Names as context in Jekyll and Hyde

I always try to get students to look closely at names in any text we read. Names are chosen by authors and are not simply random ideas. That said, it is not the case that every name in every text hides deeply relevant information about character of context. This posts lists a few ideas about Stevenson’s novella.

The whole is narrated Gabriel John Utterson. The Christian names interest here. There is no need for them within the narrative, so we notice the choices carefully. Gabriel is the name of the Archangel of the Annunciation and St John, one of the 4 Apostles, who is possibly best known as the revealer of the secrets of the godhead: ‘in the beginning was the word…’ . In each case the names belong to the deliverer of God’s message and in so doing conveys a strong feeling of truth and morality onto Utterson. He is seen as more than the typical rational protagonist of Victorian Gothic Literature by these names -Stevenson is telling the reader to believe in him and to have faith in the secrets he unfolds.

The twin protagonist: Dr Henry Jekyll and Mr Edward Hyde can provide interest. Jekyll, a Doctor, and therefore a man of science and worthy of respect, changes into Hyde, no longer learned but simply ‘Mr’, reflecting the baser levels on which he operates. At a time when medicine was beginning to explore the study of the mind in 1880s Vienna, the idea of a Doctor who is ‘too fanciful’ works quite well. The novel contains a number of references to pseudo-science and we should be careful before simply assuming the title ‘Dr’ conveys utter trustworthiness. The surname Jekyll hides few secrets – I simply do not accept the idea of ‘je’ and ‘kill’ being elided across language boundaries to suggest a name meaning ‘I kill’. It is simpler: Walter Jekyll was a childhood friend of Stevenson. A clergyman who renounced religion to emigrate to the West Indies as a planter seems a far likelier source for this name. Hyde seems to be a homophonic word game – the character who is hidden within us all. The fact that both have solid English King’s names as their Christian names is noted.

Utterson’s friend Richard Enfield is a man of action who tries hard not to look too deeply at the world around him – ‘you start a question and it’s like starting a stone’. At a time of religious and philosophical upheaval in post-Darwinian Britain, there may well have been many who wished to be able to bury their heads in the sand in this way. His surname, derived from the London borough of Enfield, is the name of one of the most famous manufacturers of rifles for the British Army. For most of the 19th Century the army was provided with some form of Enfield rifle – the Snider Enfield, Martini Enfield and later the Lee Enfield. Possibly Stevenson is showing us the traits associated with the British army: bravery and reliability, but not great thought. This seems fitting for a man who gives a ‘view Halloa’ before chasing down Hyde after the trampling of the little girl.

Utterson’s other friend Dr Hastie Lanyon is another Doctor and is therefore seen in opposition to Jekyll. His narrative in Chapter 9 explains the mystery and ties up many loose ends. If we accept his criticism of Jekyll’s science as ‘too fanciful’ then his inability to cope with the revelation that it is possible to split the soul into two parts, then we need to see this in the context of the many learned men who were incapable of seeing the logic and science behind Darwin’s revelations. The name itself is an old Cornish name. The given name is unusual and suggests a homophonic link to the idea of being ‘Hasty’ and reckless. I’m not sure that it is helpful to explore this further.

Inspector Newcomen has a surname suggesting novelty and immaturity. Against the sciences of medicine and the established traditions of the other characters investigating this case, he suggests a ‘johnny-come-lately’ though at the same time is a symbol of a new order of professionalism in the police force. He shares his name with an 18th Century inventor and can be seen as linked to the men of science through this rather tenuous link.

Poole, the Butler who protects Jekyll and seeks Utterson’s help shares his name with a more famous madhouse keeper: Grace Poole in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In both cases the servant is entrusted with caring for a damaged subject and in both cases fails, in their role – Jekyll take his life and in the Bronte, Bertha is able to escape when Poole has been drinking. Poole does not share Grace’s occasional supernatural bouts of maniacal laughter.

That Carew is a surname associated with British/Irish nobility is enough for this character – his murder needs to be sufficiently shocking in terms of a threat to society. I find little to amaze in Mr Guest as a name.