Cannonball Read IV: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Likely everyone knows the gist of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, right? Split personality, one good, one evil, so on and so forth. I think that because it’s so familiar, it has taken me years to realize that I ought to just read the thing. It’s sort of a novella, even, so it’s not some frightfully long, dragged-out Victorian monstrosity. Please take a moment to note my clever and unintentional use of words like “frightful” and “monstrosity” in connection with one of the great literary scary stories. I’ll wait. All done? Ok.
Stevenson’s short novel is more of a character study (rather, two) than a real novel. The plot is pretty short on action. The narration follows a lawyer by the name of Utterson, who is friends with Dr. Henry Jekyll. Due to a strange stipulation in Dr. Jekyll’s will, Utterson believes that he is being blackmailed by an individual named Edward Hyde, and as unsavory reports begin to gather around that mysterious person, Utterson’s fears seem to be well-founded. Matters come to a head after Mr. Hyde murders a well-known politician (who also happens to be represented by Utterson) and another friend of Jekyll’s, Dr. Lanyon, dies suddenly after a period of pointed disagreement with Dr. Jekyll on some medical matter. Ultimately, Dr. Jekyll himself disappears from society, and his servant Mr. Poole comes to Utterson for help. They finally discover the truth of the matter, and the tragic fate of Dr. Jekyll.
I’m sorry about that mangled synopsis. It’s a hard book to summarize tidily. The manner in which the narrative occurs, bouncing between flashback and present day, makes the timeline a bit odd, and since we all do know more or less what the book’s about, the fact that the real point is not addressed until the very last chapter makes the “mystery” of the whole affair somewhat tedious. That’s not entirely fair; Stevenson does an excellent job of keeping tension high throughout. Again, there’s not a great deal of action, and so the few instances of Hyde’s appearance and behavior keep the reader guessing in terms of what horrors might await. Mostly, though, The Strange Case … is a very introspective piece of work. The last chapter, given over to Dr. Jekyll’s posthumous account of what has happened to him, is an amazing treatise on the multitudinous nature of humanity, and the strictures of Victorian life. The connection that Dr. Jekyll feels to his “evil” self makes his struggle much more difficult; he craves that side of himself even as he deplores it, much in the way that the taboo held (and still holds) a great deal of fascination to a buttoned-up society.
Perhaps to a modern audience there’s nothing particularly shocking in this story. I felt a little disappointed with the actual events that were depicted, but the philosophy behind the story is truly fascinating and thought-provoking. Additionally, the language and writing style of Victorian novelists is, in my opinion, a beautiful thing, and Stevenson ranks highly among that group. The theme of duality is perhaps more interesting explored elsewhere (The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance) but here it is addressed with economy and feeling, and the reader has the sense that this subject was very important to Stevenson. For that reason, it’s a very worthwhile read.
(Header illustration by Thomas Roberts-Goulden.)
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