bad in human nature. Hence, it’s very reasonable to question his reliabiltiy as a narrator, especially his “Full” statement of the case, which strikes me as a tendential account, one that probably accentuates Jekyll’s scholarly intentions while also amplifying the waywardness of Hyde.


    On your reading, is there any sign that Hyde is concealing himself *in the hope* that the Jekyll transformation might somehow come about?

    That’s it from me!


  • Hey, that’s what I was thinking yesterday – I was playing with not trusting Jekyll’s statement of his goal of the original experiment. There’s a curious identity problem – if the evil part is split off from the good part, and both exist, which is Jekyll? This is still part of the novel, regardless – is Hyde-as-Hyde still Jekyll? They share memories, etc. I don’t think Stevenson answers this, and I’m glad he didn’t.

    It’s just that if Hyde is still Jekyll, really, fundamentally, then what? Say – and I might deviate from the text a bit – but say that Jekyll was a fat boy with a bullying father, and that Hyde goes out every night to cheat on Jekyll’s diet. He eats an entire meat-lovers pizza, or gets a full-size order at Harold’s Chicken Shack #52 and then gets another full-size order at Harold’s Chicken Shack #4B, or eats an Italian beef-Italian sausage combo, with cheese. I myself have eaten two of those in my life, and will never eat one again, so I understand the temptation. They are wonderful. Where was I?

    So, cheating on a diet is only evil because Jekyll thinks it’s evil. It’s not inherently evil. Over time, as Hyde indulges in his violent appetites and freedom from self-control, he becomes wilder and even begins to do things that are genuinely evil. Others who see Hyde are interpreting as “pure evil” Jekyll’s projection of his own guilt about his gluttony.

    The suicide is the result of Hyde’s resolve being weakened by the non-fortifying foods the servants have been bringing him. Salads, and zweibeck, things like that. I may now have wandered a bit too far from the text.

    Nabokov notes that the insistence on vague descriptions, the way Hyde seems to overpower the senses of people he meets, is in part a good writer’s trick – now Stevenson doesn’t have to describe Hyde. Clever but cheap, or, cheap but clever. The refusal to be specific about Hyde’s deviancy might be cheap, too, although I appreciate how it allows the reader to fill in the depravity himself. The more depraved the reader, the more depraved is Hyde!

  • Hmm. I wonder if Hyde added to his resume that one redeeming quality of his is that he doesn’t go around murdering people all day. I’m sure that will be most effective in getting him hired…

  • So, first, unreliable Jekyll. I don’t think we can call any document of this sort actually “reliable,” but is Jekyll actively unreliable? He doesn’t seem to try to cover up his own faults or really blame them on Hyde…I don’t know. He could certainly be a lot less reliable than he seems.

    On the other hand, I guess I would say his statement of intent is probably the thing to be least relied on. Easiest lied about, even to himself, it’s not something we can verify anywhere of course. And Jekyll seems to have something of an interest in whatever this “transcendental medicine” business is, i.e., in the occult, and I could easily see his real mission having been some kind of ambition in that field.

    Also, I have now finished the Nabokov lecture, and am pleased to see he’s not so sure about how well some of this stuff is pulled off either. I liked his points on the artistic problem of feeding all the shady stuff through these really staid friends of Jekyll’s, too.