The Psychology behind the Case of Dr Jekyll Mr Hyde

There is no doubt that Robert Louis Stevenson’s book about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was way ahead of its time. But, like a lot of other literary pieces, it tends to get analyzed to death. His novel introduced the idea of multiple personalities, long before the idea was even discovered in the world of psychology. However the idea that a “good man” could have a monster deep inside him, waiting for a trigger to release said monster, is not exactly original. I enjoyed the novel and at least one of the movie versions of the book, but reading too much into it, as a study in psychology, kind of takes the fun out of it.

First of all, let’s look at the world of multiple personalities (which modern psychology is calling “Dissociative Identity disorder”). I was a psychology major and know a little about the disorder. The idea became famous from a couple of books titled, “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil.” I happen to believe these and a few other cases of multiple personality disorder. In the last 25 years or so, the number of these cases that have been diagnosed has gone up radically. Now, does this mean that DID is happening more? I really don’t think so. I think professionals are becoming less and less stringent with their definitions and diagnosing the issue when it isn’t true. Generally, a person who suffers from DID is one who has suffered tremendous and frequent abuse as a child. But, not everyone who was abused (even heinously) suffers from DID. It is a disorder that too many psychologists diagnose – probably for the purpose of writing a paper and gaining notoriety. True DID is very rare – but it does happen.

Now, linking the idea of multiple personalities to Stevenson’s tale is an interesting one. However, one has to remember that Stevenson was writing an interesting piece of FICTION. With a great imagination, Stevenson saw into the potential psyche of someone who was good but had some evil percolating just below the surface. Could he have imagined that a whole sub-set of diagnoses (and misdiagnoses) within “abnormal psychology” would erupt because of what he wrote? Of course not. He wrote a piece of fiction that happened to come to light in the real world shortly after. It’s no different than Jules Verne foreseeing submarine travel in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” It was a great imaginary thought that has since come true.

The idea of a good person turning evil is not exactly the most novel idea in the history of the world. I will give Stevenson credit, though. He sure made the story interesting. Anyone who has lived any length of time though, has to realize that it doesn’t take a “magic potion” to turn a nice guy into a monster. How many of us have been to a party where a normally nice person becomes quite the evil one, with just a few drinks in him/her? For some people, it doesn’t take much to release the beast. I have my own theory (which will, likely, never be proven) that the more pious one is, the more likely that his/her evil side is that much more evil and that much closer to the surface.

At any rate, the psychology behind the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an interesting topic for cocktail party psychology, but let’s not read too much into it. Apparently there is a writer out there who feels the novel is a sort of unmasking of Stevenson’s own latent homosexuality. (Really? I was unaware that homosexuality was evil, though I suppose in Stevenson’s time, it was considered so.) This kind of psychological interpretation just defeats the work of fiction that it is. And, I should think, that is what Stevenson would want his readers to take from the novel – it’s a great piece of fiction. Period.