The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde




Using the name Heisenberg for Walter White in Breaking Bad made sense but not in the way assumed by some TV critics.  The Heisenberg principle does not refer to alternative identities.  Defining any quantum physics theory in simple language is dangerous but here goes.  The physicist Heisenberg asserted and demonstrated that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which a pair of properties of a particle can be known.  The more precise the position of a particle is known the less precise is the measurement of the momentum of the article.  Despite the subsequent fuss about the discovery and how smart Mr Heisenberg must have been the philosophical implications of this idea are limited.  The calculations arriving at the conclusion, though, filled up several very large blackboards.


But apply the Heisenberg theory to Walt and his behaviour and we realise that the more we see him move or act the less we know about his contradictory personality.  This mystery is something we share with Walt because he is as confused about his nature, intentions and purpose as the rest of us.  Yet before the final episode the character of Walt feels overextended.  Instead of merely being a man whose criminal activity has desensitised him and added a brutal edge to his character Walt has now become evil.  Vince Gilligan and his crew are too talented and creative for the final episodes not to have their moments.  The final season of Breaking Bad is entertaining and remains impressive but it is flawed.   Walter White becomes an unequivocal monster.  His facial expressions and smirks may add gothic amusement for fans but they are more appropriate to a B horror movie.  To those of us who had become used to the previous complex and subtle characterisations by Gilligan and his writers this new Walter was a disappointment.

Before season five the notion of evil as an entity was resisted by the Breaking Bad writers.  In the climax of season four Gilligan and his team skilfully enabled Walt to kill master gangster Gus.   In season five the notion of evil and the Edward Hyde transformation were too easily embraced.   Prior to that we had seen a man of flaws and strengths who responded to various circumstances and events in different ways.  The moral decline of Walt was obvious and believable but, like the moral progress made by Jesse, it was also complicated and uneven.   Jekyll understood he was ‘not the chief of sinners nor the chief of sufferers’.  And neither was Walt before season five appeared although some people would have preferred it to be that way.

Walter's not-white money

Robert Louis Stevenson based The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on a dream.  The book is different from the famous movie adaptations.  The drama of Dr Jekyll happens unseen behind a closed door, something like the one in the painting by Georgia O’Keefe that Jane shows to Jesse.  The members of the White and Schrader families all take turns to hide from the others.  For Skyler it is a sulk, and for Walt it is finding somewhere to be other than his suburban home.   All this hiding involves closing both metaphysical and real doors.   Apart from a cruel incident involving a small boy the cruelty of Hyde occurs unseen, restricted to the hidden dark streets of London.

The revelations in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde appear courtesy of the third party Dr Lanyon and in the final letter from Dr Jekyll.  For most writers this complicated structure would have destroyed the book but Stevenson, as he proved in Treasure Island, is a master of exposition.  The book has a great concept but it needed the technical skill of Stevenson to become a classic.



The responsibility of others to self-destructive friends and relatives is a key element within both Breaking Bad and the Stevenson novella.  Utterson is the solicitor who realises that Jekyll, his client and friend, is in ‘deep waters’.   The austere Utterson condemns himself.  ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.’  Between Walt and Jesse there is conflict and at times hatred.   They criticise and insult each other but when either is threatened by adversaries the other is prepared to defend his business partner.  Even when Walt has been transformed into a monster in the final season he ensures his inevitable death will keep Jesse alive.  The two men have complicated feelings towards each other and neither prevent ‘their brother going to the devil’.  Jekyll understands that drinking his chemical concoction will release Hyde but probably destroy them both.   Nevertheless, Jekyll is unable to say farewell to Hyde.  The most inspired section in the book occurs when Jekyll describes the mother and son relationship that has developed between him and Hyde.  Like a pregnant woman responds to the cries of the entity within her, Jekyll feels maternal towards his creation.  Hyde is like sons everywhere who, when they become adults, are obliged to rebel against this bond and dependency.   Walt and Jesse have a father and son relationship and similar feelings of rebellion and responsibility.

Compared to Dr Jekyll, the dependent Hyde is the extreme example that represents distilled or ‘pure evil’.  The bad behaviour of Hyde is something more than a weak resistance to temptation or flawed judgement.  He carries an evil that is pure because it has its own existence.  Jekyll is a human being and anything but pure.  He is not the consequence of a chemical experiment.  Stevenson describes Jekyll as a compound, and like the rest of us he has a range of appetites.  In the letter he writes before his death Jekyll admits to a ‘certain impatient gaiety of disposition.’  Or as Ibsen might say, he liked to carouse.  The final despair of Jekyll is that he ‘chose the better part but was found wanting in the strength to keep it’.


