Strange Science: The Role of the Grotesque in Oryx and Crake and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde
Every culture has different rules and norms to follow, the adherence to which often separate the classes from each other. However, there are a few hand-and-fast rules that are cross-cultural; these values seem to be etched into the fabric of what makes humanity human. Although there are slight differences across the varying cultures, most cultures agree that murder, for instance, is immoral and undesirable within a civilized society. Another example of a nearly-universally-held value is the general human distaste for cannibalism. These universal human values are important, because if someone strays from the general guidelines of his or her culture, he or she may face ramifications in the form of social ostracization; however, if he or she breaks one of the cardinal rules, the penalties are much more severe. Often, when an individual breaks one of the cardinal rules of humanity, he or she is outcast as a monster.
In Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson’s mild-mannered protagonist, Dr. Jekyll, creates the evil Mr. Hyde. The creation of Mr. Hyde allows Dr. Jekyll to live his life to the fullest, without worrying about the ramifications of his actions. Similarly, in Oryx and Crake, Atwood creates a world that is ravaged by a single man’s desire to create a biological cleansing of intelligent life. Although Dr. Jekyll and Atwood’s character of Crake are fundamentally different in some ways, their actions are similarly monstrous.
In both Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (hereafter Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, monstrosity results from the creation and ethical transgression of synthetic beings, as the central characters make an attempt to overpower natural instinct and fail. The struggle that the protagonists and central characters face when trying to overcome natural instincts highlights the central theme of struggle between natural and synthetic evolution.
The characters of Dr. Jekyll and Crake in the two texts are not incredibly similar in personalities or motives, but they do cause problems for themselves in very similar ways. In Oryx and Crake, Crake takes up the traditional mantle of the superman; he is Nietzsche's’ Ubermensch come to life, intent upon saving humanity and intelligent life from itself by destroying it.
Most would recognize Crake’s foray into biological warfare against humanity as what it is: an attempt to play God and decide the fate of all of his fellow humans with no real right or forethought. However, Crake sees his actions differently; he sees himself as a savior figure, protecting humanity from its ultimate downfall by meddling in the lives of individuals without their permission.
Most will recognize Crake’s actions as a monstrous act, although there may be some debate as to why Crake’s act is immoral. One of the biggest reasons for immorality in this action is Crake’s willingness to make decisions for the whole of humanity without input from the “intelligent life” he is so desperate to save. He also forever changes the life of his childhood friend, Jimmy, forcing him to become a guardian for all of the new sub-human, low-intelligence creatures he has created. Jimmy and Crake represent the two sides of a personality, much in the same way that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are mirror images of one another. Jimmy kills Crake in Atwood’s text, but the questions and issues raised by the mad scientists archetype linger on throughout the novel, leaving the protagonist agonizing over unanswered questions.
In Atwood’s text, when Jimmy, or Snowman (as he comes to be called after the genetic pandemic started by Crake) sees the first group of humans that he has seen since the pandemic, he is faced with a quandary. He must decide if he should tell these humans about the Crakers, or kill them on sight in an attempt to protect the Crakers as he promised Oryx he would before she died.
When she introduces the three new humans into the story, Atwood writes, “Maybe all will be well, maybe this trio of strangers is good-hearted, sane, well-intentioned; maybe he’ll succeed in presenting the Crakers to them in the proper light. On the other hand, these new arrivals could easily see these Children of Crake as freakish, or savage, or non-human and a threat” (Atwood 366). If these humans do decide to kill the Crakers, then Snowman fears that “The balance of my nature might be overthrown, the power of voluntary change forfeited, and the character of Edward Hyde become irrevocably mine” (Stevenson 62). After making certain decisions, Stevenson warns, there is no returning to the state that the individual was in before; the individual forever changes the landscape of his or her mind when he or she makes an attempt to control life synthetically.
Atwood leaves the ending to the text intentionally unclear; the reader has no real indication of whether Snowman ever takes any kind of action against the humans that have wandered into his sights. The important thing about the ending of the novel is that it points out that taking certain types of actions lessen an individual’s humanity; Snowman should be ecstatic to see humans after being alone for so long, but instead he is worried and cagey. He is absorbing some of the characteristics of the dead Crake, and beginning to play God with the Crakers.
Atwood’s novel is particularly harsh on the religiosity of humankind and its tendency to try to force personal ethics on others. In the literary analysis of Oryx and Crake, Ku writes, “Judging from this relapse into territoriality and the idolatry of Snowman, it seems not unlikely that the latent human potential for hierarchy will eventually rekindle among the Crakers: although Crake contends that their different skin colors are purely “aesthetic” (8), these cutaneous nuances are subject to the political manipulation of racism, and the fact that the Crakers are led by a male “Abraham” can be seen as a crude form of patriarchy or gerontocracy” (Ku 125). Snowman creates a religious structure for the Crakers, in an attempt to give them a moral compass to follow; however, the Crakers are portrayed as unintelligent and are not truly capable of understanding and analyzing religious dogma the way they could have when they were human, and thus are even less capable than their human counterparts to avoid the pitfalls of religious persecution.
It is also important to note the role of religion in both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oryx and Crake. In the former, religion plays a large thematic role, because the text is designed to warn the reader against making any attempt to foray into the realm that God and God only should be responsible for. This religious admonishment was common in texts of the era, because the abilities of science were growing exponentially at the time. It was common for thinkers and philosophers to worry about the boundaries of science, and to think about the ethical guidelines that should be followed to avoid encroaching upon territory that humanity had or has no business encroaching upon.
