We are all so busy being ourselves, or a version of ourselves, that we seldom stop and ask: Do I really know myself? and more importantly, Can I ever know myself? Shakespeare’s Othello, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde all demonstrate that it is impossible to fully know oneself, as our identities are ever changing reflections of external perception.
Starting with Othello, whose identity begins to change as Iago commences to meddle with his mind. At first Iago seems to imitate Othello, mirroring his sentences, symbolic of how Iago’s honesty is inverted, as he is in fact dishonest. But, shortly thereafter, they switch roles and Othello starts repeating Iago’s sentences, such as when Iago affirms,
“Men should be what they seem” (3.3130)
Othello replies with
“Certain, men should be what they seem” (3.3.133).
Not only is the statement important, as men are not as they seem due to changing identities demonstrated by Iago, but now Othello has become the mirror and a reflection of Iago and his perception. Iago gives off the impression that he hates women, Othello begins to detest Desdemona who is a woman, Iago maltreats his wife, Othello later slaps Desdemona and eventually kills her. Ultimately, Othello fulfills the black man stereotype,of being wild and hyper-sexual, which is society’s perception of him , violently killing Desdemona and constantly thinking about sexual activities due to the alleged affair. From an eloquent and civilized being, Othello’s identity changes due to external perception and in turn Othello becomes a projection of Iago and society itself.
Perception is crucial in Frankenstein as well. When the creature sees himself for the first time, he remarks
“How was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; … I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (93).
When I first read this I was shocked that the creature considered himself ugly. Because beauty doesn’t exist. It is merely perception that dictates what is beautiful and what is ugly. And yet, the creature who has no contact with humanity has acquired the same attitude regarding beauty as our society. This passage, which shows his alienation from himself, marks the beginning of a new identity for the creature, becoming the monster society believes him to be, choosing to inspire fear, destroy, and murder. SO how can the creature ever know himself if his identity is heavily influenced by external perceptions which later becomes his own? In fact, the very structure of this novel exemplifies that we are not in control of our identities, as it is a framed narrative with many narrators voicing other’s stories. No one is in control of how others shape them out to be. This demonstrates that oneself cannot be pinned down indefinitely.
As in the two previous texts, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows the lasting imprints of societal perception on an individual’s identity. A fundamental question that arose for myself when reading this novella is why would Jekyll feel the need to create a completely alternate identity? The answer once again lies in perception. Henry Jekyll is a wealthy doctor of a good family and is perceived by society as a respectable gentleman in his fine Victorian society. This perception has shaped his identity, as he explains,
“ I, for my part, from the of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and one direction only. It was on the moral side” (51).
In this aspect the novella diverges from the other two texts, as Dr.Jekyll doesn’t fulfill the external perceptions and stereotypes, but rather proves to be the exact opposite, contrary to Othello and the creature. It is this perception of society that he is a gentleman Dr.Jekyll felt he had to live up to, and uphold, shaping his morally driven identity. Mr.Hyde was his escape, he created a completely new identity solely so that society wouldn’t perceive him in a negative view, so that he could forever be remembered by his gentleman facade and do what he wishes. He describes it as
“an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul” (51),
showing that he felt trapped and restrained in meeting the societal perceptions of a Victorian gentleman.
So to answer the question our title so elegantly posed, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Victor Frankenstein, and Othello are all have in common the fact that their identities are byproducts of their respective societies. This proves that they can never know themselves, and we as humans will never know ourselves, as our identities are ever changing.
BONUS: The picture featured for this post is one that I created by compiling many different pictures from the internet. It is related to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as a common symbol was the faces of doors. human faces in relation to the faces of the doors to their houses provided an interesting comparison. It seems if the eyes are windows to the soul, our face is the door to our identity. But the interesting thing with faces is that they are central to a person’s identity but we can’t see our own faces, and we go our whole lives without seeing them, alienated, as even a mirror creates a fictional representation. So we wear many different faces, and therefore identities, for different occasions, to dictate how people perceive us, as we do not know our true face.
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