Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I finished Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this afternoon, and what a fun book it is! I read it because I plan to teach it later this semester … yes, I did put something on my syllabus without having read it first … probably not the best idea, but it’s in our anthology, it’s short, and I’d heard such good things about it. Luckily for me I enjoyed it a lot and think it will be fun to talk about in class.

The book seems so very Victorian to me, with lots of London fog (lots of it), weird psychological twists, a creepy kind of repressed sexuality, and a brooding, mysterious atmosphere. It tells the story, as surely most people know, of a split personality, of Dr. Jekyll who transforms into his evil other, Mr. Hyde. The story is told, though, from the perspective of Mr. Utterson, a friend of Dr. Jekyll’s and so turns out to be a mystery story; Utterson cannot understand why Jekyll has been acting so strangely, and he doesn’t know why he has made Hyde his heir, Hyde, the one who was recently spotted trampling on a poor young girl who happened to run into him on the street.

Utterson becomes worried about Jekyll and decides to track Hyde down to learn what he can about him; ominously, he discovers that Hyde sends out a very bad vibe — whenever people encounter him, they can’t help but shudder a little bit, as though they were in the presence of evil. Eventually Utterson is called upon to help save Jekyll, who has secluded himself in his chambers; he fails at this, but he does receive several packets of papers that reveal the mystery — the horror of what Jekyll has gotten himself into.

The first part of the story sets up a mood excellently well; it’s dark and creepy and claustrophobic. The last part is fascinating for psychological reasons. Jekyll, when he finally reveals the truth of himself — in writing, interestingly, at a distance, as though the truth is too shocking to tell face to face — tells a story about loving pleasure but fearing where that love might take him:

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.

It’s not that his pleasures — whatever they were — were particularly craven; the problem was that they didn’t square with “the exacting nature of my aspirations.” He cannot accept his own complexity, his capacity to contain both seriousness and gaiety. This discomfort with his own self leads to some scientific experiments, during which he learns how to separate out his good and evil elements, and eventually Mr. Hyde is born. It’s not that Dr. Jekyll is pure good compared to Mr. Hyde’s pure evil, however; Jekyll remains a mixture, so his struggle becomes a struggle between a pure state, Mr. Hyde’s evil, and a mixed one, his own complexity. Self-loathing is at the heart of this quest:

I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements [good and evil]. If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

This evil is not extraneous, though, but part of every person’s complex nature. Because he cannot accept this complexity, he is doomed to fight against himself until he can’t fight anymore. In the effort to wall himself off from his own dark side, he ends up more closely wedded to it:

… that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.

The part of yourself that you loathe and deny, in other words, will come back to haunt you and will be your downfall. It’s clear this book comes out of a culture ripe for psychoanalysis; how could Freud not come along at this point?

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

  1. I think this would be a wonderful book for a class. I read it a couple of years ago and of course my only knowledge of the story came from movie versions. It was quite a treat to finally read the real story.

  2. Wouldn’t it be a good combination with Heart of Darkness? And Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown? The complexities of human nature, Freud, and Jung’s “shadow,” would all work in there.

  3. Where was I reading recently about this being the book that makes the best use of London fog (maybe THE ANNOTATED INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN)? Interesting that you read it so soon after JUSTIFIED SINNER. I’ve always thought it would be neat to read those two books simultaneously. Oh, and I wish, working with your last sentence here, I could be in your class when you discuss this one!

  4. I’d never really been attracted to this book, but now that you and Stefanie have read it and loved it (and didn’t Danielle read it too, or am I dreaming?) I am going to have to change my mind! Great review, Dorothy!

  5. Isn’t it a fun book? It’s short but so rich. So much for a class to talk about. When are you teaching it? Can I come sit in? I promise I’ll try to keep my mouth shut and if my hand shoots up in the air just ignore it :)

  6. Iliana — I’m glad you think this would work well in class, and I hope my students like it!

    Jenclair — you’re right. I could have assigned Heart of Darkness this semester but decided not to … maybe next time I will. I’m also teaching Frankenstein, though, and I think the two will go together well.

    Emily — I thought about Hogg’s novel while I was reading this one — I’m reading a lot of gothic-type books with supernatural or pseudo-scientific elements lately, Frankenstein included. But yeah, Robert’s uncertainty identity and doubleness make a wonderful comparison to the Jekyll/Hyde story.

    Litlove — I wasn’t attracted to it either, until it made sense for me to teach it, and now I’m glad I’ve read it. I do think you’d have fun with it (and the Hogg novel), as it begs for psychological readings.

    Stefanie — yes, it is! And you are invited to my class — sometime in early April I think. I’ll even let you give a guest lecture if you like :)

  7. hepzibah

    I read this last year for one of my lit classes and enjoyed it a great deal. It is perfect for class, I think, and I just remembered loving the style of his prose — it is very beautiful and evocative, isn’t it?

  8. I did read it, too–a couple of years ago. I really liked it–very atmospheric as you say. What surprised me was my perception of the story before reading it. It’s one of those stories you think you know because it’s just part of the culture–Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but the story was really quite different than I had expected (still very good, but just very different). I think your students will like it and surely there is loads there to discuss! And yes, it’s nice and short, too!

  9. Hepzibah — I’m glad to hear it’s good for class! And yes, I enjoyed the writing. I’ll have to write about my students’ responses when we get there.

    Danielle — I know, the story does seem so familiar, and yet when you actually read it, it’s quite surprising. The legend has taken on a life of its own — a lot like Frankenstein.

  10. Coincidentally, I read the book during Christmas break as well. The two things that struck me most (apart from liking it very much) were:

    1. Trying to figure out what it would have been like to read the book without the story and characters being part of the collective consciousness; even people who’ve never read the story or seen a movie know what “Jekyll and Hyde” means.

    2. Considering the Mad Scientist aspects, finding (as in Frankenstein, which I also read recently) a scientist confronting moral/ethical issues with disastrous effects. It brought to mind to contrast 20th Century SF lit with heroic scientists solving humanity’s problems left and right.

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