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Science, truth and manipulation: Jekyll and Hyde


A classic example of the way in which science can hover between being helping us to understand nature and manipulating nature is provided by Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this story, Jekyll recognises in himself the "thorough and primitive duality of man" (49). He calls them his "two natures" (49), and imagines them in terms of the opposition of society and nature. This opposition has specifically Calvinistic, Freudian and Darwinian overtones.

Sometimes Jekyll sees nature as simply that, natural, but at other times he sees it as evil. This is a kind of universal feeling, for what we call our natural instincts are in fact natural to a high degree, but on the other, they are so powerful that they threaten to override our concern for others, and in so doing are easily experienced as evil.

This however, has some consequences for the way science is represented in the text. On the one hand, during his experiments, Jekyll feels he "drew steadily nearer to that truth" (48), "learned to recognise" (49), and "began to perceive more deeply than it has ever yet been stated" (49). Science is thus perceived to offer real insights into nature. On the other hand,


I not only recognised my natural body for the mere aura and effulgence of certain of the powers that made up my spirit, but managed to compound a drug by which these powers should be dethroned from their supremacy, and a second form and countenance substituted, none the less natural to me because they were the expression, and bore the stamp, of lower elements in my soul. [...] I knew well that I risked death; for any drug that so potently controlled and shook the very fortress of my identity, might by the least scruple of of an overdose [...] blot out that immaterial tabernacle which I looked to it to change. [...] The most racking pangs succeeded, a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. (49-50)


The quote is long, but is worth analysing in some detail (I will be referring to the passages which are shown in blue). In this excerpt nature - "my natural body" - turns out not to be nature, but metaphysics - an "aura and effulgence of certain of the powers that made up my spirit". Jekyll's drug thus has consequences for nature, yes, but also metaphysics, for nature is just an expression of metaphysics. And what Jekyll's drug does is not understand, but manipulate, change nature and metaphysics: it shakes his identity and blots out the soul, that "immaterial tabernacle", and that change is painful for the body - "a grinding of the bones" - and the soul - a "horror of the spirit". This pain is, by the way, quite tellingly not to be exceeded at those moments in which physics and metaphysics meet, "the hour of birth or death".

Jekyll's drug thus both understands and manipulates nature and metaphysics.

work cited

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Ed. Katherine Linehan. New York: Norton, 2003.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann