Beauty and ugliness in Jekyll and Hyde

Reading Time: 7 minutes

If it is a book of anything, Jekyll and Hyde is a book of appearance versus reality, and one of Stevenson’s key methods is to explore beauty, ugliness, and the Victorian belief that the soul is reflected on the outside.

This isn’t just a Victorian belief, either: think of the sheer volume of characters whose inner beauty is reflected in their golden shiny hair, fit bodies, muscular physiques or tall statures. And think of the villains – often deformed or disabled, physically twisted to match their inner state. Think Shakespeare’s Richard III’s (fictional) hunchback, Chaucer’s pilgrims’ noses and chins. It’s a crude shorthand that sticks with us today. Shrek may have claimed to be bucking the stereotype by having its Princess Fiona remaining an ogre at the end – but she was a fairly pretty one!

Ask someone who’s read Jekyll and Hyde to describe Hyde and they’re likely to tell you he’s a deformed monster, hunched over, distorted – something akin to Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps. And that’s certainly how he’s been played onscreen, often appearing to something more like an ape than a man. That interpretation has more to do with modern perspectives on evolution, maybe, and seeing Hyde as a devolved creature – a very scientific approach to his representation that perhaps picks up on his description as “troglodytic” (2), but isn’t, I don’t think, drawing directly on Stevenson’s narrative.

From the beginning he has a “black sneering coldness” (1), is “extraordinary looking”(1), but the actual physical descriptions are limited:

“small”(2)
“very plainly dressed” (2)
his hands are “lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair” (10)

This last might be the ugliest or most distorted description of Hyde himself. Hyde also isn’t called ‘ugly’ by any character except Jekyll, in his ‘Statement of the Case’ – and how can we trust Jekyll’s representation of his darker side? None of the descriptions are inherently monstrous; indeed, the most frequent description of him is ‘small’, something Jekyll address in the final chapter when speculating that Hyde is small because he has hitherto been repressed and unexercised.

It’s others’ feelings which describe Hyde as being ugly. Enfield begins in chapter 1:

“like some damned Juggernaut” (1)
“brought out the sweat on me like running (1)
“with a kind of black sneering coolness” (1)
“he gives a strong feeling of deformity” (1)

“Feeling” is critical to this quotation. Hyde is not deformed – but the ugliness that everyone perceives as coming from his soul makes them interpret him this way.

Utterson continues the approach in chapter 2:

“the look of him, even at that distance, went somehow strongly against the watcher’s inclination.” (2)
“he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation…the man seems hardly human!”(2)

It’s Hyde’s actions that make him ugly, which colour other people’s perceptions of him.

Physiognomy

Physiognomy’s a crucial contextual piece of understanding for students of Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s often learned quite reductively – that the exterior reflects the interior. We don’t often make time to go into the ways it impacted Victorian social beliefs about appearance and morality – and how it continues to affect our interactions. For Victorians, the body “in its unaltered, natural state—functioned as a legible text, with physical features spelling out the story of a person’s identity.”[1] Beauty manuals were often criticised for encouraging women to hide their natural story, to the point of criticising their efforts as deliberate duplicity or manipulation (there might be some interesting parallels to think about here with current backlash against, say Instagram and photo filtering, and the tensions that women using the platform feel in the first place to change their public image). Books like A.E. Willis’s ‘The Human Face; Come, View the face and see the soul engraved upon a living scroll” published sketches of faces, as well as parts of faces, and explained how to ‘read’ faces. There are plenty of highly printable images available through Harvard’s website (https://blogs.harvard.edu/preserving/2012/09/24/face-to-face-physiognomy-phrenology/)[2] to explore.

The scientific acceptance of physiognomy had waned by the time Stevenson was writing in 1886, but it remained firmly in the public mind, having been popular for decades before. Taking measurements of faces and bodies was a relatively accepted way of determining someone’s likely propensity for criminal behaviour. Interestingly, the opposite is also true – Emily Vaught’s 1907 book publishes examples comparing desirable and undesirable character traits, and where these are ‘located’ in the body:

[3]

Again it’s worth thinking about the modern correlations – the tendency of the media to choose certain facial expressions in photographs when picturing criminals (they’re rarely smiling, family photos they pick off Facebook, for example).

Victorian Web[4] has a good article with brief references to the idea that after Darwin, the idea of physiognomy actually picked up, with protruding jaws, for example, being a signal of lesser development, characterising people as ape-like. These ideas also quickly became charged with class prejudice; The Races of Man (John Beddoe, 1862) emphasised the difference of the ‘lower classes’, and it didn’t take long before the idea became imbued with racial prejudice too, focusing on features more common in Afro-Caribbean faces as critical to identifying to criminality. These propensities also still exist in modern life – there are regular efforts to find automated facial recognition that will somehow find criminals by their appearance, and these are just as racist as they were nearly 200 years ago.[5]

Utterson, despite being the rational, logical lawyer filtering this narrative for us, fuels the physiognomy fire:

“is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last, I think; for, O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.” (2)

Jekyll isn’t that handsome either…

I find readers are often surprised by the descriptions of Jekyll’s physical appearance. Partly expecting something more beautiful, partly maybe unfamiliar with some Victorian expressions which depict him as (a bit) more handsome than they realise. He is “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty” (3). His hand is “large, firm, white and comely” (10).

When Jekyll decides to put Hyde to one side, his face reflects his changed determination, “his face seemed to open and brighten” (6) as he does charitable and religious works, enjoys the company of his friends, and tries to be a good man. When Jekyll reveals his secret to Lanyon, it’s revealed primarily through his face:

“there came, I thought, a change—he seemed to swell—his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter.” (9)

Jekyll is never overwhelmingly beautiful though, which is in its own way an external reflection of what might be Jekyll’s greatest tragedy, that despite separating his dark side into Hyde he has been unable to become solely the light side of himself. It is not, as he fools himself in his last letter:

” Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other.” (10).

Instead, he recognises that “this, too, was myself. It seemed natural and human.” (10)

The language he uses to describe Hyde when he first sees him in the mirror is almost loving; Hyde, seen for the first time, is “smaller, slighter and younger”, “livelier” – he’s almost attractive.

We see the two aspects coalescing in Jekyll’s face when he grows angry with Utterson for questioning him: “the large handsome face of Dr Jekyll grew pale to the very lips, and there came a blackness about his eyes.” (3) The “blackness” is more reminiscent of Hyde. We might mistake it in that moment for a flash of anger, but it’s something altogether more troubling, the hint that within Jekyll, Hyde is lurking.

[1] Lennox, Sarah. “The Beautified Body: Physiognomy in Victorian Beauty Manuals.” Victorian Review, vol. 42 no. 1, 2016, p. 9-14. Project MUSE,

[2] https://blogs.harvard.edu/preserving/2012/09/24/face-to-face-physiognomy-phrenology/

[3] https://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/content/learning/that-criminal-look

[4] http://www.victorianweb.org/science/phrenology/rc3.htm

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/10/opinion/facial-recognition-race.html

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