Friday, October 11, 2013

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




This is my second post for the RIP or Readers Imbibing Peril seasonal reading event.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is superb and immensely influential work of terror. Since the publication of this novella, its plot and theme has been repeated innumerable times, usually with much less effect, in both prose and on the screen. This book is rightfully recognized as a groundbreaking, chilling, and artistically robust exploration into the dark and light corners inherent within the human mind.

The tale, told in alternating first person points of view by both Dr. Jekyll and by his friends, details Jekyll’s experiments with mind and body altering drugs that create the fiendish alter ego, Mr. Hyde. As time goes by, Jekyll finds that he is becoming addicted to the transformations that also begin to occur spontaneously.

Though the early segments of the book, during which Jekyll’s friends puzzle over the mystery of both the doctor’s strange behavior as well as the reprehensible acts of the mysterious Mr. Hyde, are very entertaining, the work really comes into its own during the final account of Jekyll as he wrestles with, and is both enthralled and tormented by, his divided self. The writing in this part is at times exemplary.  At one point the doctor describes his first experience as Mr. Hyde,


and I determined, flushed as I was with hope and   triumph, to venture in my new shape as far as to my bedroom. I crossed the yard, wherein the constellations looked down upon me, I could have thought, with wonder, the first creature of that sort that their unsleeping vigilance had yet disclosed to them; “


I find that at its core, this book is more then just an exploration of human duality.  As the prose itself hints, the psychological aspect that Hyde represents is only one of many facets of the human mind. Jekyll himself observes how future researchers will likely find more of these facets,


“Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens. I, for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. “

Hyde is only a fraction, less than half, of the human psyche. I think that this fraction cannot even be classified as fully representative of evil or immorality. Instead, I would argue that this brilliantly portrayed character only represents one type of malevolence.

Hyde is all Id. He generally does not plan his crimes, nor are there any machinations behind his actions. In a passage that I find unnerving even after being exposed to a lot of twenty-first century fictional graphic violence, he viciously beats a man to death with a cane purely on impulse. In other episodes, he knocks down a child and later brutally strikes a woman just for the satisfaction. This is not the evil of genocidal mass murderers such as Hitler and Stalin. Nor are these the pernicious acts of a serial killer or rapist who carefully plans his crimes. Instead, these are impulsive and spontaneous acts of violence.

Interestingly, the legal systems of many nations, based upon certain moral philosophies, generally gives less weight to this type of unpremeditated crime. It would be difficult to pin a charge of first-degree murder on Mr. Hyde!

Jekyll, contrary to a lot of popular thought, is not a representation of pure good. As he himself explains, he is a whole person that is a mix of good and bad. The drug’s effects do not remove the evil from him. In fact, he often behaves very immorally. He continues to take the concoction knowing full well that Hyde is committing vile acts.

In a moment of ethical contortionism, Jekyll, slipping into the third person while referring to himself comments,

“Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. “

I suspect that the third person point of view is an indication that the voice of Hyde is creeping in here.

The immorality that Jekyll is manifesting here is a bit more complex than that of Hyde’s unmediated outrages. Jekyll is not a simplistic character, however. When he does realize that Hyde has committed murder, he finally refrains from voluntary transforming into the fiend. Of course, it is too late by this time.



The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a marvelously crafted exploration of various forms of maliciousness and evil. As I tried to illustrate above, I also think that psychologically and philosophically there is more here than initially meets the eye. It is also an entertaining, extremely well written but occasionally disquieting story of human horror.

39 comments:

So many books, so little time said...

now there is a tale I have never read but watched when I was younger, no idea if it was a movie or televised program. I think your review has prompted me to go searching for a copy or even pop it on my wishlist, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I recall the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Friedrich March as being a great film. I think that is the one to see, though it has been a few years since I watched it.

Suko said...

I suppose I'd forgotten that Robert Louis Stevenson is author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! The book was certainly groundbreaking--a profound psychological study of "split personality", of the dark and light "segments" of the mind and human behavior. Terrific review, Brian, of a classic, sometimes terrifying novella that's definitely worth reading, or rereading.

Caroline said...

Great review, Brian. I haven't read this book but often think I did just because we all know the story so well. Your excellent review tells me I should finally get to it.
I find it interesting to think that Dr Jekyll isn't really as good, while hyde is really bad. I ddn't know it has such graphic violence in it. Thanks for the warning.

Brian Joseph said...

H Suko - The groundbreaking nature of this work seemed to go with the times, it really was a period explorations and ruminations into the human Psyche.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - This story did yield some surprises for me.

Perhaps I am getting squeamish in my old age.but I found that the murderer scene, which was described including the sounds, was very intense.

argumentativeoldgit said...

Agreed - Jekyll is by no means completely "good": he is a normal human being, and is a mixture of everything. And Hyde is but one aspect of Jekyll, purified from all other aspects: as you say, there are many other aspects - so no, this is not really about "duality". The relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is fascinating.

The sequence where he becomes Hyde while outside, and knows he has to change back again, is one that always gets to me!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - Yes that part when he knows he has to turn back is very interesting. At one point Hyde even strikes out and destroys and defaces things that Jekyll treasures. That was an ingenious touch.

Naida said...

I do need to read this at some point. The whole split personality theme is creepy. That last quote s chilling.
I saw one film version that I enjoyed, the one called Mary Riley. It was done from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll's maid and what she witnessed.
Great choice for r.i.p.!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I had forgotten about Mary Riley. I have not seen it but over the years it has been on and off of my radar. I will try to watch it during this Halloween season.

