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.