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Heart Of Darkness And Jekyll A Essay, Research Paper

‘It appears as if the whole of civilised humanity were converted to the aesthetics of the dusk of nations’ (Max Nordau, 1895). How far and in what ways is ‘Civilisation’ under threat in Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, (1902), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (1886).

“Civilisation degrades the many to exalt the few.”

- Amos Bronson Alcott (1)

“Fin-de-siecle claims that jingoism and aestheticism were upwellings of a single underlying decadence.”

- Stephen Arata (2)

Writing this essay from the twenty-first century within an historical context, it is easy to doubt the moral integrity of Victorian British society and the imperialistic politics of the Empire; however, it was the fin-de-siecle’s proliferating social decline and moralistic decay, that provided a spring-board for male writers such as Stevenson and Conrad to create their fictional work. The relation between writer and society is reciprocal: the writer is inspired by the frenzy of public life, while the readership public are influenced and guided by the literary word. With this in mind, and from a Marxist perspective, it is clear that any piece of literary work has a social significance:

A nation…is held together in part by the stories it generates about itself…Heroic narratives…are

instrumental in the creation and maintenance of collective identities- and one thinks of their

proliferation throughout the nineteenth-century…We need not unreservedly assent to George

Luk cs’s claim that the novels are epics for a fallen age in order to maintain, along with Luk cs,

that fictional prose narrative is the preeminent aesthetic form through which modern

communities in the west make and remake themselves” (3).

What I am trying to make clear here, is that Victorian civilisation was under threat from itself, because from out of it spawned writers such as Stevenson and Conrad whose ‘aesthetic form’ influenced society to ‘remake’ itself. In other words, the lives and thoughts of the people are the ultimate signifier to society and civilisation as a whole. Therefore, if we take Heart of Darkness, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as social critiques that ultimately condemned colonialism and middle-class professionalism respectively, then it appears the threat to Victorian civilisation was in fact from its own inherent devices.

Max Nordau wrote Degeneration, (1895), in which he proposed the ‘degeneration’ theory; this theory was subsequently used by the bourgeois to justify and articulate their hostility to the deviant and subversive classes. By the end of the nineteenth-century degeneration had proliferated; poverty, prostitution, crime and pollution had reached deep into British society and was a cause of social decay. According to Nordau, the spread of degeneracy was due to the, “the vertigo and whirl of our frenzied life”. Human beings were not built to stand up to the delirium of modern society: “Under any kind of noxious influences an organism becomes debilitated” (4).

This degeneracy and debilitation under “noxious influences” is perfectly illustrated by Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The physically debilitated Mr Hyde is ultimately the embodiment of degeneracy in the story. Cesare Lombroso came up with physiological and psychological predeterminates by which all degenerate criminals had- big jaw bones, high cheek bones, handle-shaped ears, and other ape-like characteristics (5). It was if the ‘degenerate’ was the reverse of human development and the evolution of civilisation, and so Mr Hyde is illustrative of deviance expressed in physical deformity reminiscent of early mankind. Mr Enfield describes him thus:

There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright

detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed

somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an

extraordinary-looking man” (p. 34).

Deformity was a disease of the lower-classes and according with the ‘degeneration’ theory, the subordinate classes were equated with moral decline and social decay. However, we know that Jekyll/Hyde was not one of the troglodytic classes but of the professional middle-class; therefore, when one looks at degenaracy one must look up the social ladder as well as down. Both Nordau and Lombroso argue that, “degeneration was as endemic to a decadent aristocracy as to a troglodytic proletariat” (6). Therefore, Jekyll exposes the disturbing notion that the threat of the professional classes to society, is as real as that of the ‘big-jawed’ criminal. Therefore, his depravity turns the theory back on his own bourgeois background. Indeed, for the fin-de-siecle reader, the most striking feature of the book would have been the context of it: all the characters involved in the depravity are all successful, middle-aged, professional men. Stevenson criticised the rich upper classes who had succumbed to the decadence of the fin-de-siecle; appropriately, the novella begins with Enfield and Utterson on one of their “Sunday walks” through the inviting “florid charms” of London’s streets that “pleased the eye of the passenger” (p. 30), thus identifying them as ‘flaneur’ type socialites. Even the child-trampling, ‘degenerate’ Mr Hyde displays a penchant for the artifice, his chamber in Soho is described as beautifully decorated and lavishly furnished; it is also apparent that Hyde himself has a cultivation for art and good wine, suggesting he operates within upper class culture. Of course, one has been made aware that Hyde also embodies the supposedly ’savage’ and immoral culture of the ‘degenerate’ classes.

