Study Guide

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson in Disability Studies

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

While Dracula and Frankenstein explore in their own unique ways the threats posed by extraordinary bodies to the community and the nation as a whole, another Gothic classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, turns the focus inward, to the threat that bodies face from the inside.

We've all heard the expression "S/he was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," to describe a rapid, unexpected, and often scary change in personality. But when the novel first appeared, it spoke to growing fears about the nature and stability of identity, of one's sense of self, and of the terror of what might be lurking inside the bodies and minds of people, only to burst out and destroy their worlds.

This was such a fear in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that newspapers like The London Times were filled with true-life stories of what came to be known as "double consciousness," where seemingly average people would experience a sudden shock, fright, or injury that would, basically, flip some kind of a switch inside them, making them become entirely different people.

They would assume new names and careers; they would, for sometimes weeks, months, and years at a time, begin to live completely different lives, only to snap back to the reality of their "original" personalities just as quickly and unexpectedly as they snapped out of them.

Part of this was due, of course, to the discoveries of early psychiatry. Freud was just beginning at this time to develop his theories of the three-part consciousness, which says that the human mind consists of the id, the ego, and the superego. Of these three, the person is typically only consciously aware of the ego. This is the sense of self that the person consciously cultivates and tries to understand.

But most of our drives, our desires, and our fears are subconscious. We have no idea what they are, or that they're even there, and yet, according to these emerging theories of psychology, they profoundly shape who we are, what we do, and how we see the world.

The superego is our moral police. It's where we absorb and internalize our ideas of what's right and wrong. It constrains our actions so that we don't suffer shame, guilt, or punishment for wrongdoings.

The id is the storehouse of all that's primitive. It's the seat of our aggression, our lust, and our impulses. If the superego is the ultra-civilized, tea-sipping, opera-going, Voltaire-reading part of our brain, the id is all fried chicken wings, MMA, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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