Utterson describes it differently.  Jekyll defied ‘the bands that God decreed to bind.’   Whether decreed by God or not most of us know and respect ‘the bands that bind’.  Walt tears at those ‘bands’ but he needs help to break free.  To make the drugs he needs to pay for his medical bills Walter asks someone he remembers as a schoolboy.   Jekyll creates a drug that when taken helps him, ‘like a schoolboy to strip off these bindings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty’.   If there is justification for the emergence of Walt as a monster as opposed to someone whose ego is out of control then we have to accept that his destructive will was suppressed far more and longer than we imagined.  ‘My devil had long been caged and he came out raving.’  Walt, though, had broken free from his cage long before he decided to kill Gus, the act that transformed Walt into a monster.

Like Walt, Jekyll also understood self-censorship.  ‘I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensations of an approving conscience,’ wrote Jekyll in his final letter to his solicitor Utterson.  Jekyll was referring to his two months abstinence from taking the concoction that released Hyde.  The compensations of conscience were not enough, as they were not for Walt, and Jekyll returned to what had become his drug.  In season three of Breaking Bad, Walt steps back into his cage and becomes an employee of Gus and works a regular week in a controlled environment.   His acquiescence or conformity is indicated by the neat and modest lunch that he takes to work.   Walt worries about being murdered by Gus but like Jekyll there is also a point in the daily but well rewarded routine when again Walt has to break the bands that bind.


Two years before he died Werner Heisenberg wrote about the need for guiding ideals.  ‘Without them,’ said Heisenberg, ‘the scale of values disappears and with it the meaning of our deeds and sufferings, and at the end can lie only negation and despair.’   Hyde was always without a scale of values, and Jekyll forgot his at the important moments in his life.  Walter White had his scale of values and talked about the importance of his family.  He also had moments in his life and criminal career that were as important as those when Jekyll was unable to resist the temptation to swallow the serum he had created.  Walt neither understood the values he preached nor recognised those important moments when we want to but must not tear at the bands that bind.   Heisenberg believed religion protected us from desolation and despair. Walt was not religious and neither is anyone else in Breaking Bad.   Maybe there is a parallel universe where Walt somehow survived the Aryan Brotherhood gangsters, read the autobiography of Heisenberg and became a born again Christian.  But if he had done that, Walt really would have been a monster.

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.







The parents of Frederick Bailey Deeming described their son as a difficult child.   The troublesome child became an impossible adult. In 1891, Deeming killed his first wife and four children and buried them all under the floor. Fortunately there were no children in the second marriage. After moving to Australia, Deeming hid his dead second wife under the hearthstone in the bedroom. A dollop of cement kept the body secure and discreet. Deeming was arrested for his murders while arranging a wedding with his third beloved. The first family was murdered near Liverpool in the large village of Rainhill. The village is known for the steam engine trials of 1829. There was plenty of puff and noise that day but the place is quiet. In the trials Stephenson introduced the Rocket, and it became famous as being the first modern steam locomotive.   There are a couple of miles between Rainhill and where I lived as a child.   I attended school with children from the village. We all knew about the Rocket by Stephenson. If the adults had discussed Deeming the murderer and his crimes, the house where the bodies were discovered would have been a magnet for children. But, like a puff of steam from the Rocket, the gossip about Deeming faded away.


The consensus is that Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes. Deeming murdered six people, and four of them were children. His name is known by some but only because Jack the Ripper experts have felt obliged to name Deeming as a possible suspect for the Jack the Ripper crimes.   The reasoning is simple. Deeming was alive at the time of the murders and he killed people. He is not, though, Jack the Ripper. Because he had an active criminal life that included fraud and theft, Deeming was in prison when the five prostitutes were being murdered in Whitechapel.   The investigation of the homicides by Deeming, like that of Doctor Crippen, involved communication between countries separated by oceans. Jack the Ripper and Doctor Crippen became notorious and their crimes inspired novelists and filmmakers. Poor Frederick Bailey Deeming is not even remembered in a village on the outskirts of Liverpool and where not much happens.

The name Frederick Bailey Deeming did not help him. It is too precise a name for mystery. Frederick Bailey Deeming sounds like a title or a definition of a particular human being rather than a clue to identity. Although he was not middle class, the name of Deeming suits a posh accent. The name Jack the Ripper suits all tongues and is as mysterious as the London fog in which five Whitechapel prostitutes were killed.  Doctor Crippen has a name that is also evocative. It does not swirl like fog but it suggests cruelty and sticks between the teeth. The Doctor is preserved as a second rate wax dummy in the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds.   The story of the romance that inspired Crippen to kill suggested lost opportunities. Ernest Raymond recognised this and wrote the entertaining and gripping novel We The Accused.  Doctor Crippen, though, is not a legend. His temptation and weakness that led to his false steps are qualities we all understand. We are curious about Doctor Crippen rather than mystified.


Fame depends on timing. Edward Carpenter the political radical and poet described the Victorian age as a ‘fascinating and enthusiastic period.’ Much of that enthusiasm was sparked by a changing world. Politics, art and industry were all affected. Jack the Ripper was not the first psychopath to murder women but his narrow interests, poor and hardened women in an area blighted by poverty and prostitution, gave him a foothold in modernism. Jack the Ripper is not regarded as a human suffering from temptation and weakness. His crimes suggest the strength of a monster. Jack the Ripper is a creature that belongs in comic books. He was regarded as the superman of criminals.  Elements of the Victorian printed media responded to the fantasy figure and indulged in sensational cartoons and reports.

