Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde



This double-exposed photograph by Henry Van der Weyde depicts Richard Mansfield in the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in an early and infamous stage adaptation of Stevenson’s novella. Image in the public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Robert Lois Stevenson’s “shilling-shocker” novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), has so thoroughly become a part of our cultural consciousness that, though not all people have read the tale, most are familiar with its title characters. One often hears the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” applied to common temperamental behaviour and, more crudely, to types of psychiatric illness. In fact, Anne Stiles suggests that at the time of its publication, Stevenson’s depiction of one man split into two distinct persons would have born similarities to the Victorian medical concept of the “double-brained,” that is, of a dual personality caused by “a disproportionately large right brain overpowering the rational activities of the left brain” (38). While the disparate dual personalities of the title characters and the pseudo-medical transformation between them prompt medical interest, Hyde, who is thought to be a separate person from Jekyll until the last quarter of the story, and his body more directly reflect fin-de-siècle notions of disability.

In Hyde, we can see both the criminalization of disability and the medicalization of crime disseminated in popular scientific theories of the time: in particular, early criminology, degeneration theory, and theories of atavism, all of which tended to argue that criminals’ bodies bore evidence of de-evolving to a primitive form of human. The novella’s narrators often describe Hyde in atavistic terms, as “troglodytic” (42), “ape-like” (42, 92), or “like a monkey” (65). In the passage below, which gives us the text’s first depiction of Hyde, a Mr Enfield describes Hyde violently injuring a child. Stevenson’s portrayal of Hyde aligns the criminal body with physicality, Hyde’s diminutive size and apparent deformity, but ambiguously does not pin down that deformity, instead making it only a suggestion, a “strong feeling” located in the observer rather than a tangible fact of Hyde’s being. The passage also notably details the violent repulsion people have to the sight of Hyde. While the various narrators of the novella presume Hyde’s inherent evil is the source of this disgust, their responses to his body align with Lennard Davis’s description of disability as “a specular moment” in which a normative-bodied observer responds to the sight of a disabled person with “horror, fear, pity, compassion, and avoidance” (12). Davis argues that these emotional responses are “a socially conditioned, politically generated response” (13); in the case of Hyde’s viewers, these responses would have been informed by popular degeneration theory.

Primary Source Text

“All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.[1] I gave a view-halloa,[2] took to my heels, collared my gentleman, and brought him back to where there was already quite a group about the screaming child. He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the girl’s own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom she had been sent, put in his appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones;[3] and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child’s family, which was only natural. But the doctor’s case was what struck me. He was the usual cut and dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best. We told the man we could and would make such a scandal out of this as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other. If he had any friends or any credit, we undertook that he should lose them. And all the time, as we were pitching it in red hot, we were keeping the women off him as best we could for they were as wild as harpies. I never saw a circle of such hateful faces; and there was the man in the middle, with a kind of black, sneering coolness—frightened too, I could see that—but carrying it off, sir, really like Satan. ‘If you choose to make capital out of this accident,’ said he, ‘I am naturally helpless. No gentleman but wishes to avoid a scene,’ says he. ‘Name your figure.’ Well, we screwed him up to a hundred pounds for the child’s family; he would have clearly liked to stick out;[4] but there was something about the lot of us that meant mischief, and at last he struck.

“But for all that,” continued the lawyer, “there’s one point I want to ask: I want to ask the name of that man who walked over the child.”

“Well,” said Mr. Enfield, “I can’t see what harm it would do. It was a man of the name of Hyde.”

“Hm,” said Mr. Utterson. “What sort of a man is he to see?”

“He is not easy to describe. 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, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”


[1] “Originally a term from Hindu, in Victorian England used to denote a force that crushes people to death” (33).

[2] “A hunter’s cry when a fox has been sighted” (33).

[3] “Slang for a doctor, especially a surgeon” (33).

[4] To continue to negotiate for a better price.


Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ed. Martin A. Danahay. 2nd Edition. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2005. 33-36. Print.



Further Reading

  • Arata, Stephen D. “The Sedulous Ape: Atavism, Professionalism, and Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde.Criticism 37.2 (1995): 233-259. 17 Jul. 2013. Print

  • Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.

  • Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

  • Schalk, Sami. “What Makes Mr. Hyde So Scary?: Disability as a Result of Evil and Cause of Fear.” Disability Studies Quarterly. 28.4 (2008): <> Web.

  • Smith, Andrew. Victorian Demons: Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin-De-Siècle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004.

  • Stiles, Anne. Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.


Kylee-Anne Hingston



Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed June 19, 2024,