I picked up this famous novella because I wanted to read something English and specifically, London-ish. Despite my vow to whittle down my stack of unread novels, I was getting frustrated with the American content of the pile, given that I live in London.
Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I knew the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde without actually knowing the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That is, I knew the broad outlines, mostly as they’ve appeared in other media (in my case, comic books like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). I knew scientist Jekyll drank a potion and turned into the monstrous Hyde. The actual novella tells a slightly more complicated story.
Stevenson’s tale is a mystery that follows Gabriel Utterson, the lawyer of prosperous London physician Henry Jekyll. Utterson is in possession of a strange will of Jekyll, who leaves everything he owns to the mysterious Edward Hyde but refuses to explain their relationship. Utterson gradually learns that Hyde is a small, vicious thug, and when Hyde is witnessed bludgeoning a member of parliament to death, Utterson implores Jekyll to drop his association with Hyde. Jekyll assures Uttterson he has renounced all dealings with Hyde. Matters come to head after Jekyll’s servant report that Jekyll has disappeared and Hyde has taken his place and locked himself in Jekyll’s chambers. Utterson crashes through the locked doors to find Hyde dead of suicide and a long letter from Jekyll explaining what happened.
For a modern reader who know the basic story, the build up to the climax is frustrating. There’s no real mystery, and it’s just a matter of finding out how and why. Stevenson writes in typically ornate Victorian style, so we get a lot of detail about everyone’s appearance, their character, their motivations and in the case of Jekyll, his torment. It’s only in the last chapter, Jekyll’s account, that the story really comes alive. In his telling, Jekyll’s potion didn’t just transform him, but reverted him to his evil nature. Hyde is smaller than Jekyll (counter to my prior conception of the brutish Hyde) because the staid Jekyll theorized he suppressed that side of his character for so long it was under developed. As Hyde, he was aware of Jekyll, but, as he explains, viewed him as means to escape detection, in the way a bandit views his hideout cave. As Hyde, Jekyll gleefully indulges in his worst tendencies, which run toward violence but perhaps can be read as sexual deviancy, as well. In a Freudian structure, Jekyll is all superego and Hyde is all id. That within a proper English gentlemen lies a raging monster fits nicely with our modern idea of Victorian repression, and the dangers of not understanding our true nature.
While Jekyll initially had to consume his potion to transform into Hyde and back to Jekyll, soon he needs more and more to change back. Eventually, he is startled to discover that he changes into Hyde without the potion. After the murder, he resolves to never venture forth as Hyde again, only to discover he has run out of the chemical he needs for the potion. In his last lucid moments as Jekyll, he kills himself rather than live as Hyde forever.
Books completed this year:
1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)
5, Beautiful Ruins (Walter)
6, Petropolis (Ulinich)
7, The Caves of Steel (Asimov)
9, Winter in the Blood (Welch)
10, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Ulinich)
11, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson)