The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – Fiction
We are bringing it back to the 1880s and good ole’ British lit. I first ready Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the summer before my senior year of high school, preparing for my AP Literature class.
Even if you have never read the book, you likely know the premise. It remains one of those small little gems that created an enormous impact on culture and society. In your mind you picture any of the countless images that have been used to explain Mr. Hyde – a deformed looking man, almost ghoul-like in his description. You know that Dr. Jekyll creates a potion that transforms himself into Mr. Hyde. And you understand a very generalized idea: Dr. Jekyll = good, Mr. Hyde = bad.
For those who have never picked up the novel, you might be surprised that it is incredibly short, just a little over 100 pages, what is considered a novella. The story is told through the eyes of Mr. Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s attorney — a character not likely known for those who only know the basic premise of the tale. It is also a fragmented story. There is not a lot of background development – you hardly know anything about Utterson or Dr. Lanyon, Dr. Jekyll’s colleague. The book does not expound much on Dr. Jekyll himself. Only until the very end of the story do we finally hear from Dr. Jekyll about his experiment, and then it is not directly from his mouth but by Utterson reading a long letter from Dr. Jekyll.
It is a bit wordy in parts, in typical Victorian fashion. However, Stevenson creates a dark and gloomy tale, a detective story that the reader hurriedly wants to solve.
“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary loving man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”
Stevenson wrote the tale in six weeks in the autumn of 1885, during a period in which he was suffering from illness. Stevenson remains one of the most prolific writers of his time, providing ample stories and tales for high school English classes.
The story is easy to comprehend but allows for so many different interpretations, perfect food to get your mind thinking. One idea that popped into my mind while reading the tale was how applicable it is to the digital age. Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde to allow himself to be “free”, to not worry about his professional reputation and to indulge every desire. Many on the internet take their own potion and transform into different personalities on Reddit and Twitter and other websites. Using an alias or avatar photo, we can put on the mask like Dr. Jekyll and say or do whatever we want – we can make bold political statements or snide comments without the fear of being punished because we are protected behind a screen. That, as Dr. Jekyll learns in his own situation, is a facade.
“This as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.”
Dr. Jekyll soon learns that while he though he could control his counterpart, he indulged too long. Mr. Hyde begins to take control and through Dr. Jekyll’s letters to Utterson, Dr. Jekyll attempts to understand his own creation. Did he create Hyde? Or was he there all along? Was Dr. Jekyll the “good” personality? Or was there always a mixture of both Jekyll and Hyde?
The short story is worth a read for those who know the story but have never read the tale. It continues to pose questions today on the nature of humans and how we still attempt to bifurcate ourselves in this modern world.
Lover of the written word.