The Looking Glass: A Lacanian interpretation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

            Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a quintessential late Victorian gothic novel that reads “like Watergate transcripts. The story does get through, but in a muffled form, with a distorted time sense, and accompanied by a kind of despair about and direct use of language” (Sedgwick, 13). The “muffled” quality is in part a trope of the gothic genre, but also an effect of the novel's dream vision origin. That is, of course, if Stevenson's claim is truthful. According to Stevenson, the “the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers” (Stevenson). For Stevenson, the unconscious mind, what he terms the 'Brownies,' is not associated with eminence and the creation of great art, but with the creation of profitable art. Published as a shilling shocker, the modern day equivalent of a drug store paperback, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not written as high literature, but with an “eye to the bankbook” (Stevenson) as both his publisher and his Brownies pushed him to write what would sell (Brantlinger, 165).  In a letter Stevenson wrote to Grosse in 1886 he claimed that “[authors] are all whores, some of us pretty whores, some of us not: whores of the mind, selling to the public the amusements of our fireside as the whore sells pleasures of her bed” (qtd. in Arata, 49). Thus, while Stevenson's financial “fluctuations” and “worries” were quelled by indulging popular tastes for the gothic, he was perturbed by this. For Stevenson the writing of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was basically equivalent to turning a profit like a common “whore” (Stevenson).


            By comparing Stevenson's private discourse against his public it becomes evident that there is a tension between his public and private images. Stevenson presents himself as a sellable commodity that caters to the base desires of the late Victorian print industry: the gothic. The connection between Stevenson's public image and the gothic is particularly evident in his “Chapter on Dreams” in which he equates his unconscious mental faculty, the Brownies, with the gothic literary genre. In Gaelic lore Brownies are  “benevolent spirit[s] or goblin[s], of shaggy appearance, supposed to haunt old houses”; thus by stating that they dwell in his mental faculties Stevenson sets up a simile between the process of dreaming and the act of haunting (OED). Furthermore, since Stevenson claims that his novels are formed by the Brownies who “dream in sequence” and “tell [...] a story piece by piece, like a serial” the simile can thereby be extended to writing (Stevenson). In effect, if one subscribes to Stevenson's explanation of the unconscious, to write is to exorcise the ghosts in one's haunted head. However, this waggish explanation of the creative process is in total contrast to Stevenson's private stance on authorship. As quoted previously, he felt that catering to base literary demands was simply prostitution under a different name. There is little whimsical or gothic in this realistic interpretation of the publishing economy.


            If The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were the result of a dream, it can then be interpreted as the sublimation of unconscious anxieties stemming from the fiction of the unified self, Stevenson's public image, and the reality of the fragmented self. Slavoj Zizek in The Sublime Object Of Ideology states that:

The symptom arises where the world failed, where the circuit of symbolic communication was broken: it is a kind of 'prolongation of communication by other means': the failed, repressed word articulates itself in a coded, ciphered form. The implication of this is that the symptom cannot only be interpreted but is, so to speak, formed with an eye to its interpretation [...] in the psychoanalytic cure the symptom is always addressed to the analyst, it is an appeal to him to deliver its hidden message. (73)


Working under the assumption that Stevenson actually did dream the premise of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the division between the base desires of Hyde and the moral obligations of Jekyll seem to reverberate in Stevenson's own mental anxieties between base desires, such as profit,  and moral desires, such as high literature. If one applies a Lacanian interpretation to the novel, there is no cure for the symptom, because Henry Jekyll fails to acknowledge and verbalize what he desires. Jekyll continues to speak of his desires in “coded” and “ciphered form[s]” refusing or unable to utter that what he actually desires are the base pleasures enjoyed by Hyde and forbidden to him by bourgeois convention; however, his desire for acceptance into the homosocial bourgeois society is in conflict with his libidinal Hydian desires. Henry Jekyll attempts to rid himself of the petit objet a, the seed of Hyde, in an effort to return to the state of the Ideal-I by “hous[ing] [the petit objet a] in [a] separate identit[y]” under the impression that without the inner conflict he would be returned to a state of mental unity and “life would be relieved of all that was unbearable” (Stevenson, 107). Jekyll, however, does not fully wish to extinguish the petit object a, but wants to maintain two divided selves: one that is fully indulgent in base desires, and the other fully submissive to social dictums, or in his words, one that is entirely “moral” (Stevenson, 106). Only by returning to the Imaginary order through the ingestion of the elixir can Jekyll delude himself into achieving two separate ideal egos where desire is not described by lack, but fulfillment.


