This one of those tales that have percolated down through culture but that most of us have never actually read. I assigned it as a short reading assignment for my sixth form English class, something we could cut our teeth on while we start looking at the possibilities for texts to study this year. They were all familiar with the general idea, though I was surprised to find out that one of them was surprised that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person!
Oh, yeah, oops … spoilers.
Anyway, this is a lovely psychological thriller packaged up in the gloomy philosophical meditations indigenous to Victorian London. Dr Jekyll is a “good man”, in the sense that he is generally an upstanding member of the community, with patients who respect him and friends who look up to him. Yet he yearns for something more, for the ability to give into his vices without all the nasty consequences such a thing would entail. So he turns to science … and science turns on him.
One thing I didn’t realize prior to reading the book is the central role of Utterson as narrator. It’s true that Jekyll predominates in the last act, but for most of the book, Utterson is the main character, observing the actions of Jekyll and Hyde from afar. This is more effective than telling the story purely from Jekyll’s point of view. He gets his chance to be an unreliable narrator towards the end, but Utterson provides a sense of objectivity that Jekyll necessarily can’t. As an outsider, and a layperson, Utterson is the Victorian everyman who can be simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by the mysterious Mr Hyde and his ambiguous connection to Dr Jekyll.
I love how Stevenson puts us through the paces with Utterson as he considers all the possible explanations for the Hyde/Jekyll connection. This is probably just a sign of how much television has gotten to me in my senescence now that I’m 24, but I can imagine this as a short miniseries. (I’m aware numerous films and television adaptations exist, including quite recent efforts, but I’m thinking of something a little more faithful to the plot.) The pacing is pitch-perfect, with Stevenson drawing out the mystery until we can bear it no longer. As Jekyll’s star seems to wax and then wane, Utterson becomes impatient. He seeks Jekyll out, only to be rebuffed at every turn.
The big pay-off comes after the shift in narrator, though, and Jekyll finally explains his reasons for transforming into Hyde. This book is just such a nice, neat bundle of Victorian attitudes towards criminology, science, and philosophy. Hyde’s physical appearance is that of the grotesque, atavistic criminal: shorter in stature, his skull so obviously deformed in all the usual “criminal” ways. The very idea of a potion that could effect such a transformation, though obviously fanciful, plays on the limitless sense of potential prevalent throughout educated people in an era of tumultuous scientific discovery and publication. Finally, Jekyll’s chilling, selfish reasons for undertaking this project speak volumes about Victorian obsessions with morality, with the problems of good and evil and how to control one’s darker impulses.
I can see how this would be a chilling tale in its time, and it remains a chilling tale to this day. Stevenson challenges the idea that there are “good” people and “bad” people, contending instead that we all have evil within us, and that we would very much like to let it out once in a while. This is a morality tale of the dangers of combining moral hubris with scientific hubris. In an era where the possibilities of science suddenly seemed limitless—electricity could bring the dead back to life, the very age of the Earth was in question—Stevenson explored the possibility of using science to suss out morality. The consequences, for Jekyll, are an indictment against such meddling. By giving into his impulses to let his evil side roam free, Jekyll breaks down the barriers that keep those impulses in check, letting Hyde take over more and more often until it becomes impossible to keep him contained.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic and timeless tale that speaks volumes about the society of its time while still touching similar fears and ideas in the souls of the present. This is one of Stevenson’s most well-known works, and having finally read it after absorbing its cultural echoes all my life, I understand why.