The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

I figured it was about time to introduce another monster to the Project: Monster lineup.  You know, because variety is the spice of life.  And partly because I feel compelled to expand to more monsters before I dig quite so deep into the lore of each one.  It had the bonus that, while I’m familiar with Jekyll and Hyde, I’ve never actually read this book before.  It was one of those that always got overlooked for some reason, so I decided I was overdue to fix that.  That sort of thing is precisely what Project: Monster is about.  Well, that and an insatiable love of this kind of storytelling.

The classic monsters teach us more about humanity than many of the oft-acknowledged great works of literature.  Each monster is a reflection of our very soul.  In this case, the themes in play are the nature of good and evil, and the concept of duality.  These themes are of extreme importance to monster art, reflected time and again.  Perhaps the most recognized variation on these ideas can be found in the concept of the Wolf Man, aka the werewolf, the lycanthrope, or the loups-garoux.  Does the monster lurk within us all?  Is it perhaps one of our greatest fears that we should be freed of our societal expectations and give in to the beast within?  Or perhaps worst of all… what if when the beast is unleashed, we like it?  What if we come to relish the power and freedom it provides?

See, I could wax philosophical all day about this book just because it’s part and parcel of our collective culture now, as all such monster stories have become.  But the one thing I continually learn from my re-readings of Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Phantom of the Opera is that just because you think you know a story, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something new to learn.  Pop culture has given us so many variations on the themes in both literary and celluloid formats that everyone feels like they know this stuff, even when they don’t.  In my situation, it’s a very rare treat indeed after all these years to read one of these works for the very first time.  You become aware of how much you only think you know, and as a result, everything that’s unfamiliar becomes more appreciated.  Then when the familiar creeps in, there’s this “a-ha!” moment where it all clicks together.  Well, it’s that way for me.  Your experiences may vary.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, an author of works of which I am largely unfamiliar.  I’ve read Treasure Island as a kid (what little boy doesn’t get fascinated by pirates at some point?), and I’ve read Black Arrow because the War of the Roses is most certainly in my wheelhouse.  But that’s largely it, and it’s something I’ve meant to correct for a lot of years now, starting with this novella.  After all, the very concept of Jekyll and Hyde has become part of the English vernacular, a kind of shorthand for a quick temper.  But it goes deeper than that.  Stevenson was inspired by a patient suffering from multiple personality disorder.  There’s even an extant tale that the draft of the tale was burned, forcing Stevenson to start over, because it began more as an allegory than as a story in itself.  No one knows if this is true or not, but it’s interesting to think about, as is the notion that Stevenson performed the rewrite in a frantic three to six days under the influence of drugs.  Now having gone through the story, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.  In this case, I’d say such influence opened ideas to him that resonate as true for precisely that reason.

The largest part of the novella is setup, and I’m going to be honest here (as if I lie on a regular basis when blogging about these things!) when I say that I found the majority of it off-putting.  I was ready to toss it aside about halfway in.  You see, I couldn’t really care less about the story of a lawyer.  I work with lawyers for a living, and… well, without putting a fine point on it, I’m here to read about interesting monsters, not the everyday ones that twist the backbone of society into its misshapen forms.  But then I had that singular thought that this is exactly the kind of social commentary that monster stories are good at!  And in this case, the lawyer wasn’t the villain.  He was our focal character who knew the kindly Dr. Jekyll, and it was through him we’d learn about the odious Mr. Hyde.  I love that word, “odious.”  Don’t ask me why, I just do.

The particulars of the duality and transformation aren’t quite what I expected.  Thank you, Hollywood.  If you’re like me, you were first exposed to this story through Looney Tunes cartoons.  Bugs Bunny and Tweety have both gone through this one.  From there, we find the film versions.  You already know what all of these have in common.  When we think of Jekyll, we think of this kindly old man, and Hyde is this big, strong brute.  What if I said that was only half right?  It turns out that Jekyll is actually quite a bit taller, with Hyde being smaller and more lean.

Another point of question I’ve always had with this story is, if Dr. Jekyll was such a kind man, what in the name of the Force could possibly have compelled him to create such a potion in the first place, let alone keep using it?  They almost never answer this question in the movies.  It’s always “I did it because I could, and now I regret it.”  The answer to this forms the real meat and potatoes of the story, as you might imagine, so of course Hollywood skipped over it because people might be inclined to think about it.

