The Strange Case of Mr. Chesterton and Dr. Frankenstein

In Romans 1:18, the Apostle Paul makes a universal–and quite startling–statement. He speaks of those who lack belief in God, and challenges an assertion often made by them. Many believe that atheists simply lack a particular belief. To put it differently, they believe in nothing. What Paul says is that atheists are a myth. There is no one who doesn’t believe in God. Paul tells us that all men, regardless of their stated beliefs, know God exists. According to Paul, people simply suppress this truth.

But Paul doesn’t just stop there, instead going on to say that those who suppress the truth “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” In other words, people do not simply lack a belief in God–they replace that belief with something else. English journalist and philosopher G.K. Chesterton got at this same point when he said, “When people stop believing in God, they won’t believe in nothing, they’ll believe in anything.” In other words, when people suppress the truth of God they don’t just forget about it, rather they replace it with something else–they replace it with a lie.

G.K. Chesterton Photo

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson I believe show their main characters displaying much of the same behavior that Paul talks about in Romans 1. Specifically, these two literary works deal with the concept of self-deception. Though they approach the subject in slightly different ways, it seems that the theme is quite obvious.

Frankenstein’s self-deception is blatant, ultimately leading to the destruction of his happiness and the lives of everyone around him. Dr. Jekyll’s self deception is subtler, and played out on a smaller and more intimate scale. But Dr. Jekyll’s self-deception leads to the same thing that Frankenstein’s does: it leads to his own destruction. I believe these two works show us different aspects of the concept of self-deception, as well as different consequences of it. Ultimately what ends up happening, I believe, is that both stories affirm Chesterton’s words, though slightly augmented. When people stop believing in the truth, it’s not that they believe in nothing. When people stop believing in truth, they will believe in anything.

Before we examine self-deception in light of these two works, a definition of self-deception is needed. Collins English Dictionary defines self-deception as, “the act or an instance of deceiving oneself, especially as to the true nature of one’s feelings or motives.” Only a few comments are needed on this definition. First, even though Collins Dictionary explicitly states that self-deception often concerns emotions or motives, this is not the only type of self-deception. Rather, one can deceive oneself as to just about anything, which is what the first part of the definition gets at.

The second thing that needs to be said is that the definition makes clear that this is a willful action. Self-deception is an act perpetrated by the self-deceiver. Those who lie to themselves do not do so accidentally–rather it is a definite and specific act of believing in a false reality.

With an understanding of self-deception set, seeing it in Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should be fairly easy. Let’s start with Frankenstein, primarily because the self-deception is blatant, as I said before. Frankenstein’s plot is well-known: Frankenstein, an obsessive scientist creates a creature, then rejects that creature. The creature runs off, seeking to integrate himself into the world. But everywhere he turns he meets only sorrow and hatred–people do not accept him in the least. The anger and vitriol begins to build, until finally the creature goes on a murderous rampage, killing all of Frankenstein’s closest friends.

Where does the self-deception come in? It begins, I believe, when the first murder occurs. Frankenstein receives a letter telling him that his nephew William has been killed, and immediately sets out to go comfort his family. But on the way there, Frankenstein sees the creature and realizes that he must have killed William.

Immediately the self-deception begins. Frankenstein is sorrowful that he created the monster, bemoaning the sadness it has brought him. When Justine, a good friend of Frankenstein’s family, is framed by the monster the sorrow only increases. The guilt piles up, but even here Frankenstein refuses to face reality. Though he is sad he created the beast, he fails to recognize that he is directly responsible for both William’s death and Justine’s conviction.

His rejection of his own creation started the monster on a trajectory of murder and destruction. But throughout the story, as the bodies pile up, Frankenstein still refuses to accept this. The deception is subtle, but it is most certainly there.

Instead of taking the blame for the murders, Frankenstein shifts it to the monster. When he meets the creature in the mountains he reviles him, going on and on about how evil the creature is. The blame is no longer on Frankenstein–the murders aren’t his fault, they are the monster’s fault.

Now to be sure, Frankenstein feels guilty for creating the creature but there is never an acknowledgement that it was his ambition–his obsessive drive to control life–that led to the death of his nephew, his friends, his father, and even his wife. All that is the monster’s fault. Where does this leave Frankenstein at the end? At the end of the book Frankenstein is alone and lost. His obsession is still there, though it is reversed. Now he is obsessed with destroying the creature, but he still has failed to take the blame on himself. He believes that justice will be served with the death of the creature because he believes that all the murders are directly and solely the fault of the creature. He does not consider that he may have acted unjustly himself. His self-deception has left him destitute and tormented by grief.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like I said, plays this self-deception out on a smaller scale. Due to the unconventional nature of the story structure, the deception only becomes obvious at the end. When Dr. Jekyll discovers a way to split his personality, incarnating all that is evil in him in the person of Mr. Hyde, he believes he can control it. After all, Jekyll reasons, Mr. Hyde will only appear when I take the concoction, and he will disappear in a definite amount of time.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Book Cover

Slowly, however, Mr. Hyde begins to take over. This, of course, relays a more conventional message: playing with evil is like playing with fire–someone is going to get burned. But I also believe it touches on something else. Dr. Jekyll, despite the slow loss of control the audience sees going on, still believes he can control Mr. Hyde. He tells himself over and over again that he is in control. Of course, this is all a lie. Mr. Hyde eventually completely takes over leading to the death of Dr. Jekyll.

Jekyll played with fire and deceived himself into thinking he was immune to the heat. But deception is just deception, and eventually he was burned. It’s a tragic ending, but perhaps an inevitable one.

Reflecting on self-deception as displayed in these two works brings something interesting to light. It seems that Frankenstein displays an outward self-deception, while The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde displays an inward self-deception. What I mean by this is that Frankenstein deceives himself about the true nature of events going on around him. He forces himself to believe that the murders occurring are not his fault.

Dr. Jekyll, however, deceives himself about his own nature and his own power. Instead of feeding himself a false reality about the reason and motive for events going on around him, he tells himself a story about his own abilities and desires. Frankenstein lies about the world around him. Dr. Jekyll lies about himself.

I do not believe it is necessary to ask the question as to which is worse. In fact, I believe doing so would miss the point entirely. Self-deception is dangerous and destructive. Whether that destruction touches everyone around us, or whether it simply wrecks ourselves can differ from scenario to scenario. But what these two works say loud and clear is that reality needs to be recognized, and when it isn’t Chesterton is right.

Frankenstein tells us that failing to recognize reality as it pertains to our own culpability doesn’t lead to us simply having no opinion as to who is culpable–it leads to us blaming the wrong person. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells us that failing to accurately assess our own abilities doesn’t lead to us having no view of ourselves. Rather, it leads to us overestimating or underestimating who we are.

And so, from this cursory examination, it seems like Chesterton was right, as he often is. When we stop believing the truth–whether that truth is about our own guilt or our own frailty–we do not believe in nothing. Instead, we believe in anything. And that may be far, far more dangerous.