             In “On the Representation of Infantile Sense-Making Processes and the Art of Characterization,” Garrick Duckler argues that Edward Hyde represents the “internal development during early childhood [that Margaret Mahler] call[s] rapprochement, when sometime during the middle of the second year of life the child's growing awareness of its own separateness reaches a peak and what had been a gradual perception of two-ness precipitates 'somewhat suddenly' anxieties of separation”(45). However, unlike a human being that is born prematurely without motor control or language, Hyde is only deprived of the latter. By turning into Edward Hyde, Jekyll is effectively devolving to an ur-human, pre-linguistic state. Hyde is described as being “hardly human,” “troglodytic,” and “dwarfish” (Stevenson, 25). Furthermore, his movements are described as being “like a monkey['s]” or “ape-like” (Stevenson 77, 37). Hyde gives the “impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” because he is the evolutionary link between animal and human. In Symbol and Language Jacques Lacan states that “[m]an speaks [...] because the symbol has made him man" (39). Hyde, however, does not speak fluently because he has not yet been castrated by the Name of the Father and is not yet entirely man.


             The very first depiction of Hyde is orally narrated by Enfield to Utterson. Enfield acknowledges that his narrative “sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see” perhaps because of the sheer incoherency of the event. How could a man trample calmly over an eight year old girl without so much as acknowledging the incident? Furthermore, as Duckler iterates, how does one trample calmly? The docile adverb seems to be at odds with the aggressive verb. Was it perhaps not so much the effect on the girl that was “hellish,” but the blatant disregard for social dictums (Stevenson, 25)?  Ducker argues that when Hyde “trampl[es] calmly” over the girl, in Enfield's narrative of “Story of the Door,” “his assault scene recalls a child's temper tantrum” (Stevenson, 6; Duckler, 45). At the moment of the calm trampling, Hyde is a prelocutionary being with a “broken voice” that cannot fully exist in either the Symbolic or Imaginary order (Stevenson, 25).  Hyde can calmly trample because he does not recognize the difference between himself and the exterior world. The child is trampled calmly by “the damned juggernaut” not because Hyde is so filled with violence that it does not perturb him in the slightest, but because he does not even recognize that the girl is another sentient being, for he himself is not yet a fully formed autonomous being (Stevenson, 11).


            Henry Jekyll believes that upon expelling the little other from his consciousness he will finally be able to be the entirely “moral” man, a man that no longer wrestles with the libidinal little Hyde. Unlike Hyde who has not acceded to the Law of the Father and who therefore cannot fully speak, Jekyll is a competent language user who is fully castrated by social law and convention. While Hyde symbolizes more of a proto-linguistic ur-human than a child, the relationship he has to Jekyll is undeniably filial from Jekyll's perspective, for one is the product of the other. As Jekyll states in his final letter: “Jekyll had more than a father's interest; Hyde had more than a son's indifference” (Stevenson, 122). Jekyll acts as both parental figures to Hyde by carrying out his needs (arranging for lodging and food), but also enforcing order by attempting to police Hyde's ability to take physical form. This relationship, however, is not entirely filial. Perhaps their relationship is not a pure representation of the father-son dynamic, but Jekyll's categorizing it as such. Jekyll is pushing Hyde into the role of son, but is it not possible that he is doing this out of insecurity? Could Jekyll perhaps be the son, and Hyde the father? The exorcized seed of Hyde is pre-mirror, but he also does not exist solely in the Imaginary order. He is in effect a liminal being that represents the Real and can move, though perhaps not comfortably, between the Symbolic and Imaginary orders.


            Like a pre-mirror state infant, Hyde's existence is in essence a fragmented being with libidinal needs. The mirror stage, according to Lacan, is:

 [...]as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image. [...] This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infant stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject. (1286)


Because Hyde exists in the Symbolic order it is only a matter of time, six to eighteen months, before he recognizes his imago and is no longer able to return to the Imaginary order (Evans, 118). Jekyll hopes that “Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror,” however, it is the very act of looking into the mirror that stabilizes Hyde's existence while simultaneously jeopardizing Jekyll's (Stevenson, 115). The “glass [that] has seen some strange things” was brought in “for the very purpose of these transformations” (Stevenson, 85; 110). Notably, the mirror is not a small one that would fracture the image, but a large cheval-glass that could reflect a man's entirety. It is not until Hyde encounters his own image and develops an independent fiction of a unified self, the Ideal-I, that Jekyll begins to have difficulties suppressing Hyde.


