Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Coleridge, and the Possibilities of Writing


Ronald Wendling


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 69-75)



COLERIDGE DOES NOT APPEAR on any of Robert Louis Stevenson’s lists of writers who influenced him, but by his own account Coleridge was among those to whom, in his college years, he played ‘the sedulous ape.’  Whenever Stevenson then read a striking passage, he tried duplicating its effect in a descriptive passage of his own.[1]  He made just such an early effort in varying ‘Betwixt us and the Sun,’ a phrase Coleridge had used to describe the skeleton ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834).[2]  Writing to his mother from the northern Scottish port of Wick, Stevenson described a fishing lugger he and a friend had seen at night from their own boat at the mouth of the bay.  Looking ‘tall, filmy and unnatural in the dim light,’ it ‘drove ‘betwixt the moon and us’,’ he observed, adding self-consciously: ‘—ahem! Coleridge!’ (LRLS 1 164).  Nearly sixteen years later, complaining of literary exhaustion to Edmund Gosse, he varied yet another expression from the Rime:  ‘I am all at a standstill; as idle as a painted ship, but not so pretty’ (PW I.1 381; LRLS 4 261).

       Stevenson knew more of Coleridge than the Rime, however.  Just turned twenty-four, he was so transported by the music at an Edinburgh concert that he had to leave the hall lest ‘aught more mean should stamp me mortal,’ a phrase echoing one Coleridge had used in ‘To the Author of ‘The Robbers’ to praise Schiller’s sublimity .[3]  Some four and a half years later, Stevenson said that ‘Kubla Khan’ represented ‘old Coleridge’ at his best, unlike ‘that surprising Friend which has knocked the breath out of two generations of hopeful youth’.[4]  Finally, some three years before the appearance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he agreed with his cousin, Bob Stevenson, that no merely realistic description of Mont Blanc could have produced Coleridge’s vision of it in ‘Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni’ as ‘visited all night by troops of stars’.[5] 

       Great writing demands some ‘ardent struggle of immediate representation,’ Stevenson admits—what Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria called ‘truth in observing.’  But no mere copying of nature can substitute for




Coleridge’s ‘spreading’ of the ideal around observed objects or, in Stevenson’s similar terms, a willingness to alter fact ‘in the pursuit of the ideal’.[6]  This is his version of Coleridge’s dissolving, re-creating secondary imagination that, ‘co-existing with the conscious will,… struggles to idealize and unify (BL 1 304).’  For Coleridge, though, this daring dissolution of fact manifests the eternally creative power of God the Father, while in Stevenson ‘a kind of ardour of the blood is the mother’ of it (LRLS 4 170).  The reluctance of writers to forgo copying the object for the sake of reading their own minds into it argues the absence of a passion that he believes originates in the feminine.  According to Stevenson, when Balzac merely replicated the world, he disconnected himself from the characteristically female passion to recreate it, and so wrote less powerfully than when he ‘surrendered to his temperament’ (LRLS 4 169).  Such imaginative power demands knowledge and craft to be productive, Stevenson concedes, as well as the male’s imitative instincts.  But none of these can substitute for a re-creative capacity associated with the feminine that is to be ‘swayed’ and ‘seconded’ by knowledge and craft, not obstructed by them (LRLS 4 170).  In his view, meaning in art depends on integrating this feminine impulse to disrupt existing conditions into the masculine interest in preserving them.[7]

       Such variations on Coleridge suggest that Stevenson felt his predecessor’s influence too pervasively to be forever singling him out for conscious acknowledgment.  The preface to ‘Kubla Khan’ lives in Stevenson’s accounts of the genesis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in just this habitual way.  Both writers invite us into a private dream space in which their power to refashion waking experience has its source, and both contrast the involuntary accomplishment of the writing done there with the blocked intentions of their conscious lives.  Images may have arisen ‘as things’ in Coleridge’s dream, but his effort to ‘finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him’ remains thwarted (PW I.1 511-12).  Stevenson calls this obstructed side of himself his ‘conscious ego’—’the man with the conscience and the variable bank-account’—the man so bemired in actuality that it is tempting to suppose him ‘no storyteller at all.’  But he by no means thinks of the other more spontaneous and creative side of himself as exclusively a Coleridgean dream composer who can finish his work only when unfettered by the actualities of consciousness. Stevenson could try to get away with so mystifying a supposition, of course.  He could claim that he




owes ‘the whole of [his] published fiction’ to some such ‘unseen collaborator’ whom, as he says, ‘I keep locked in a back garret, while I get all the praise.’  But since the Stevenson that sits at the table, holds the pen, and struggles toward ‘the best words and sentences’ is in fact his visible, public self, he rather thinks his conscious ego deserves some modest credit for getting the work of writing done.[8]

       As much as he demands that the writer interpret as well as represent the world, then, Stevenson emphasizes the role of Coleridge’s  ‘conscious will’ in producing interpretive texts (BL 1 304).  According to his ‘Chapter on Dreams,’ he wrote Jekyll and Hyde primarily because of financial embarrassment, which led him to a two-day search for a plot, which in turn prompted two dreams that left their imprint on the book’s content as well as its style (LB 224-25).[9]  So initially, at least, it was not the dreamer who activated the writer, as in Coleridge’s account of the composition of Kubla Khan, but the will to write that set Stevenson dreaming. 

       Nevertheless, the dreamer helped the writer to produce Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson’s two dreams gave incipient form to an intuition of  ‘man’s double being’ for which he had spent considerable time seeking, as he puts it, ‘a body, a vehicle.’  That intuition of  ‘the meaning’ or ‘the morality’ of his text belonged, Stevenson insists, to his conscious male ego.  It ‘pre-existed in my garden of Adonis and tried,’ he says in language evocative of his youthful Edinburgh sexual experiments, ‘one body after another in vain’ (LB 224-25).  These earlier efforts failed to embody his sense of a split in the human personality because Stevenson’s masculine consciousness had been unable to find a subconscious counterpart, which he thinks of as feminine, to help bring that meaning to literary birth.[10]  No collaborator had as yet emerged from the ‘back garret’ of his mind with the passion and the daring not merely to reproduce his waking experience of divided selfhood, but to dissolve and transform it, as dreams do, to make the experience interpretable. 

       The first dream that so significantly embodied Stevenson’s sense of our dual existence appeared in Jekyll and Hyde as the chapter entitled ‘Incident at the Window.’[11]  Out for their usual Sunday jaunt and in a mood uneasily dismissive of Hyde, Enfield and Utterson enter the courtyard of Jekyll’s house to find the doctor sitting like a prisoner at one of his own upper windows.  Too dispirited




to accept their invitation to come down for a walk, Jekyll no sooner agrees to chat from the window with his two friends than ‘the smile was struck out of his face and succeeded by an expression of such abject terror and despair, as froze the very blood of the two gentlemen below,’ who then emerge via the by-street into the neighboring thoroughfare silent, pale, and with ‘an answering horror’ in their eyes.[12] 

       Their horror, and ours as readers, is at the surprisingly easy ascendancy Hyde has gained over Jekyll.  The space between the window and the courtyard represents the increasing distance Hyde has placed between Jekyll and his two friends and colleagues, who would like nothing better than to restore the amiability the three once enjoyed.  Indeed, everything in Jekyll that is struggling against Hyde wants that too.  These three men stand for the late Victorian society whose material context—from the writing table and pen to the literary friendships, publishers, banks, and political institutions it provides—kept Stevenson himself functioning professionally.  Biographically interpreted, Dr Jekyll is Stevenson’s public self, the man hoping to hold together the conditions necessary to his survival as a writer.  Jekyll is likewise the literary realist and political conservative in Stevenson—the copier, not the interpreter, of the world he observes and the beneficiary, not the challenger, of Victorian male privileges—including, prior to the commercial success of Jekyll and Hyde, a more than generous share of his father’s disposable income.  In sum, Jekyll is the obligated son in Stevenson: the writer whose social loyalties conflict with his instinct to reject the very conditions of Victorian consciousness.[13]  Jekyll lacks the ‘ardour of the blood’ that Stevenson identified as ‘the mother’ of the writer’s power to stop merely representing the observed world and to start imagining it (LRLS 4 170).

       Mr. Hyde, meanwhile, has more than enough of that blood ardor.  He is, as Jekyll describes him, ‘that insurgent horror… knit closer to him than a wife, closer than an eye’ (DJMH 122).  Hyde is everything the bachelor scientist has tried to renounce as potentially disruptive of his fragile outer and inner equilibrium—a wife, for example, or the inner eye he is reluctant to see with.  But everything he has sacrificed as Jekyll lives and grows within him as Hyde, and all the more indissolubly so for not being admitted as a conscious desire.  Hyde is the new Jekyll inside the old: the child gestating within the doctor (‘caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born’) that he will not acknowledge as his own.  Like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, Hyde feels the sting of this rejection: ‘he resented the dislike with which he himself was regarded’ (DJMH 122-23).[14]  But Hyde is more than Jekyll’s




avoided wife, child, and power of imagining.  He is the force in Stevenson’s subconscious urging him to abandon representative for interpretive writing, mere knowledge and craft for the daring to re-make fact in the image of his own desires. 

       In Coleridgean terms, Hyde is Stevenson’s imagination trying to function independently of his ‘conscious will,’ his enthusiasm unchecked by intuitive Reason.  Hyde is the anarchic dreamer caged in the ‘back garret’ of Stevenson’s mind who, let out into the London streets, sets about subverting the upright Stevenson – the ‘good son’ and the obligated professional in him.  From the moment Jekyll starts privately indulging his alter ego, therefore, Hyde acts with an increasing fury that takes the very forms Jekyll and his gentlemen colleagues abhor, at least publicly.  He tramples children, strikes women, and finally murders that complacent epitome of ‘innocent and old world kindness of disposition,’ Sir Danvers Carew, M.P. (DJMH 60).

       Stevenson says that he found in the dreams in which Jekyll and Hyde originated the first images of human duality that did not strike him as meretricious.  The textual forms he chose for these two dreams obviate any simple understanding of Hyde as either the evil twin of the good Jekyll or the liberated twin of the conventional Jekyll.  The first dream scene, where Hyde easily thwarts even a casual resumption of Jekyll’s social relations with Enfield and Utterson, does display the vulnerability of Victorian conventions to the disruptive force it represses.  But the second dream sequence, in which Hyde is pursued for beating Carew to death and escapes detection by chemically transforming himself back into Jekyll, shows the vulnerability of Hyde himself to Victorian law.  The murderous Hyde does not relish the role he plays in the lives of Jekyll and his friends: acting out the victimizing impulses their gentlemanly morality disguises.  Hyde loathes the necessity his name signifies—that of hiding out in Jekyll—and loathes also the despondency that concealment causes Jekyll—not because he wants a murderous identity separate from Jekyll, as the secretive doctor fears, but because he likewise loathes the untruthful virtue that forced such secrecy (DJMH 123).  Hyde scrawls blasphemies in Jekyll’s books, burns his letters, and destroys his portrait of his father because he wants the doctor to understand that the instinct to desecrate his inherited culture arises from its intolerably dutiful, pain-seeking ethic.   But since Jekyll lacks the imagination to see in what he calls Hyde’s ‘ape-like’ behavior the other side of the gentleman he himself is, he cannot deal honestly with the ‘war among [his] members,’ ease the shame at the root of his despondency, and begin integrating the ape into the man.[15]  Instead he insists on externalizing Hyde so that he can continue to see himself as Hyde’s innocent victim.  He passively encourages the universal assumption that Hyde exists independently even though he knows that, since the two are in




fact one, he himself is the agent of every cruelty Hyde commits.  There is no Hyde victimizing Jekyll; Jekyll victimizes himself.  He may ‘sicken and freeze at the mere thought’ of Hyde, but he feels the suicidal ‘abjection and passion’ of his attachment to this destroyer inside himself, and he likes it.  Jekyll enjoys being at once a subject of Hyde’s tyranny and himself a tyrant over Hyde, as when he threatens to dispose of the ape by ending the life of the gentleman he thinks he still is: ‘When I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide,’ says Jekyll in the arrogant illusion of his kingly superiority over Hyde, ‘I find it in my heart to pity him (DJMH 123).’  When, finally, Jekyll does commit suicide to avoid confronting a duality he cannot tolerate, the blame falls of course on Hyde, though at the moment of their simultaneous death the one who is heard ‘weeping like a woman or a lost soul’ from within the doctor’s laboratory is not the doctor, but the very Edward Hyde from whom he and everyone else recoil as the embodiment of ‘pure evil’ (DJMH  88, 108).  The monstrous Hyde can mourn the righteous Jekyll even as the righteous Jekyll cannot mourn himself.

       But if Hyde is not purely evil, neither is he the source of Jekyll’s or Victorian society’s liberation—except potentially.  Hyde prowls the streets attacking the exact norms that Jekyll meticulously represented until the moment he first chemically became Hyde.  His strictly scientific colleague, Dr Lanyon, deplores this metaphysical chemistry because it involves so severe a departure from the empirical worldview he and Jekyll once shared.  But Jekyll’s powders at least momentarily free him from his life-stifling past and project him into a new, exhilarating present.  They lighten his step, infuse him with ‘a wonderful selfishness,’ and connect him to a ‘more generous tide of blood’ than he has ever felt before (DJMH 113, 124).  But all Jekyll can do in this livelier, even morally improved body is gleefully undermine an unreconstructed social standard to which he nevertheless constantly feels compelled to return.  His aggressions as Hyde reveal the enormity of his conflict with customary perceptions he refuses to alter.  Aware that he is Hyde, Jekyll nevertheless immediately abandons him whenever the opportunity for decisive self-recognition presents itself as when, after murdering Sir Danvers, he engineers yet another chemical transformation out of Hyde’s ever taller body back into his own ever shorter one.  Jekyll prefers the conventions he knows are death to him because he fears the freedom from them Hyde offers—a preference Hyde’s escalating violence desperately but ineffectively tries to break.  But instead of acknowledging this uncivil monster within and converting its energy into an interpretive critique of himself and his society, Jekyll keeps projecting it outward until the conflict between this image of his identity and the reality of it becomes intolerable, and he sustains the image by killing the reality.  The doctor’s suicide enacts Stevenson’s fear that he cannot integrate the subversive instincts of his imagination into the Victorian context on which they depend.

       Coleridge’s presence may not dominate The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it is definitely felt there.  Stevenson certainly knew The Ancient




Mariner, Kubla Khan, ‘To the Author of  ‘The Robbers’,’ ‘Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of the Chamouni’ and something, at least, of The Friend.  His Jekyll and Hyde intensifies and darkens the psychological self-awareness of Coleridge’s poems of the supernatural and, while those poems may be set in times and places more remote than the contemporary urban landscape of Stevenson’s novella, his fictive world remains, like that of his predecessor, more eerily psychic than geographically precise.[16]  Both writers insist on the strangeness of their material, at once assuming that the world is as it appears to daily consciousness and, by their vivid narration of unaccustomed events, undermining that assumption.[17]  Stevenson traces the composition of Jekyll and Hyde to a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes like those in which Coleridge says Kubla Khan originated, and the book’s important characters hardly exist fictionally except as projections of Jekyll’s disordered mind.

       Stevenson uses Hyde, as Coleridge does the mariner and Geraldine in Christabel, to familiarize a gratuitous cruelty subversive of our pretensions as social beings.  Stevenson likewise follows Coleridge in defusing our resistance to that subversion by filtering it through tamer characters.  Jekyll’s professional colleagues are literary descendants of the accusatory mariners and shocked Wedding-Guest of the Rime along with the innocent Christabel herself and the scandalized narrator of her story.  Like Geraldine in her advance toward Christabel’s bed, Hyde appears near Jekyll’s in Utterson’s dream as ‘one to whom power was given,’ and Hyde’s ‘hissing intake of the breath’ as he later shrinks away from Utterson, echoes ‘the hissing sound’ with which Christabel ‘drew in her Breath’ under Geraldine’s compelling influence  (PW I.1 489, 497; DJMH 48, 50).  Hyde, like the Geraldine who takes Christabel in her arms and Milton’s Satan on the verge of Eden, is less than eager to harm his victim.  He sympathizes with Jekyll’s need for moral normalcy, which mirrors the reader’s, even as he proceeds to disregard it (PW I.1 490; DJMH 123).  As the creators of these post-Miltonic invaders of innocence, Coleridge and Stevenson each risked responsibility for the invasion, perhaps in the belief that representing the aggressively anti-civilized might deepen contemporary understandings of civility itself.  Jekyll’s refusal to acknowledge Hyde as a component of his own personality, however, suggests that Stevenson was less hopeful than Coleridge about the writer’s power to bring readers that far.


[1]       ‘A College Magazine,’ reprinted in Robert Louis Stevenson, Memories and Portraits (New York: Scribner’s, 1904), p. 59 and quoted in Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994-95), 1, p. 118; hereafter LRLS.  See also ‘Books Which Have Influenced Me,’ in Letters and Miscellanies of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Scribner’s, 1898), 22 Sketches, Criticisms, Etc., pp. 302-10.

[2]       Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 16 Poetical Works (2001), ed. J.C.C. Mays,  I.1, p. 387; hereafter PW.

[3]       LRLS 2 82; PW I.1 152; the music was the First Spanish Overture of Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857).

[4]       LRLS 2 314; Stevenson thought Carlyle’s portrait of Coleridge as one whose religious metaphysics had incapacitated him for change applied only to his philosophical and theological prose, not his better known poems.

[5]       LRLS 4 170; PW I.2 721; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was composed in about six weeks during September and October, 1895, and published in January, 1896.

[6]       LRLS 4 170; Collected Works of  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 7 Biographia Literaria (1983), ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 1, p. 80; hereafter BL.

[7]       Stevenson here approximates Jung’s later association of a man’s ‘anima’ (his unconscious image of woman) with the distortions of fact indispensable to his creativity:  See, for example, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adler and tr. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books): 9.1 The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959), pp. 70-71; 15 The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature (1966), pp. 138-39; 16 The Practice of Psychotherapy (1954), p. 301.  The anima productively destabilizes a man’s character and emotional relationships in all these passages, afflicting him with the kind of discontent that led an artist like Picasso to dissolve objects as ordinarily perceived into a ‘Luciferian’ underworld of  ‘fragments, fractures, discarded remnants, debris, shreds, and disorganized units.’  Jung thinks that as a man needs simultaneously to express and control his anima in order to achieve psychic balance, so must a woman her ‘animus.’ 

[8]        ‘A Chapter on Dreams,’ reprinted in The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays, ed. Jeremy Treglown (London, Chatto and Windus, 1988), p. 224; hereafter LB.

[9]        A third dream that stimulated the composition of Jekyll and Hyde, but that Stevenson omits in ‘A Chapter on Dreams,’ was of ‘one man being pressed into a cabinet, when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being.’  Stevenson’s central theme, in this account of the book, was that ‘of a voluntary change becoming involuntary.’  See The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, ed. Martin A. Danahay (Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1999), p. 14.

[10]      Among the more notable of these earlier Doppelgänger works are Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life, a play Stevenson wrote with W. E. Henley in 1878 (revised 1884), and Prince Otto, ‘Markheim’ and ‘Ollalla’ (1885).  See The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion, ed. Harry M. Geduld (New York and London: Garland, 1983), p. 5-6.  The theme of the double persisted in Stevenson through The Master of Ballantrae (1889) to The Ebb Tide and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston (1894).

[11]     See Ronald R. Thomas, Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 241.

[12]     I quote from the widely available Signet Classic printing of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, introd. Vladimir Nabokov (New American Library, 1978), p. 77-78; hereafter DJMH.

[13]     See Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage, ed. Paul Maixner  (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 5.  Maixner is doubtless correct that Stevenson thought of his writing as repaying his social obligations, but that sense of duty appears to have included a prophetically subversive, Hyde-like impulse.

[14]     On Jekyll and Hyde and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, see Edwin M. Eigner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 161-64.

[15]     DJMH 104, 123; on the scriptural ‘war in the members’ see Romans 6, 12-19 and James 4, 1.  Stevenson ambiguously apologized for invoking ‘that damned old business of the war in the members’ in an 1886 reply to John Addington Symonds, who had faulted Jekyll and Hyde for lacking moral sympathy and hope (LRLS 5 220).

[16]     Chesterton observes the merging of London and Edinburgh, for example, in that landscape. Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Dodd and Mead, 1928), p. 51.

[17]     Notice the invisible world evoked in the epigraph from Burnet that Coleridge added to The Ancient Mariner, the mysterious origins of Kubla Khan recorded in its preface, and the repeated emphasis in both Christabel and Jekyll and Hyde on the frightful, fiendish quality of the events being narrated.