It turns out, Dr. Jekyll, as a kind and moral man, wrestles with his inner demons, just as we all do to some extent.  The thing is, the more moral a person is, the more fear becomes a factor, fear of crossing that abhorrent line from which there is no return.  As a man of science, Dr. Jekyll turned to science for his answer.  He set out to create the potion that would bury, if not outright destroy, that darker part of himself that he could not allow.  It backfired, and over time Mr. Hyde became the default setting.  He’d fall asleep as Jekyll and awaken the next morning as Hyde, thus giving weight to the idea of Hyde as our suppressed subconscious desires.  Eventually it happened in the waking hours, the result of which led Mr. Hyde to be wanted for murder.  By this point, Jekyll was determined to rid himself of the problem, and more of the potion was needed simply to allow Jekyll to regain control and to keep it for any length of time.  Eventually, the supplies of certain ingredients went low, and subsequent batches of the potion simply ceased to work, resulting in the inability to return from Hyde to Jekyll.  Since both personas are aware of the other, Jekyll composed a confession letter, hoping to implicate Hyde and lead to an execution for his crimes or to convince him to suicide.  In either case, the letter, addressed to his lawyer friend, marked the end of the Jekyll persona.

The entire story is told by an unidentified 3rd person narrator largely following the lawyer friend, Gabriel John Utterson, on his quest to piece together the evidence before him and to learn the identity of Mr. Hyde.

The duality of man or of good and evil in this book are not the only dualities explored here.  There is also the Victorian notion of private vs. public, that social hypocrisy that was so prevalent of that time (and in many other stories of that era) wherein a person had to project social respectability while hiding their inner, lustful drives.  In a lot of ways, the social veneer led to an exaggeration of the main ideas of man’s duality.

Here’s another one that’s sometimes noticed: Scotland.  Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, which is supposedly known for its dual nature.  There’s the older, medieval part of town with its dark alleys and crime-ridden slums, and the shinier, respectable part.  Sounds like a great many towns on this planet, doesn’t it?  It’s representative of that social dichotomy of the haves and have-nots, which was a huge theme in the Victorian era.  It goes even larger than the city level here, with Scotland representing the poorer, less developed, and more primal personality in the split cultural identity that is Great Britain.  I have no idea if any of this is true or not, but it’s something that was brought to my attention, so it’s food for thought.  It’s certainly an idea that runs rampant throughout history, going all the way back into the Middle Ages, past William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.  There’s a cultural pride there, but at the same time, there’s always this question of comparison.  It’s sort of like how a blue collar worker can be proud of how they live, and all that implies, because they’re doing an honest work for an honest wage.  Then you put them in the midst of high society.  No matter how much they might think ill of those around them (surely they’re all rich because they’re predators who build on the backs of the downtrodden!), they’ll still be somewhat self-conscious about what’s expected.  It’s that fish out of water feeling.  I feel it every time I go to the symphony just because I can’t afford a tux, let alone a suit, and yet I know I appreciate the music as much and possibly even more than those in the box seats with the trophy wives.

And that brings us back to the idea of “what if you like the monster?”  He’s rude, crude, and dangerous, but there is a kind of liberation there.  The old saying goes, man is the only animal that blushes… or needs to.  Man is the only creature that becomes hung up on the idea of morality or social appearance.  This is call to freedom (queue William Wallace here) that was so dangerous in the Victorian era has become something even more dangerous — and more gratifying — in the modern era of the internet.  We look at the idea of being “authentic” as being of far more value today, which is why we abhor politicians and car salesmen, and why somebody like Donald Trump can have a following as large as he does in spite of his moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  There are many who wish they could be as untouchably powerful as that.  But if we recognized that in ourselves, would we release the monster, or would we attempt to contain it?  And how far would we go to regain control if the monster somehow got loose?

It’s certainly something to think about.  It could be argued that we as a society have been thinking about it since the idea of the Garden of Eden got introduced to religious culture, and there have been variations on that theme since before Genesis was written, going into Ancient Sumerian culture.  It suggests that we have a choice: we can choose to be moral and upstanding, or we can choose to be powerful enough to control our destiny, knowing that such power will corrupt.  Ultimately, that’s the choice between Jekyll and Hyde, presented through a lens that could only come from Victorian era Britain, when the sun never set on the British Empire, might made right, and the downtrodden across the world were subjects of the crown.

4 stars

Jekyll and Hyde

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