I finished Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this afternoon, and what a fun book it is! I read it because I plan to teach it later this semester … yes, I did put something on my syllabus without having read it first … probably not the best idea, but it’s in our anthology, it’s short, and I’d heard such good things about it. Luckily for me I enjoyed it a lot and think it will be fun to talk about in class.
The book seems so very Victorian to me, with lots of London fog (lots of it), weird psychological twists, a creepy kind of repressed sexuality, and a brooding, mysterious atmosphere. It tells the story, as surely most people know, of a split personality, of Dr. Jekyll who transforms into his evil other, Mr. Hyde. The story is told, though, from the perspective of Mr. Utterson, a friend of Dr. Jekyll’s and so turns out to be a mystery story; Utterson cannot understand why Jekyll has been acting so strangely, and he doesn’t know why he has made Hyde his heir, Hyde, the one who was recently spotted trampling on a poor young girl who happened to run into him on the street.
Utterson becomes worried about Jekyll and decides to track Hyde down to learn what he can about him; ominously, he discovers that Hyde sends out a very bad vibe — whenever people encounter him, they can’t help but shudder a little bit, as though they were in the presence of evil. Eventually Utterson is called upon to help save Jekyll, who has secluded himself in his chambers; he fails at this, but he does receive several packets of papers that reveal the mystery — the horror of what Jekyll has gotten himself into.
The first part of the story sets up a mood excellently well; it’s dark and creepy and claustrophobic. The last part is fascinating for psychological reasons. Jekyll, when he finally reveals the truth of himself — in writing, interestingly, at a distance, as though the truth is too shocking to tell face to face — tells a story about loving pleasure but fearing where that love might take him:
And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.
It’s not that his pleasures — whatever they were — were particularly craven; the problem was that they didn’t square with “the exacting nature of my aspirations.” He cannot accept his own complexity, his capacity to contain both seriousness and gaiety. This discomfort with his own self leads to some scientific experiments, during which he learns how to separate out his good and evil elements, and eventually Mr. Hyde is born. It’s not that Dr. Jekyll is pure good compared to Mr. Hyde’s pure evil, however; Jekyll remains a mixture, so his struggle becomes a struggle between a pure state, Mr. Hyde’s evil, and a mixed one, his own complexity. Self-loathing is at the heart of this quest:
I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements [good and evil]. If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
This evil is not extraneous, though, but part of every person’s complex nature. Because he cannot accept this complexity, he is doomed to fight against himself until he can’t fight anymore. In the effort to wall himself off from his own dark side, he ends up more closely wedded to it:
… that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.
The part of yourself that you loathe and deny, in other words, will come back to haunt you and will be your downfall. It’s clear this book comes out of a culture ripe for psychoanalysis; how could Freud not come along at this point?