Perils of Addiction Exposed in Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The values, standards, and expectations of the upper-middle class in the 19th-century Victorian society were conservative and strict; the pressure to earn prestige and achieve upward mobility in social rank required men to sustain an image of propriety and respectability in public. These obligations often created a longing to divert from the personality facades they had to keep, and from the ideal behavior and polite manners that were expected of bourgeois society men. Some would fulfill their wishes by leading a secret double life that allowed them to temporarily escape from societal responsibilities and restrictions. In more private settings, men would partake in sinful pleasures, such as alcohol or drug abuse, and they were free to behave more loosely than they could under the rigid public persona they were forced to hold in order to protect their reputations.
In the introduction to the Oxford edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Emma Letley describes the desire to escape from the "Calvinistic confines of nineteenth-century bourgeois" society, and relates that Mr. Stevenson himself "would use a benign doubleness to deal with the pressures of high bourgeois existence" and assumed an alias to become one of the "heavy-drinking, convivial, blasphemous iconoclasts. . ." in order to "full-bodiedly enjoy those pleasures denied to [him] and Dr. Jekyll." (Introduction, x). With the knowledge that Stevenson resorted to alcohol in order to escape the pressures and demands that fell upon him due to his social class, it is interesting to examine his novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as a commentary about the evils of addiction to alcohol. Like Stevenson, Jekyll, a prestigious doctor, was subject to the limitations and high expectations imposed on him by the Victorian bourgeois society. As Jekyll relates, he lived "nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control" (Stevenson, 63). His professional and public life denied him of hedonistic pleasures; he felt overwhelmed and unrewarded for the sacrifices he made in order to secure his position as a respected doctor. Then, under the guise of Edward Hyde, Dr. Jekyll was able to carry out his self-indulgent desires, and escape from the pressures of his career and his status. Jekyll's means of escape parallels Robert Louis Stevenson's vice - the use of booze and rowdy behavior (under the protection of an alias) as an outlet for relief from the pressures of his social obligations. For Dr. Jekyll, however, it is his intense addiction to escaping life's troubles through the character of Hyde that ultimately leads to his downfall. Perhaps Stevenson became addicted to drunkenness and disorderly conduct as a means of escape from his life, and wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in order to warn against the dangers of addiction. There are elements in the story that could support this assertion.