This paper will address the topic of how Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness both explore the dual nature of man as possessing both the capacity for tremendous good and profound evil. This particular aspect of thematic similarity between the two wildly divergent narratives was chosen for the way in which this generalized thematic coherence can be narrowed down to a specific thematic focus that manages to retain coherence despite the differing approaches by both authors. Both these novels represent an increased awareness of the dualistic nature of the human soul. The precise topic of the paper will show how this intensifying obsession with man’s dualism is specifically informed by and directed toward a critique of British colonialism and its intensifying imperialist aims during the Victorian period.
Robert Louis Stevenson could very appropriately have titled his novel about the splitting of the two sides of man into two distinct persons Heart of Darkness. Jekyll’s fascination with unlocking passageway into the subconscious blocked by repression becomes a journey not just into the heart of his own darkness, but by symbolic association a journey into the heart of England’s darkness. What begins purely as a scientific inquiry absent any specific intention to do harm quickly gets out of control and produces exactly that result. Where Jekyll merges most completely with Hyde is in his unwillingness to end the experiment even after he becomes aware of its sinister consequences. This links allegorically with the British mandate toward colonial exploration which may not have set out cause such harm, but nevertheless did not end even when it became obvious that its positive consequences were more than offset by its negative implications. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness presents an examination of how goodness and evil can co-exist within the same person, but ultimately allow the darkness to give way to madness through his portrayals of the corruption of both Kurtz and Marlow as they penetrate deeper in the heart of the jungle as agents of British imperialism (Smith 125).
Conrad’s obviously presents a more straightforward narrative that unifies the theme of man’s dual nature as a symbol of the dualism inherent in British colonialism since his story is grounded in the trafficking of that imperialist mechanism. This makes it easier to read Heart of Darkness as critique of these policies than as thematic counterpart to Stevenson’s story of a good man living side by side with a bad man in the same body. Stevenson’s decision to almost physically separate the good and bad parts of Jekyll into two seemingly unrelated men thus allows for the general element of the theme to be more easily explored. At the same time, the lack of any characters or settings directly tied to colonialism reveals how his text is substantially different in exploring this narrower topic than Conrad’s tale. Fittingly, the stories themselves are revealed as dualistic in nature in the way each approaches its themes.
The so-what component here is that it is not enough merely to suggest that both authors have written narratives exploring the nature of man to be both good and evil simultaneously. Darwinian evolution had already been courting controversy for nearly thirty years before Stevenson even published his novel and Freud opened his practice his Vienna the same year that that Jekyll and Hyde hit bookstores. That all men were inherent capable of great charity and heinous villainy was hardly an earth-shattering revelation, especially by the time Heart of Darkness appeared in 1899. What was shattering to many British readers was the suggestion—implicit in Stevenson’s novel and more unambiguously handled by Conrad—that there might be “an evil basis of the British Empire” (Snodgrass 266) every bit as heinous as Hyde’s impact on the fog-shrouded streets of London after dark.
- Smith, Jennifer, ed. “Heart of Darkness” Short stories for students. Detroit: Gale, 1997. Print.
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of the literature of empire. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2010. Print.