As the theory was a bourgeois concept used to protect themselves from the social decay around them, it would have been quite disturbing for Stevenson’s upper class readership when they realised one of their ‘own’ was in fact one of ‘them’ as well. This was made even more alarming as Jekyll’s fellow professional peer’s actually try to protect Hyde. The men, despite their disgust at his appearance, close rank around him as he appears one of them. This is illustrated by their silence over the trampled girl affair: even though Enfield feels “a desire to kill him” (p32) for his indiscretion, by the end of the episode Hyde is treated like a social equal as both Enfield and the girl’s father have breakfast with him. With “killing being out of the question [they] did the next best [thing]” (p. 32), they bribed him. This suggests that Enfield himself has an evil dark side, but fortunately, his conscious takes control and he has the strength to displace it. They are all from the same class, therefore they must protect the respectibility of each other’s names by remaining silent; it is this homosocial respect that binds all professional men together, and therefore, to protect themselves they do not report the crime:

What we see in particular is that the patriarchy’s unconscious participation in Hyde threatens

society itself because rage is directed not outward- through, say, imperialistic ventures- but

back into communal life. In turn, communal safeguards, especially professionalism and

friendship, function not to channel and contain but to screen and foster these destructive

emotions” (7)

By reflecting on patriarchy’s participation in Hyde’s depravity, Stevenson is focusing on society and the problems it had caused, in part, by the underlying decadence of the time. The suggestion that Hyde’s ‘destructive emotions’ are not only his, but also a smear on his professional peers, is supported by the the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. The fatal beating is administered by a heavy cane that was originally Utterson’s. The cane breaks in two with the force of Hyde’s “insensate cruelty” (p. 47), yet the two pieces find their way back into Utterson’s possession. Thus, Utterson’s hands are ’stained’ by Hyde’s crime. This is the disturbing part with regards to civilisation: it is not that the highly respected Jekyll turns into a savage monster, but that his evil darker side is synonymous with his social class. The novella turns the events that center on degeneracy and human corruption back on the professional classes that produced them; therefore, Stevenson implicates the bourgeois with the same social decay of western civilisation it attempts to blame on the subordinate classes.

There was a certain degree of hypocrisy in society that Stevenson exposes and criticises in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and this may have something to do with his background. Stevenson rebelled against his Calvinistic upbringing and rejected the narrow morality of of Victorian Britain (8). He was more interested in the duality of man, and thus Jekyll is the embodiment of this. Despite his repentence for the horrors of his other self, Jekyll sees this release from his moral shackles as a liberation. He didn’t wish for this release to end up in such horrific violence, but he accepted it within the context of society’s ambivalence, in its toleration towards certain behaviours while rejection of others. Thus, by the strange immunity of his position, he was able to commit crimes while under the guise of Hyde and remain exempt from punishment. By using Hyde, Jekyll could maintain respectibility and innocence whilst simultaneously indulging in terrible crimes, thus symbolising the ‘double standard’ morals that was ingrained into Victorian society. By questioning the integrity of this ‘double standard’, the novella encapsulates the fundamental dichotomy which lay in the minds of Victorian man: he had an outward veneer of respectibility, whilst underneath there was a licentious depravity. Stevenson exposes the secrets of man’s psyche that, according to Freud, consists of competing forces, one side (ego and super ego) is mild and conscientious of morality while the other (id) has harmful potential and an evil disposition.