                The elixir in effect produces two different egos: Hyde's is powerful, but unequipped to maneuver in the world of laws and language, and Jekyll's is completely castrated, weak, and unbalanced. Once Hyde develops linguistic skills, as demonstrated by his ability to write, and a unified sense of self, he can then fully inhabit and navigate the Symbolic order without Jekyll's aid. It is in the locutionary post-mirror stage that Jekyll loses the ability to suppress Hyde because there is no room in one body for two egos. Jekyll explains in “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case” that “in the beginning, the difficulty had been to throw off the body of Jekyll, it had of late gradually but decidedly transferred itself to the other side” (Stevenson, 121). Jekyll is deluded into believing that he has found a solution to the divided self. There can be no consolidation between the actual self and the ideal-I because “the unconscious is structured like a language” and as a result of its structure the self is denied any point of reference to be restored following an identity crisis (Evans, 99). As a result, Hyde grows in strength as Jekyll's ability to speak wanes. Jekyll's voice is described as “harsh and broken” because once Hyde develops the ability to navigate the Symbolic world without guidance, he is then able to consume Jekyll (Stevenson, 68).


             In “In Service of Narration: Servants, the Rhetorics of Class and Narrational Politics in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Autobiography” Jean Marie Fernandez argues that in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the orality of the servants “contest[s] the master's writ [by] exposing the failure of writing, and its supposed power for asserting will and consciousness through the recurrent tension it establishes between the logocentric and the graphocentric” (198). While there is certainly an underlying tension between orality and script, I do not believe that “Jekyll's fiction of writing his own conclusion is the final instance of bourgeois efforts to impose its own phallic authority upon events [...]through the pen” (Fernandez, 211). The final letter is demonstrative of Hyde's near-mastery over the narrative and Jekyll's attempt to cling to autonomy and power. At the end of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the reader is left with only two documents; there is no longer an omniscient author, or even a surrogate reader, Utterson. The final letter breaks the frame tale leaving the reader with only Jekyll's words. However, as indicative by the shifting pronouns, there is confusion between the dichotomy of Jekyll and Hyde. At some points the author of “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case” describes waking up as Hyde as though it were “himself” waking as Hyde, but at other times he describes Hyde as a different person. This if further complicated by how the two can share the same memories. There are two main ways to identify a hysteric by their narratives. The first is through the repression, or denial, of an event that results in gaps within the narrative, and the second is through disavowal which results in an over-regulated, over-rationalized narrative of events (Charitini). In “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case” the latter manifests in Jekyll's inability to articulate his narrative coherently. Jekyll's ego is attempting to reject “the incompatible idea together with its affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all” (Freud, 50). However, because he is verbalizing the experience in a letter his attempt to deny he that is intrinsically inseparable from Hyde fails. The gaps in the letter manifest in the confused pronouns of “he” and “I” when referring to the acts of Edward Hyde.  In effect, the letter reveals that Jekyll and Hyde are not two, but one, and have never been fully separate beings.


               There is something very peculiar about Hyde, something that cannot be articulated. At least those who gaze upon him cannot articulate what exactly it is that induces in them a repugnant anxiety. Perhaps what is so perplexing, what evades every character that attempts to describe Hyde, is his liminality. Because Hyde has the use of “broken language” he is neither prelocutionary or locutionary, he does not dwell fully in the Imaginary order or in the Symbolic order. Ultimately, Hyde is a nomad trapped between the two orders. Aspects of Hyde's physicality seem to embody the Real, at least in regard to the anxiety his physical form induces on onlookers. The Real is “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic” (Miller, 280). This is perhaps why no one can articulate what exactly Hyde looks like; as Enfield puts it, “I can't describe him. And it's not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment” (Stevenson, 11). Doctor Lanyon who was once a healthy “rosy man” is reduced to a state of decay after witnessing the transformation from Hyde to Jekyll:

 his flesh had fallen away; he was visibly balder and older; and yet it was not so much these tokens of a swift physical decay that arrested the lawyer's notice, as a look in the eye and quality of manner that seemed to testify to some deep-seated terror of the mind (Stevenson, 53).


