Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

I've long been a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson's novels and poems, and have long wanted to read his horror story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886.  I picked up an audio version at the library, and was surprised it was only 2 discs and 2.5 hours long.  So much shorter than I expected that I doubled-checked that it was, in fact, an unabridged version.

While it was a short book, a novella really, I found it plenty long actually.  The first part dragged a bit.  It is a framed story, in which Dr Jekyll's lawyer and friend tells of his suspicions regarding his friend's protege, a Mr. Hyde, who is Dr Jekyll's sole beneficiary in his will and who strikes everyone who encounters him as evil incarnate.

I found the dancing around in this first half of the book to be tedious--I was eager to get to who Jekyll and Hyde were and found the lawyer's musings to be a trifle dull and a bit coy.  However, once I got to the part where the lawyer read the letter Jekyll left to be read should something happen to him, the story got much more interesting.

While listening to Jekyll's story of his descent into hell, I couldn't help but think of both Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  The former was published 4 years after Jekyll and Hyde in 1890, and the latter was published near the beginning of the 19th century, in 1818.

Jekyll/Hyde explores the idea of a person having two natures--one good and one evil (or the ego and the id, in Freudian terms).  Jekyll, the doctor, experiments with drugs that enable the evil nature within him to come to the forefront of his personality, and when this happens his body undergoes a physical transformation as well.  What this means is that when Jekyll takes the drug, he becomes Mr Hyde is personality as well as physical appearance.  This means Jekyll can enjoy doing evil things because no ones knows that Jekyll has become Hyde.  By taking the drug, he can put on a mask and let loose the dogs of war with no consequences to his reputation.  His conscience, however, still functions, and as Hyde's devilry increases, Jekyll feels remorse and responsibility.

In a similar manner, Dorian Gray's beauty hides his true evil nature, which the portrait accurately reflects.  Jekyll becomes Hyde when he lets his evil nature reign; Dorian's body masks his evil nature, which no one can see unless they view his portrait.  

With regards to Frankenstein, both Dr Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll are talented scientists whose major character flaw is unbridled ambition, and their pursuit of glory leads to their downfall.  Not only that, but their downfalls are very similar.  The monster gets out of hand, assumes control of the situation, and will not be bridled.

I think it's so interesting the Frankenstein and Jekyll/Hyde and Dorian Gray bookend the 19th century--Mary Shelley really did anticipate many of the themes that increasing industrialization and scientific reliance that writers and other artists explored 80 years later.


  1. I agree, Jane, on how these three novels seem to have a family resemblance and coalesce in memory. One wonders why this theme of the dissociated self or the doppelganger was so prevalent--must say a lot about the tensions in the British psyche of the nineteenth century. It was just ripe for Freud to come along at the turn of the century with his Interpretation of Dreams.

  2. Interesting questions as to why this kind of thinking was so prevalent in the 19th century. Our present conception of what constitutes a person is very much something that as evolved over time and these stories are evidence of how that conception evolved.

    Of course when these stories were written folks were also seeing the downside of modernity science and technology.

  3. I've always loved the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the exploration of good vs. evil and how we all have two sides. The musical version of Jekyll and Hyde that was on Broadway is one of my favorite adaptations. And I have to admit, I prefer Dr. Jekyll to Dr. Frankenstein.

  4. I'm familiar with the story but have never read the book. It's always interesting to read a book after seeing how Hollywood interprets it.

  5. My plan this year was to read some of the classics of horror fiction, and this was on my list. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to get it done this year. Hopefully next year will work out for me.

    1. I know the feeling! I had meant to read this classics for years myself, before finally doing so.