The solitary human icon, though, is more rare than we think.   The artists and scientists that create revolutions are part of cultural shifts that affect more than them. Movements and trends are important.   Jack the Ripper was a clever fiend that had a monster within him.   Robert Louis Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, two years before Jack the Ripper committed his first murder in Whitechapel.   Stevenson imagined modern science being used to liberate the monster within men.   The poverty and slums of Whitechapel inspired Jack the Ripper, and his escape was aided by the London fog, the industrial pollution that scarred lungs and English pretensions.  Jekyll sipped his serum, and Jack the Ripper sniffed London fog and industrial blight.



Sherlock Holmes was also important to the Victorian imagination that was haunted by Jack the Ripper. For Christians the existence of the devil confirms the presence of God. Sherlock Holmes was the alter ego of Jack the Ripper, two men without empathy and shaped by crime. Jack the Ripper existed to supply mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes was created to solve them.   Both men had odd behaviours. Jack the Ripper murdered women, and almost as bad, Sherlock Holmes played unlistenable melodies on his violin and took cocaine.  Jack the Ripper even left a clue that belonged in a story by Conan Doyle, the odd inscription on the wall about ‘the Juwes’ not being blamed.  Holmes, Jekyll and Jack the Ripper connected in the imaginations of the British.  Each made the legend of the other two more potent.  All three were imagined to be gentlemen. Holmes and Jekyll are the upper class creations of Stevenson and Conan Doyle. Despite there being no evidence to suggest Jack the Ripper had surgical skill the newspapers established the myth of a slayer in top hat walking the streets of Whitechapel.   Comic books and action movies demonstrate the importance of the exceptional costumes in melodrama.   The top hat, cloak and cane were an imagined and inappropriate costume but still potent symbols. Add an upper class accent and refined features and we have not just a solitary murderer but also an exceptional figure. No one wanted to meet Jack the Ripper but plenty wanted a glimpse.


The ease with which Jack the Ripper was given a false upper class identity was not a consequence of sloppy thinking.   Social class was important to the Victorians.   Many workers were antagonistic towards the wealthy but others talked about their ‘betters’. The middle classes and men believed their privilege was justified by industry, superior intelligence and a sense of honour.   Jack the Ripper did not lack industry and he was clever enough to mutilate bodies in the dark and escape detection.  The crimes of Jack the Ripper involved daring and risk, qualities in the world of commerce that earned reward and affluence. There is also the suspicion that the murderer may have had a sense of honour or a code that belonged to a gentleman.  The victims led what were considered to be immoral lives.


The notion of the Ripper as a gentleman with purpose and method has persuaded some that the Monarchy was involved in the murders. This notion is as daft as the suggestion that Deeming might have been Jack the Ripper.   The British Monarchy is far from being an attractive institution but it was not involved in the crimes of Jack the Ripper.  The stories, though, have done the legend no harm.   The powerful do protect their own but in the case of Jack the Ripper we are all baffled by who or what he might have been.   We have to assume that the police wanted to catch Jack the Ripper but in a society etched in social class and snobbery it is not difficult to imagine a police force rendered incompetent by deference, hierarchy and an entitlement to privilege.  It is now believed that the letter from Jack the Ripper to the Press was faked by a newspaperman. Back in 1888 it would have reinforced the suspicions of the poor and confirmed for them that the police were dumb lackeys for the powerful. One of the Sergeants on the case even had the unfortunate surname of Thicke.


All the above contributes to the legend but none of it as important as the mystery of the identity of the killer. The inexplicable is not just addictive. It permits thought and fancy and appeals to frustrated engineers who do not like to have dirty hands. In the years between the end of the Second World war and 1960 the complicated light from the legend was dimming.   The sixties generation pledged to overthrow any remnants of Victorian puritanism but the decade had elements of the end of the last Century.   The period was ‘fascinating and enthusiastic’. It also produced know-alls who believed that modern and superior detective work would identify the killer. Amateur detectives bred like rabbits, and books promised a solution to the mystery.   Author Patricia Cornwell is a recent example. When her theory was dismissed as silly, she claimed that it was because she was American and female. The thrillers of Cornwell have sold over a 100,000,000 copies. The woman is a slick operator yet Cornwell bought 30 paintings by artist Walter Sickert.  She believed their dark themes established his guilt. This is bizarre logic.   Paintings are an exercise in imagination and, although Cornwell does not think it important, Sickert was in France for four of the murders by Jack the Ripper.  The sensible books on Jack the Ripper avoid extravagant claims.   A mystery is different from a puzzle. It does not need to be solved to be interesting.  Silliness, though, will continue.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.