Saturday, April 17, 2010
Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
The gothic novels of the 19th century are much better known these days through movie adaptations. Many more people have seen a movie version of Dracula or Frankenstein than have actually read the original novels. We all think we know the stories but the movies are often very inaccurate. It’s surprising to read Frankenstein & discover that the monster didn’t have bolts sticking out of his neck & Frankenstein didn’t have a hunchbacked assistant called Igor! Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is another example of this. It’s really a novella or a long short story, only 65 pages long. I always thought the story was set in Edinburgh as Stevenson was Scottish but it’s set in London. There are no women in it, apart from servants. This comes as a surprise after seeing the Spencer Tracy movie with glamorous Lana Turner & Ingrid Bergman in starring roles. It’s almost impossible for readers today to read this book innocently because we know the secret of Jekyll & Hyde. The term has become proverbial for someone with a split personality. But, Dr Jekyll’s secret isn’t revealed in the book until the final chapter when he tells his own story. I will add a spoiler warning though in case there's anyone who doesn't want to know.
The story begins with two men, Mr Utterson, a lawyer, & his friend, Mr Enfield. As they take their weekly walk together, they come to a door in a wall & Enfield tells a story connected with it. He saw a man trample a child in the street. He chases after him as he tries to escape &, after rescuing him from an angry mob, compels him to pay the child’s family compensation. The man takes Enfield to that door in the wall, lets himself in & writes a cheque. The cheque is in the name of Dr Jekyll, a friend of both men. Jekyll is a respected doctor & it seems so unlikely that he would be associated with such a creature as Mr Hyde. When Jekyll makes a new will, leaving all his goods to Hyde if he should die or disappear, Utterson becomes obsessed with finding out the connection between the two men. Blackmail for some crime or youthful indiscretion seem the most likely explanations. There’s an atmosphere of mystery & dread from the beginning as everyone who comes across Hyde is repulsed by him without really knowing why. A housemaid who witnesses one of his crimes describes him to the police as “particularly small & particularly wicked-looking.” It’s only when Dr Jekyll tells his own story in a confession read by Utterson, that the full story is revealed.
It’s a story of scientific experimentation that resulted in a potion that, when taken, transformed Jekyll into Hyde, another personality who could live out the fantasies of violence & sin that Jekyll had to repress. The horror when Jekyll goes to sleep as himself & wakes as Hyde without taking the potion & realises that he now has no control over his transformation is chilling. The fact that most of Hyde’s crimes aren’t described only makes the story more horrible. The reader is left to imagine the horror. Much more effective than showing us, we can supply the details from our own fears.
The Introduction & Notes to my OUP edition by Roger Luckhurst explore all the theories that have been put forward to account for the hints in the story. It filled in the background to the writing of the story & the many allusions in it. That’s why I love OUP & Penguin editions of the classics. There’s so much that the original readers knew & could take for granted that modern readers don’t know. There are several other short stories & essays in this edition & I’m looking forward to reading them. I only discovered Stevenson last year after having several of his novels on my tbr shelves for years. I read Kidnapped, Catriona & The Master of Ballantrae. I think more of his short stories will have to be next.