At the beginning of the ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’, Jekyll sets up the description of his own evil disposition:

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, 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” (p. 82)

We are told with perfect clarity, the painful indecisions that Jekyll experienced in his experiments, and the consequential emotions that overpower him while he is his other self, Hyde. Jekyll is increasingly drawn to and fascinated by the the path of depravity that Hyde embarks on; we are told of his emotions and horrified reactions to his life of irresistible duplicity. He is tormented by his powerless to resist his “insensate readiness to evil” (p. 90), yet in a perverse way he enjoyed it’s “incrediably sweet” sensation (p. 83), he felt it “was [him]self. It seemed natural and human” (p. 84). However, his moral decline and life of unparalleled depravity into which he falls deeper and deeper everytime he assumes the body of Hyde, eats away at his super ego. Jekyll’s genius, “learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man” (p. 82). In rationalising his conflicting ego and id, he sought the possibility of splitting his dichotomous identity into its ‘good’ and ‘evil’ parts, thus relieving the “more upright twin” of his “extraneous evil” twin (p. 82). According to Jekyll, the duality of human nature is the “curse of mankind”, and if the mind could be dissociated in some way, then the good part would be free from the temptation of its evil twin, while the evil part would be free from the “aspirations” and “remorse” of its good twin (p. 82). The results of Jekyll’s experiment are, of course, horrifying.

In my opinion, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a critique on the moral and patriarchal inflexibility that had a complete grip on Victorian society. The fearsome spectre of man’s and patriarchy’s duality is not just encompassed by Jekyll but, as I have already mentioned, the professional circle around him too. Not only are we aware of Enfield’s degenerative thoughts (as I mentioned earlier), but we are told of Utterson’s iniquitious past in which he was “humbled to the dust by the many ill things he had done”, and the things he had nearly done but managed to repress. Exploring the duality of human nature, Stevenson explicitly demonstrates the dangers of repressing it completely. His critique of the archetypal professional bourgeois network cuts deep into British society; what the novella suggests is that the morality that shapes ‘civilised’ society is in fact, a repressive system that confines the natural human instincts. The concept of repression is central to Freud’s model of ’self’ and society- civilisation is founded upon individuals acquiring the ability to refrain from indulging in the ‘pleasure principle’ (9). Because society tells us to be good and lead a life of virtue and control, we restrain our natural and unexercised evil nature. Stevenson said: “A blind adherence to someone else’s set of rules was worthless, even dangerous” (10). Mr Hyde is the result of this adherence, and therefore symbolic of the dangers that repressive morality pose for human civilisation.

The study of degeneration was invariably the bourgeoise’s own ’set of rules’, and was an effective way for the them to ‘other’ large groups of people, by marking them as deviant, primitive or socially regressive. This ’set of rules’ was not only applied to the lower class ‘other’ in Britain, but also to the ‘other’ that inhabited the ‘dark’ colonial continent of Africa:

“Universal English hegemony was threatened by one factor, however, Could the English

people…maintain their racial identity in new climates and conditions of existence?…The

movement of any race outside its native environment led to physical and moral degeneration”


Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, was written, consciously or unconsciously, from a colonialistic point of view. Marlow’s catharsis in the novel, as he goes to the Congo, rests on his exposure to the imperialistic nature of the historical period in which he lived, and how he visualizes the effects of imperialism. Throughout the novella, Conrad, via Marlow’s observations, reveals to the reader the naive mentality shared by every European. Marlow as well, shares this naivety in the beginning of his voyage. However, after his first few moments in the Congo, he realizes the ignorance he and all his comrades possess. Marlow’s aunt demonstrates the general naivety of the Europeans when, before he embarks on his journey, she tells Marlow to, “wean those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”(p18). She was under the assumption that he was to travel out there as “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (p18). In reality, however, the Europeans went there in the name of imperialism, and their sole objective was to earn a substantial profit by plundering as much ivory and rubber as possible from Africa. This is symbolised by Kurtz’s painting of a blindfolded woman carrying a lighted torch, the background was dark, and “the effect of the torch light on [her] face was sinister” (p36). The oil painting suggests the ‘blindness’ of the colonisers, who believed that besides the ivory they were taking out of the jungle, they were at the same time, bringing light and progress to the natives. However, as the story progresses it becomes apparent that this ‘blind’ ignorance leads to ‘physical and moral degeneration’ that is embodied by Mr Kurtz.

