Making Sense of What We See (or don’t see!): Disability in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Olivia Abram

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Color lithograph by National Printing & Engraving Company, 188?. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In my time as an English Language Arts teacher, one of my favourite texts to teach was Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–for reasons beyond the fist bumps and high fives celebrating its manageable length. Strange Case is approachable, engaging, and was a perfect culminating book-length study in my unit on mood and tone. Eurowestern readers of Strange Case will almost certainly have at least an idea of the storyline: one man is both the upstanding Jekyll and the evil Hyde; he transforms between identities using an experimental concoction until one day, he becomes stuck as Hyde and perishes, having pushed beyond the boundaries of science. The fears percolating in the Victorian public at the time Stevenson is writing—of the unknown, the dark side of human and “progress,” and, of course, the Other—remain relevant for 21st century readers.

Many have interpreted and problematically pathologized the central characters Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde as a single subject, assuming both subjects’ consciousnesses reside in the same human body.[1] As such, Strange Case has been described as a Victorian construction of A) mental illness[2] or B) the deepest, darkest, regressed parts of humanity.

Strange Case reflects the public and literary objective of the time: to “control, cure, or comprehend” otherness (Hingston 163). The growing association between disability and evil—and the developing fear of the potential of the human species to regress into primitive, animalistic, murderous beings—coincided with an increasing interest in and newfound ability to investigate and surveille. In Strange Case, Stevenson positions the text’s fear-inducing threat—that is, disability—as something strange to see, something that must be watched closely for the community’s stability.

One central tenet of writing of the time is an emphasis on looking. To read Strange Case more ethically and meaningfully, we must analyze modes of looking both exemplified and promoted in the text. Thought leader in disability justice and culture Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s thinking on staring can help us do so; in Staring: How We Look, she advocates for a replacement of the gaze (“an oppressive act of disciplinary looking that subordinates”) with the stare, “an intense visual exchange that makes meaning” (9). Reading works about disability often places the reader and the disabled subject in an asymmetrical power relationship of interpreter (looker) and interpreted (looked at), respectively. The idea of staring, when applied to reading methods, can promote a more ethical approach to engaging with disabled characters. But you might be asking, how do texts encourage (or discourage) readers and characters to look? Some texts, especially suspenseful ones, don’t let us see much—subjects are left mysterious often on purpose. More ethical reading, here, of disability, requires an attention to interpreting what/how we do “see

[1] Spoiler alert: like other scholars working within Disability Studies, I read Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde as separate subjects. 

[2]For scholarship that diagnoses or pathologizes Hyde and/or Jekyll, see Angela Smith (epilepsy); Anne Stiles (double-brain); Altschuler and Wright, Oates (substance dependence); Royeka Sarker (dissociative identity disorder). As Kylee-Anne Hingston notes in her chapter on the text, Strange Case has, since its publication, become synonymous with DID, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia (McNally and Mathiasen are cited in Hingston 165).

For more see Olivia Abram. “Seeing and Surveilling Disability: Ethics and Modes of Looking in R.L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Victorian Review, vol. 48 no. 2, 2022, p. 309-326. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2022.a900629.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *