A life in chains: the dualism of human psyche

It is undeniable that freedom is the most precious and the rarest treasure a man can have. Mankind, indeed, seems to have become expert in locking itself in jail and throw away the key. However, the chains that asphyxiate us are not often made of metal, but of thoughts, unfair ideas and costumes we usually adapt to. That kind of internal struggle was no big deal during the Victorian Age, a period of growth for English power and economy, famous for its double standards and forced moralism too. The conflict between rational and irrational desires often gave the impression that human personality was divided in two.


This dualism of human psyche is very well depicted in some masterpieces of the English literature, which is full of characters divided between hiding the “wrong” side of themselves to fit in society and granting their desires. To demonstrate this internal conflict was not unrealistic, just think about all the coincidences that link R.L. Stevenson’s “The strange case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” with the murders of Jack the Ripper.


The novel deals with the tale of a famous scientist, Dr. Jekyll, who decides to create a potion in order to separate the evil from the good side of a man, so that he can kill his wicked part and stop desiring what he should not get. However, something goes wrong and instead of separating completely the two sides, he just manages to become his evil part, Mr. Hyde, and needs an antidote to change back into Doctor Jekyll. When becoming Hyde, nevertheless, Jekyll feels free because whatever he does it has no consequences: Hyde’s actions cannot damage Doctor Jekyll’s reputation and his role in society. This original enthusiasm is destined to fade away as the transformation into Mr. Hyde starts lasting more and more, making it difficult to change back. Jekyll realises he is making his wicked part win, debilitating the good one. In the tragic finale, the only way the doctor tries to put an end to his miseries is to kill himself, so that the evil Mr. Hyde would die too.


It is curious that this masterpiece came out in 1886; a couple of years before London was terrified by Jack the Ripper’s murders. While in that period the Lyceum Theater was holding a representation of Stevenson’s novel, the first of many prostitutes was find dead. The detective of Scotland Yard thought instantly that the murderer must have been a pimp or client, but the truth came soon to light: just like Doctor Jekyll, Jack the Ripper is not an illiterate person. The precise slashes on his victims show that he knows human anatomy, he could be a doctor as well. Therefore, the image of a well-educated man, with a good reputation, able to act like a pleasant person during the day and be a sadistic killer during the night started to be associated to the name of Jack the Ripper. The connection with Stevenson’s masterpiece is evident: both cases deal with the dualism of human psyche, anticipating what is going to be the object of Sigmund Freud’s studies.


The truth is that most of the times what we regard as the evil side is not always so wicked. Doctor Jekyll tries to get rid of it, forgetting that it is part of him. Jekyll feels like he is living a life in chains, but he fears change. When turning into Hyde, he likes the idea of not having consequences for his actions, since he is always so terribly worried of society’s judgment. However, as wicked as Hyde may be, he did what Jekyll did not dare to do: stop caring about society’s expectation and start acting for himself. Hyde may be excessively selfish and ambitious, but those characteristic, if well measured out, can come in handy too. As a result, the evil side turns out to be just the exaggeration of some elements of human personality that cannot be labeled as negative or positive at first glance. In fact, if overly amplified, everything turns out to be a shortcoming, even those characteristics we usually regard as good. Indeed, each side of the human psyche is lost without the other. As a matter of fact, Hyde could learn from Jekyll no more than Jekyll could learn from Hyde: only together they find the right balance. It is then clear that the doctor made a big mistake: while he thought that he had to rub out a part of himself to break free, he forgot to give each side its space to find a compromise that could have made him happy. Feeling trapped, Jekyll lost himself looking for a key that was lying in his hands the whole time.


Articolo a cura di: Laura Tondolo



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