Jekyll, Hyde, and Problematic Representations of DID

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is often critically interpreted as a commentary on repressive Victorian society. The ‘good’ Jekyll feels the pressure to conform to rigid social expectations, and proceeds to ‘act out’ in the form of Hyde – the beastly, murderous alternative personality who begins to take over Jekyll’s life.

Another, perhaps more literal reading of the text explores the idea of Jekyll and Hyde as an early interpretation of someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Here, we see two or more alternative identities existing in one body. The study of this condition began in the Victorian period; Stevenson is known to have had in interest in it. April Edwards goes into further detail on this in her blog Victorian Science Fiction:

The problem with this interpretation is that it feeds into the negative stigma already surrounding DID. Representation of DID in literature and media is welcome (about 1-3% of the population live with it, which is a substantial amount). Issues, however, arise in the tendency to misrepresent the disorder, especially in a Horror and Science-Fiction context.

The idea of the evil alternative identity spawned in Jekyll and Hyde has permeated many popular culture representations of DID since, the most well known example being that of the 2016 movie Split. The un-tameable beast often depicted in media has become a trope that many assume actually exists in people with DID. This unfounded fear represented onscreen leads to the stigmatization and ostracisation of real people living within the DID community.

While I can accept that the Victorian’s may have been ignorant to the psychological roots of the disorder, I do not agree that modern artists have the right to perpetuate the stigmatization of DID for the sake of a horror trope. Robert Louis Stevenson may not have known better, but after 130 years you would think we should.

If you’d like the learn more about reactions to Split from the DID community, I’d recommend checking out the DissociaDID System’s video on the topic:

Queering the Victorians: Christina Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’

Title page to Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Rosetti, as drawn by her brother Dante Rosetti.
An innocent sleeping position, or a lovers embrace?

“She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth,

Her lips began to scorch,

That juice was wormwood to her tongue

She loathed the feast”

-Christina Rosetti, ‘Goblin Market’.

Examine the above quote. What would you assume of the nature of relationship between these two women? If you imagined it to be romantic you would not be the first

While many different readings may be present in Rosetti’s Goblin market, the first impression I personally got of the poem was that Rosetti was possibly describing the temptations surrounding the then ‘taboo’ notion of homosexual desire. Other interpretations see the characters as representative of religious allegories – Rosetti was a practising Christian. This made sense, but my feeling that there must be a deeper, hidden meaning to the piece led me to question the extent of which we can apply a modern reading to a period text.

The Victorians as we know them were a rigid, ‘moral’ people – the British ‘stiff upper lip’ ideology came from them. If this was the case, how could Rosetti even think to write about sexuality, let alone ‘abominable’ homosexuality, when she lived in a world where such things must not be discussed? Surely any intimacy she described in her work had to be purely innocent, right?

Maybe not. While I don’t know everything there is to know about the Victorians just yet, I do know this: they were human. That is something that the Victorians and us have in common. My question, therefore, is this: am I looking at ‘Goblin Market’ through the bias of modern perspective, or does the fact that we live in a modern society make these possibly ‘taboo’ messages more obvious?

If you’re interested in learning more about Victorian sexuality and sexual repression, Jan Marsh wrote an interesting article on the subject for the Victoria and Albert Museum website: