Comparing Anxiety and Drug Use in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Sign of the Four

Comparing Anxiety and Drug Use in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Sign of the Four

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Anxiety and Drug Use in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Sign of the Four


The life experiences and writings of the Victorians are peppered with anxiety.  External influences such as sweeping change or fear of change can produce unease, as seen in the their anxious attitude toward Darwinism and colonialization, which greatly influenced the political, spiritual, and psychological landscape of nineteenth century England.  However, for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, anxiety springs from an internal source: the human mind and its many urges.  For Jekyll, the anxiety is fueled by a desire to set free his evil urges; for Holmes, the catalyst is his proclaimed "boredom" with everyday life.  Jekyll and Holmes struggle with their separate anxieties and reach similar solutions.  Both the doctor and the detective choose a drug to alleviate their anxiety.  The unsuccessful outcomes that these chosen drugs produce speaks to the Victorian notion that anxiety could not be conquered.  The people who lived and died under Queen Victoria not only dealt with anxiety in their own lives, but also fortified their literature with it.  Doyle's The Sign of Four and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explore two distinct anxieties and the consequences of using drugs to alleviate them.

For both Holmes and Jekyll, an internal anxiety plagues their actions and thoughts.  An aversion to "boredom" troubles Holmes, while Jekyll struggles to come to terms with "man's dual nature" (Stevenson, 42).  Holmes defends his drug use by declaring:

My mind... rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am...


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...fer from constitute an inability to deal with internal factors, while the Victorians suffered from an inability to deal with external factors.  For Victorians, anxiety over entertaining the impossible stemmed from Darwinism and colonialization, which was the catalyst for the dreaded fear of the "other."  If Holmes and Jekyll turned to drugs in the face of anxiety, what did the Victorians turn to?  Perhaps the rampant use of laudanum and opium was an attempt at easing the anxieties of a nervous culture.  One could turn to science, religion, or technology for comfort, but most likely these areas would simply cause more anxiety.  No matter what the answer is, it is clear that the anxiety of the Victorians carried over into their literature.  Without this cultural trait the world may never have been introduced to the insane Dr. Jekyll or the brooding Sherlock Holmes.

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