The story of respectable Dr Jekyll’s strange association with the ‘damnable young man’ Edward Hyde; the hunt through fog-bound London for a killer; and the final revelation of Hyde’s true identity is a chilling exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil. The other stories in this volume also testify to Stevenson’s inventiveness within the Gothic tradition.
This was another short story I chose to quick start my Goodreads Challenge for 2018, and also to start my personal challenge to read at least one classic novel a month throughout 2018 that I have never read before. I’m not counting this as January’s effort, as it is not a full length novel, but it was a good warm up.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those stories that we all know so well, its premise has become so firmly embedded in the lexicon of how we describe people with a split personality, that we feel like we must have read it at some dim and distant point but actually many of us have probably never sat down and actually read the original text. This was certainly the case for me.
The story starts out with the main narrator, a lawyer named Mr. Utterson, taking a walk with a friend who tells him a horrible tale about an assault on a young girl by a sinister figure named Mr Hyde who pays off the girl’s family with money seemingly provided by a respectable acquaintance of theirs named Dr. Jekyll. Later, Utterson is instructed by Dr. Jekyll to rewrite his will, leaving all of his possessions to Mr. Hyde. Utterson takes it upon himself to find out what the connection is between the upstanding Dr. Jekyll and the abominable Mr. Hyde and, by the end of the story, the horrible truth is revealed.
This story is a riveting read on so many levels. Just as a straight-forward horror story it is gripping in its vivid and terrible descriptions, and how the story moves forward as told through the eyes of the bewildered lawyer Mr. Utterson who cannot understand why the seemingly noble Dr. Jekyll is associating himself with the terrible Mr. Hyde. It also works well as a mystery, in which the clues are unveiled slowly, piece by piece, and this remains true even though we all know the outcome of the tale, which is demonstrative of how cleverly it is written. I let my bathwater go cold as I devoured this story in one sitting. The writing is creepy and atmospheric, bringing to life the horror of the monster stalking the fog-bound streets of Victorian London.
Finally, I think the story is fascinating in pondering exactly what it is the Stevenson is trying to say about human nature in this story and, I have read numerous different theories on what this tale is an allegory of. Is it a religious warning against playing God and straying from the path of virtue and righteousness? Is it a veiled reference to the perils of homosexuality in the Victorian era? Is it a sexual morality tale? Are we to draw the conclusion that Stevenson believed that all men are, at heart, primitive beasts whose base instincts are only suppressed by a thin veneer of civilisation that is just waiting to be scraped aside to let our true natures run amok? Everyone reading the story is going to take something different from it and Stevenson himself said “Everything is true, only the opposite is true too; you must believe both equally or be damned.” It seems that he did not want his story boiled down to a simple, neat explanation. Maybe the mark of a good storyteller is to allow the reader enough room to take from his tale what he will, and it certainly makes for a much more entertaining debate.
You may think you know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but I highly recommend that you read the original text for yourself and see if what you THINK you know, is really the essence of the tale for you. you won’t be disappointed. You can purchase a copy here.
About the Author
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh, the son of a prosperous civil engineer. Although he began his career as an essayist and travel writer, the success of Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886) established his reputation as a writer of tales of action and adventure. Stevenson’s Calvinist upbringing lent him a preoccupation with predestination and a fascination with the presence of evil, themes he explored in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and The Master of Ballantrae (1893).