From the beginning of the novella, Conrad weaves a deep and mysterious tale that explores the integrity of colonialism and its threat to African civilisation. The concept of light and dark, which characterises the setting- white pilgrims in a ‘dark’ place inhabited by black natives- also conveys the duality to be found in mankind’s consciousness (white=super/ego, black=id). Light is normally associated with the self-knowledge, good intentions and the enlightenment that civilisation offers; however, darkness usually represents the wilderness, ignorance and evil intentions. Marlow’s experiences lead to a progressive blurring of the boundary between white/good and black/evil, until the distinction is intangible. Marlow realises that this timeless distinction has always been at the forefront of civilisation:

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years

ago…Light came out of this river since- you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on

a plain, like a flash of lightening in the clouds. We live in a flicker- may it last as long as the

old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday” (p8).

Marlow visualises the ‘civilised’ men of the Roman Empire, facing a dark and “savage” wilderness, and then like mere ‘degenerates’, they loot and destroy everything they encounter including human life. However, we are reminded of the transient nature of colonial civilisation: the once powerful Roman Empire disappeared and so too will the British. Yet, the implication is that the so-called ‘torch-bearers’ of civilisation, when faced with unfamiliar darkness, respond by becoming what they believe they are suppressing- savages. Although Marlow asserts that we are different to the Romans, his definition of colonialism is universal and stresses the ambivalence that applies to any Empire. He points to the underlying malevolance of colonialism, and reveals that the colonial enterprise is also an ordeal for himself as a ‘civilised’ white man, who from his fascination with the “abomination” (p9) of the wilderness, is thus susceptible to his own darker nature and instincts. Kurtz is the result of this ‘abomination’, his idealism and desire to bring the light of western civilisation to the Congo are inseperable from his own inordinate ego and will for power. However, his lack of restraint within the ‘darkness’ of the jungle, transforms his virtue into evil and “unspeakable rites” (p72). By wanting to become more powerful than he was humanly capable of, he actually became a degenerate, a slave to the wilderness (in his heart and the jungle). The darkness of Africa collides with the evils of Europe upon Kurtz’s last words: “The horror! The horror!” (p100). Kurtz realized that all he had been taught to believe in, to operate from, was a mass of horror and greed standardized by western civilisation.

On the other hand, Marlow has a capacity for moral discrimination and humanitarism, and ultimately rejects both the colonialisation of the natives and his surrender to the primitiveness of his id. Marlow tries and fails to fathom symbolic meanings for many things he encounters on his journey- the piece of worsted around the slaves neck, the ‘restraint’ of the starving cannibals aboard his boat, the ‘voices’ in his head, the beat of the native’s drums- he just cannot ‘read’ nature. It seems that Marlow embodies western civilisation which always tries to find rationality and definition in everything, yet is no match to the enormity and mystery of this unconquered landscape. Nature, actually has the power conquer western civilisation, and naturalise it’s mechanical products: a boiler is seen “wallowing” in the grass, and a truck “lying…on its back with its wheels in the air…The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal” (p22).

Western civilisation felt threatened by Africa because the landscape was hostile and the natives were primitive, thus Marlow felt like a wanderer “on a prehistoric earth” (p51). When, Marlow sets out for Kurtz, he says, “going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world” (p48). There is a repeated emphasis on his voyage as an exploration of the mysterious and primitive, the “rioting invasion of soundless life” (p43). Yet, because the Europeans had become so ‘civilised’, they had lost the primitive affinity with nature that their ancestors once had. Therefore, the veneer of civilisation, especially prominent in the decadence of the fin-de-siecle, made the Europeans feel superior to the Africans, or the ‘other’. However, as we graphically discover, Kurtz could find no meaning or value in himself once the veneer of civilisation had been stripped from him. The freedom of the jungle allows his primitively evil tendencies to flourish, as opposed to the moral constraints of western civilisation. Africans was not as far along the temporal scale of social evolution as the Europeans were, yet the aura of seniority was deluded. What Marlow’s experiences and Kurtz’s psychological state tell the reader, is that the European’s need to dominate the ‘other’, is a symptom of it’s inability to control the ‘other’ (the savage nature of the id) in themselves and their culture, thus making them just as ‘primitive’ as the people they colonise: “Indeed, Europe’s encounter with the non-European,…played a part in one of the most important aspects of modern thought: Europe’s discovery of ‘the Other’ within itself” (12). What seemed to Marlow a journey into the ‘other’s’ wilderness, turns out to be a journey into the self and the ‘other[ness]‘ of western ideology.

