In what ways are the various settings in Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" significant?


In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde R. L. Stevenson creates an image of eighteenth century London, where upright citizens mix with a degenerate underclass on a daily basis. In doing so he highlights the lack of borders within urban society, where people seem to be one thing, but are in fact another. He achieves this by taking a respectable gentleman and exposing him as something entirely opposite. He sets his tale in grimy streets and stuffy rooms, making use of the typical elements of the crime novel genre, and also draws on the Victorian literary tradition, which frequently aimed to paint an often harshly realistic picture of society as the backdrop for unfolding events.
  The eponymous Dr Jekyll is portrayed as an upstanding member of the community. He is law abiding and has friends of high calibre and is himself described as a close and trusted friend of another main character, Mr. Utterson. His respectable character is at odds with the unfriendly, encroaching building, of which he owns, and which so disturbs Enfield and Utterson in the first chapter. It is so different to the street, which shines ‘in contrast to its dingy neighbourhood’. Instead it is a ‘sinister block’ with a ‘blind forehead of discoloured wall’. It is almost as though the building is in itself an extension of the hideous Mr. Hyde.  It has ‘neither bell nor knocker’ so there is no way of communicating with anyone behind those doors, and the person who uses them is just as unattainable and unfathomable, just as his name suggests.                                                      
 Dr Jekyll’s laboratory is another setting that employs the technique of using spatial distance to create a feeling of psychological distance. This room is in a building high and isolated from the rest of the house, as it is here that all Hyde’s experiments take place. It is also appropriate for his own transformation into a hostile monster, when he becomes much too far from anyone’s reach.
 Throughout the novel much is made of the street corners and closed doors of London’s murky back streets, adding to the mystery and suspense of the story. It is on this stage that much of the action occurs, such as the incident when Hyde runs over the young girl and is detained by a variety of passers-by. Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is noteworthy for the manner in which it correlates environment to event: for instance the recurrent fog in the streets creates an image of gloom and obscured vision, and the reader does not know what might be behind the corner. This description builds up a feeling of tension in the atmosphere and in turn reflects the atmosphere of suspense that accompanies the apprehending of a criminal.
It is worth commenting on the use of the word ‘case’ in the title of the novel. It is a word commonly associated with police work, and as such causes the reader to question the fictionality of the story. Plot events are related in a systematic way, as though being written in a police report. London is described as a city of suspicious characters who must be organised and managed by more reliable members of society. Eyewitness accounts are related – for example in the story of the maid who observes Lord Danvers being murdered from her window. As it is her account of what happens the reader cannot be sure that the events unfolded in the way she describes. The fog and murk of the street lights add to this incomplete version of events and increase the sense of uncertainty that pervades the novel right up until its end. Thus we are left with a confusing description of events; on the one hand reminiscent of an official police report, and on the other reminiscent of a murder mystery. By mixing these narrative styles the novel critiques a society that depends on factual analysis of events but does not preach a moral, something which Stevenson attempted to avoid given its significance in the realist fiction of the Victorian literary scene, which he aimed to subvert.
When the truth does come out it is through a sequence of visits, from servant to employer, and from friend to friend, as Utterson attempts to discover what is going on with his friend, Dr Jekyll. The fact that he has to break into Jekyll’s laboratory illustrates just how divided he has become from his friend. The significance of the laboratory is that it is a familiar location for twisting reality and challenging the laws of the universe, and it is here where Jekyll transforms into Hyde. His experiments and machinations are provided the suitable backdrop of the dark streets and alleyways of London’s dingy neighbourhoods, where illegal activities go unnoticed, or at least uninvestigated. The traditional notion of the laboratory as a place of intellect and progress is questioned, as Jekyll’s scientific endeavours have clearly achieved the opposite, that is, a reversal into a more primeval and bestial state of mankind. The so-called enlightenment of the Victorian era is thus ridiculed.
Utterson hurries from place to place at the end of the novel, and this disparate travelling represents the huge distances that have grown between him and his friend. Dr Jekyll’s spontaneous transformations into Hyde, without the use of a potion, are what lead to him hiding away from the society of his servants and acquaintances.  However the formers attempt at seclusion is not enough to protect the unwary members of society, who become the victims of his rabid alter ego, who escapes like a manic dog from its leash, into the city.
 It is not just Hyde who parodies humanity in Stevenson’s novel. The family of the girl he tramples over try to overcome him in their desire for revenge and Utterson observes them with some horror, describing them as banshees. It is as though the darkness within Jekyll, which manifests itself as Hyde, brings out the darkness within others. It turns the surroundings into wilderness, even though these are surroundings that are man-made: roads, pavements and houses. It forces the reader to look at the less desirable traits of mankind and contrast them against the supposedly civilized environment we have created in the form of towns and cities. The closed door of Jekyll’s dark building acts as a symbol of the continual desire of man to lay claim to territory, to mark out borders and to deny entry to others. Hyde’s maniacal roving of the streets similarly copies that of the wild animal patrolling its territory and attacking, seemingly without mercy. His nightly activities, acted out beneath the grimy glow of the gas-lamps, also bring to mind the other activities that go on at night in such quarters in most cities across the globe. The mind wanders to thoughts of prostitutes, opium dens, smugglers and kidnappings. The fact that Hyde commits his crimes seemingly indeterminately and in the day is well as the night frightens Utterson and his compatriots. The evil things of the night are easy to forget, unless they also emerge in the cold light of day. When they do the reality of their destructive capabilities becomes all too apparent.
The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a seminal work as it paved the way for future analysis into the psyche of mankind. What is still unique about the way Stevenson produced his comment on the duality of personality is that he sets it all in a foggy, inhabited, eerie, unknown and yet familiar London. The fact that he does this makes it arguably clear that he believes our environment has an influence over the way we live our lives. Had Dr Jekyll not lived in such an urban setting we may question whether he would have had access to the ingredients he needed in order to manufacture his transformation potion. Would he have been able to wreak the same amount of damage to his immediate society if he had lived out in the country? But equally we may ask what is the nature of the society he attacks? The well-educated and wealthy figures of Utterson, Lanyon and Enfield occupy a different social platform. They do not make their living selling their wares in the streets, at markets or elsewhere. They do not need to. They live in nice houses and no doubt attend gentleman’s clubs. When they do decide to walk through the streets, much is made of it as a weekly activity, during which time they observe their surroundings from their privileged social positions. But the world they walk through has a bite to it, and this is realised all too completely in the figure of Hyde. The bite is especially nasty because it is infectious. In the end it is hard not to consider this nightmarish character and think, as Utterson must have done, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’.