Today, these questions still plague humanity. The line between science and science fiction is forever blurred; things are possible with science that have never been possible before. Genetic modification, biological warfare, and a variety of other scientific advances have given humanity unprecedented power to heal and to harm other human beings. With this technology, humans can do good or do evil.
These two texts, however, do not warn of the dangers of doing evil with new technology; rather, that is not their primary function. Instead, they warn the reader about taking on the responsibility of creating and caring for synthetic life, and the pitfalls of trying to play God without any kind of forethought.
When Dr. Jekyll takes the serum in an attempt to separate his morality and his consciousness, he was doing it for selfish reasons. The character of Jekyll wishes for moral freedom, to create two entities within himself: one purely good and one purely evil, as a way to escape from the quandaries and ethical conundrums of being human. However, the transformation into Mr. Hyde is incomplete; Jekyll is never able to achieve a purely good ethical state.
Instead, he is left with his psyche torn and violated, without the ability to regulate and control his behavior. No matter how much Jekyll tried, his natural instinct triumphed over the scientific experiments that he was doing on himself, much in the same way that Snowman’s natural instincts triumphed when he shoots and kills his best friend, Crake, for killing Oryx in cold blood.
Jekyll states in the text that he enjoys his time as Hyde, although he does not seem to want to be Mr. Hyde all the time. It does raise the question of Jekyll’s true character, however; if Jekyll truly enjoys the violence and rage that Hyde acts out, then what makes Jekyll himself separate from Hyde? Stevenson points out the thin line between humanity and monstrosity very effectively-- Hyde is a manifested part of Jekyll, merely separated from his conscience; the separation does not make him less a part of Jekyll, but perhaps makes him more a part, because the separation allows Hyde to run rampant.
Although at certain points Jekyll seems appalled at the actions Hyde has taken, he does not express any real desire to do away with Mr. Hyde. “Jekyll cannot endlessly return himself to his original state,” McDuffie writes in his analysis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “simply because transformation by nature degrades energy and irreversibly homogenizes differentials, but because after so many iterations and so much moral confusion, he begins to lose a sense of what his original state was” (McDuffie 12). This is an important distinction that should be made: the Crakers, although they did not make the choice to become as they are, are similar to Dr. Jekyll in this way. They are irrevocably changed, and cannot be changed back because their continued existence in their current state has gone on for too long.
In a way, the Crakers and Mr. Hyde are excellent character foils; the Crakers are designed to be completely good, while Mr. Hyde is a completely evil entity. However, both the Crakers and Mr. Hyde are synthetic entities, created by a mad scientist, with little to no control over their eventual fate. While the Crakers are designed to be benevolent and peace-loving, there is no inherent goodness in their benevolence or their peacefulness, because they are not good out of choice. Similarly, one could argue that Mr. Hyde himself is not evil, because the element of choice was taken away from the entity-- Hyde never had an opportunity to be good, because he was created to do evil overall.
The element of choice is a very important theme in both texts, although both texts approach the issue in a slightly different manner. Jekyll and Hyde are split from the same personality, and Hyde is evil because Jekyll wants free reign to act upon his evil impulses without taking responsibility for them. The Crakers are split from humanity, and are inherently good because Crake wanted to create a race of beings that were peace-loving and benevolent. Neither the Crakers nor Hyde had a choice in what they were to become, so it is difficult to call either of them monsters; the true monster, in both cases, is the creator, rather than the creations, who cannot help what they have inevitably become.
These text also bring up some important questions regarding the nature of humanity and consciousness. The Crakers are undeniably conscious, and at one point in their history, they were human. Does this grant them the same rights as they would have if they were fully human? Does their changed status negate their humanity? With scientific advancements moving forward at an alarming rate these days, the ethical questions regarding the line between what is defined as “human” and what is defined as “non-human” or “other” is increasingly blurred.
It seems inevitable that humanity will seek to protect itself from outside intelligences. Humanity has shown over and over again that it will do everything possible to stay intellectually and physically more powerful than any other being it deems as a potential threat; the question truly becomes impactful when the potential threat is something that humanity created.
For most of human history, human philosophical thought has been moving towards an inclusive, human-rights centric theory of human interaction and governance. Although not perfect, the idea that every individual has fundamental, basic human rights is gaining traction. The two texts discussed here-- Oryx and Crake and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pose a different question: when a consciousness exists that is not human, does it retain some of the rights that a human being does?
One area that this question will need to be asked in the near future is in the area of artificial intelligence. As artificial intelligence becomes more and more sophisticated, humanity moves closer and closer to a human-created artificial consciousness. If this consciousness is created, many of the issues discussed by these two texts will be fundamentally important philosophically. Any consciousness without free will will cause philosophical and ethical issues for many.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake: A Novel. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2003. Print.
Ku, Chung-Hao. "Of Monster and Man: Transgenics and Transgression in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake." Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies , 32. 1 (2006): 107-133. Print.
Mcduffie, Allen. "Irreversible Transformations: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Scottish Energy Science." Representations, 96. 1 (2006): 1-20. Print.
Stevenson, Robert L, and Ralph Cosham. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Falls Church, VA: Inaudio, 2002. Sound recording.