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Psychologising Jekyll, demonising Hyde: the strange case of criminal responsibility

By Nicola Lacey


This paper puts the famous story of Jekyll and Hyde to work for a specific analytic purpose. The question of responsibility for crime, complicated by the divided subjectivity implicit in Mr. Hyde’s appearance, and illuminated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grasp of contemporary psychiatric, evolutionary, and medical thought as promising new technologies for effecting a distinction between criminality and innocence, is key to the interest of the story. I argue that Jekyll and Hyde serves as a powerful metaphor both for specifically late Victorian perplexities about criminality and criminal responsibility, and for more persistently troubling questions about the legitimacy of and practical basis for criminalisation. A close reading of the story illustrates the complex mix of elements bearing on criminal responsibility-attribution and – incidentally – helps to explain what is wrong with the influential argument that, by the end of the 19th Century, attributions of responsibility in English criminal law already rested primarily and unambiguously on factual findings about the defendant’s state of mind. Far from representing the triumph of a practice of responsibility attribution grounded in the assessment of whether the defendant’s capacities were fully engaged, I argue that the terrain of mental derangement defences in late 19th Century England helps us to understand that longer-standing patterns of moral evaluation of character remained central to the criminal process even - or perhaps especially - in cases dealing with defects of consciousness. And precisely because ‘character’ remained key to the institutional effort to distinguish criminality and innocence, the ‘terror’ of Stevenson’s story resides in its questioning of whether either scientific knowledge or moral evaluation of character can provide a stable basis for attributions of responsibility. In conclusion, I will also suggest that Stevenson’s tale can help us to make sense of the resurgence of overtly ‘character-based’ practices of responsibility attribution in contemporary Britain and the United States, which themselves reflect a renewed crisis of confidence in our ability to effect a ‘dissociation’ between criminality and innocence. The argument proceeds as follows: I first juxtapose a contemporary case at the Old Bailey with the ‘case’ of Jekyll and Hyde, drawing out and analyzing the narratives of responsibility-attribution to be found in both texts. I then locate this analysis within a broader set of hypotheses about the historical trajectory of ideas and practices of criminal responsibility-attribution. In conclusion, I draw out some implications of this analysis for contemporary criminal law

Topics: K Law (General), BF Psychology
Publisher: Department of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science
Year: 2009
OAI identifier:
Provided by: LSE Research Online
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