The transformation in effect voids Lanyon's comprehension of the Symbolic. As a man deeply attached to empirical knowledge he has dedicated his life to understanding the rules and regulations that restrict human existence. However, by witnessing the transformation all categories fail to explain and rationalize. The horror of the breakdown of order is not merely the reversion to a known type of disorder, but a breakdown of order itself, of the ability to make the categorical distinctions. Witnessing the transformation is the equivalent of a hyperbolized gazing on Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors where the gaze is returned. Hyde, like Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, induces in the observed the “uncanny feeling of being gazed at by the object of our look”, which “affects us in the same way as castration anxiety (reminding us of the lack at the heart of the symbolic order). We may believe that we are in control of our eye's look; however, any feeling of scopophilic power is always undone by the fact that the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds and undercuts the meaning structures of the symbolic order” (Felluga). Thus, while Hyde simply induces an uncanny feeling in casual observers, Lanyon witnesses the Real within the Symbolic and is traumatized indefinitely as a result.


              All organic life was once inorganic matter. The transition from inanimate to animate was a violent shock and trauma. All animate matter and all living things retain within themselves some drive to return to an antecedent state of death or inanimation. This is even more deep and fundamental a drive in human beings than the pleasure principle. The death drive is the drive that the conscious mind is least equipped to come to terms with and master. It is the one drive that we can never encounter in an isolated form. It is always somehow connected with sex, sadism, or we see it extroverted into aggression (Douvaldzi). According to Lacan, if the libidinal principle were really to follow its own bliss, and if it were ever to achieve its jouissance, that jouissance would be death. Total bliss would result in self-annihilation (Harrison). This is ultimately what happens in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in an attempt to achieve the pure bliss of having both social love and base gratification Henry Jekyll propels himself towards death. Furthermore, the death drive would perhaps explain why Hyde's violence escalates from calm trampling of the eight year old to cold murder of Carew as the death drive becomes extroverted in raw aggression. It is in Jekyll/Hyde’s self-destruction that the binary of the pleasure of gratification and the pain of death and suicide collapse.


            The whole dichotomy of Jekyll versus Hyde, of order versus chaos, pleasure versus death, civilized versus barbaric or childlike, etc., is itself a form of order. We try to order our world by creating these dichotomies. By placing Hyde within a category, that of the uncivilized or the libidnal, he becomes something that can be managed and analysed but, in fact, there is something even more terrifying about Hyde: that he cannot be easily pinned to a single category -- he defies clear categorization, and therefore control. Jekyll himself ultimately fails in his attempt to place bounds around Hyde; trying to house him in his own apartment, buying him clothes, giving him a name, but in the end Hyde bleeds outside all of these boundaries. In “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”, we see the confusion in Jekyll's use of pronouns, at times referring to Hyde as “I” and at other times as “he”. Furthermore, we see that the supposedly uncivilized Hyde is capable of forging a coherent letter in Jekyll's own hand. Ultimately, he is not merely uncivilized, libidnal, child-like, or immoral, but indescribable. There are two kinds of terror, terror of the known and terror of the unknown; Hyde is not merely representative of chaos, he becomes representative of that which cannot be contained or categorized or described. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what is so uncanny about this story; the fact that neither the characters nor the reader can clearly nail down all the meta-levels and dichotomies in it; the story, like Hyde himself, eludes both control and ultimately, even a definitive description.



















Works Cited


            Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.


            Brantlinger, Patrick. The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth- Century British Fiction.Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998.


            Douvaldzi, Charitini. “Freud & Psychoanalysis”. Entitled Opinions. Narr. Robert Harrison. KZSU: Stanford University Radio, May 27 2007.


            Duckler, Garrick. “On the Representation of Infantile Sense-Making Processes and the Art of      Characterization: Archaic Thought and its History in the Works of Stevenson, Hardy, and Wilde”. Illinois: The University of Chicago, 2005.


            Evans, Dylan.   An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.


            Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Nov. 23 2003. Purdue U. Apr. 10 2009. <>.


            Fernandez, Jean Marie. “In Service of Narration: Servants, the Rhetorics of Class and Narrational Politics in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Autobiography”. Iowa, The University of Iowa: 2004.


            Freud, Sigmund. "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence", 1894a: SE III, 58


            Lacan, Jacques. "Symbol and Language." The Language of the Self. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956.

            Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York:  W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2001. 1285-1290.


            Miller, Jacques-Alain. "Translator's Note." The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc

            Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Bwteen Men: English Literature and Homosocial Desire. York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

            Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Chap ter on Dreams”. 1892. Berkley Digital Library SunSITE. 8 Jun.  1998. <>


            Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1888.


            Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object Of Ideology.London: Verso, 1989.