It is because of Marlow’s rejection of both the Europeans, who Marlow claims are full of “stupid importance”, and of Kurtz’s inability to establish his own moral code, that Marlow chooses an alternative reality. The first time the reader witnesses Marlow’s choice, is when he first gets back to Europe. Marlow finds himself resenting the way the Europeans went about their life, “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other”. He found their lives meaningless and he mocked them: “I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance… I tottered about the streets…grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable people. I admit my behavior was inexcusable” (p102). Although Marlow looked down upon these Europeans, he says something remarkable. He judged his own actions and found them ‘inexcusable’. This is his manifestation of breaking away from Kurtz’s extreme. Unlike Kurtz who lacked all restraint and would never find looking down on people bad, Marlow realized that he couldn’t hold it against them simply because “they didn’t know the things [he] knew” (p102). With his cross-legged Buddha position at the end, Marlow had clearly found peace within himself and a self-knowledge that has edged him towards a ‘middle ground’.

What is reflected by both novella’s I have discussed, is the threat of loss of self, loss of centrality, and the displacement of Western patriarchal society from the perceived center of human evolution, by those supposed ‘degenerates’ whom it has enslaved (colonialism), or even protected (professionalism). The threat to civilisation is highlighted by Kurtz and Dr Jekyll whose degenaration is, “merely [the] ‘lower’ nature that we do not really want to fulfill, but [it is] part of our humanity that is just as definitively human as reason and judgement or other God-like attributes” (13) Therefore, what both novellas tell us, is that the threat to civilisation comes from within society and ourselves, and can be manifested in the most unlikely places. This is the ‘horror’!


(1) Foreman, J. B. (Ed), Collins Gem Dictionary of Quotations (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1967), p 16.

(2) Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p 176.

(3) Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle, p 1.

(4) Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle, p 28.

(5) Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle, pp 34-36.

(6) Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle, p 35.

(7) Hirsch, Gordon, & Veeder, William (Eds), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: After One Hundred Years (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1988), p 122.

(8) Hammond, J. R, A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion (London: MacMillan Press, 1984.)

(9) Rivkin, Julie & Ryan, Michael (Eds), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998),

pp 168-174.

(10) Calder, Jenni (Ed), Stevenson and Victorian Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p 5.

(11) Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle, p 156.

(12) Murfin, Ross, Heart of Darkness, A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism (New York: St Martins Press, 1989), p 242.

(13) Johnson, Bruce, Conrad’s Models of Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971),

p 206.


Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Calder, Jenni (Ed), Stevenson and Victorian Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, Penguin Popular Classics (London: Penguin, 1994).

Foreman, J. B. (Ed), Collins Gem Dictionary of Quotations (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1967),

Hammond, J. R, A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion (London: MacMillan Press, 1984).

Hirsch, Gordon, & Veeder, William (Eds), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: After One Hundred Years (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1988).

Jay, Martin, Fin-de-Siecle Socialism (London: Routledge, 1988).

Johnson, Bruce, Conrad’s Models of Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).

Luk cs, George, Writer and Critic and Other Essays, edited and translated by Arthur Kahn (London: Merlin Press, 1970).

Maixner, Paul (Ed), Robert Louis Stevenson: A Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).

Murfin, Ross, Heart of Darkness, A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism (New York: St Martins Press, 1989).

Rivkin, Julie & Ryan, Michael (Eds), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Other Stories, edited by Jenni Calder, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 1979).

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