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Robert Louis Stevenson And The Theme Of The Double

The Letter, Issue 13, Summer 1998, Pages 82 - 93


Hugh Cummins

'Ambivalence, ambiguity, duality, dichotomy, bifurcation - these are the kinds of nouns customary when analysing Stevenson' writes Frank McLynn in a recent biography, noting also that 'the Stevensonian divided self is overdetermined at a number of levels'.[1] Robert Louise Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850 of strict Calvinist parents, and it is this religious background that offers the first clue to his lifelong preoccupation with duality. Calvinism posits a number of radical oppositions, such as predestination and free will, faith and works, grace and nature. In Calvinist terms, the fall of man is so total he is incapable of mitigating, let alone reversing, its sinful effects. Good works and outward manifestations of righteousness are worse than useless if seen as paths to salvation, serving only to mask corrupt wishes and desires. Calvinism as such, embodies a radical suspicion of human motives and a keen awareness of the possibilities of human duplicity. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that some have seen in psychoanalysis its secular equivalent. However, as I hope to indicate, there are other reasons why Stevenson's preoccupation with duality and 'doubles' is of interest to psychoanalysis.

Towards the end of 1885, in the space of ten weeks, Stevenson's most sustained meditation on the double theme was 'conceived, written, rewritten, and re-rewritten',[2] to be published the following January. In his essay A Chapter on Dreams, he traces the origins of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to a dream that supplied him with two key scenes for the novella. In the same essay he acknowledges what he calls his 'Brownies' as the unconscious springs of his inspiration. The Brownies are 'the little people who manage a man's internal theatre'[3] and provide, in the form of dreams, ready-made plots for novels and stories. Stevenson speaks of 'a double-life, one of the day and one of the night', and it is the managers of this night-life that supplant the Cartesian 'cogito' and enable him to be a writer:

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