Sharon Henning said...

Robert Louis Stevenson is one of my favorite authors. I appreciate your perspective on this story. I need to read it again. I think I always saw it as a man who, because of his scientific curiosity, experimented on himself. He soon found he'd created his own Frankenstein, but one within himself.
I say that because in many of Stevenson's stories he seems to dwell on Doctors and scientists and how they become so removed from the fact that they are dealing with human beings that they become enslaved by their own "passion" for science.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - The concept of scientists as well as science becoming removed from humanity, though still a popular theme, was such the rage in the Nineteenth century. Though I have not read any other Stevenson books he was one of many writers to explore this concept. Of course it very much connects with the complex morality play that also is a key component of this novel.

....Petty Witter said...

At last a book we have in common even if alas it isn't a book I particularly enjoyed.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - What did you not like about the book?

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Yet another book to add to my never ending list - I would very much like to read this one, even if, like you said, it's been out there in the form of movies for a while. I had an interesting experience with Dracula, watched the movie (and other vampire movies as well) but never read the book until recently. And was I in for a surprise!
Also the passage you quoted sounds interesting - I like the choice of words.
Thanks for a great review.

Richard said...

Having not read this book or anything else by Stevenson in ages, I find your enthusiasm for it contagious. I especially like the sound of the narrative slipping into the third person from the first--a neat-sounding trick given the subject(s) of the book!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - These old stories that have been retold so many times in film kind of have a special place in our culture. As you mention, Dracula is also a very surprising book.


Thanks for the good word.

Yes, there IS so much to read!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - This was the first work that I have read by Stevenson and I very much want to read more.

The third person element is interesting here, I only caught it the second time around.

....Petty Witter said...

A long time since I read it. It was recommended by a teacher who thought it the best novel ever written and I think I was expecting more of it. Perhaps if he hadn't built it up to such a degree I might have enjoyed it more.

bibliophilica said...

Great post! "Hyde is all Id." Yes, indeed!

And that murder scene has stayed in my literary conscious for decades. I wrote about it a few years ago on my own blog (at http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/robert-louis-stevenson/ if you're interested)

-Jay

Guy Savage said...

This is a tale that lends itself to multiple interpretations. It's also one of those seminal works that is always in your head.

With my sense of absurdity, my fav. film version is the one with Jerry Lewis

Lucy said...

Great post, Brian!

This is one of the classic books that I've somehow never read - therefore your post is exactly what I need to persuade myself to read it! Your comments on the philosophical and psychological sides to the book makes it sound really worth reading too.

This post will be a great guide when I do get round to reading it, so thanks!

JaneGS said...

Fascinating book, and really great post on it! Good job.

>I suspect that the third person point of view is an indication that the voice of Hyde is creeping in here.

Interesting theory--I agree with you. Stevenson really hit a homerun with this story.

I agree that the second half of the book, the confession, is the most interesting part. You were more patient with the first part than I.

Glad you liked this book--definitely a seminal work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - I definitely understand how if something is built up so much how it can be a disappointment. In my opinion, as great as this book is, it is a far cry from the greatest.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jay - Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the good word.

I thought that I was the only one so perturbed by the murder scene. I will go and check out your commentary.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - There is so much to read, it seems that one cannot even get to the all time famous classics.

If you give this one a try I would love to know what you think of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I really thought that I was on thin ice with the third person theory. It was the only thing that I could think of. I should Google around to see if there are other ideas.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I forgot about the Jerry Lewis version! I believe that was the Nutty Professor. It has been a long time but I remember loving it.

Harvee said...

This book says so much about the human psyche, what we could become or be. A true horror story.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee- I think one of the most effective ways to tell a horror story is ti explore the horrors inherent in people.

James said...

Another brilliant analysis of a very complex novel. Your ideas encouraged me to expand my view of this favorite from Stevenson (one of many). It would be interesting to contrast this novel with Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray which explores the issue of an alter ego in an altogether interesting, if different, way. Wilde and Stevenson both are "Victorian" novelists and that also is part of the context for their stories. Stevenson's psychological acuity which you point out would seem to foreshadow Freud.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks!

I have not yet read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I have seen the film but I really must read the book.

It seems to me that Freud drew upon the ideas of many novelists and artists who were active both during and before his time.

Parrish Lantern said...

It's amazing how much was inspired by this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi parish - I think that the time that this was written was really the beginning of a lot of artistic and psychological ideas that have profoundly influenced the world. This book was a bog part of that movement.

Ryan said...

While this is not my favorite of the "classic" horror stories, it's damned good. I especially loved the way Stevenson painted the seedier side of 19th century London. Very Dickensian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Yes indeed Stevenson did delve into the dark side of the city effectively. Lately I have been reading a bit of Dickens and come to think of it, there is a similarity.

bookaroundthecorner said...

I should read it. It reminds me of Le Horla by Maupassant. The stories are different but both explore the alien and sometimes not-so-asleep dark part of ourselves.
I want to read Bram Stoker one of these days too.

bookaroundthecorner said...

I should read it. It reminds me of Le Horla by Maupassant. The stories are different but both explore the alien and sometimes not-so-asleep dark part of ourselves.
I want to read Bram Stoker one of these days too.

Brian Joseph said...

I Emma - I really want to read Le Horla.


I loved Bram Stokers Dracula, though it is very different from this work.