The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Published: 1886
Website: Wikipedia Page

The difficulty in reading a well known story is having one’s reaction altered by the previous knowledge of the basic plot points. This applies even more so to a piece with a clear message, since the idea has long since permeated popular culture, leaving the vehicle behind. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then, was forced to stand on its own merit as well-told fiction, since the central themes were already known to me.

And stand on its merit it did. Robert Louis Stevenson recounts the tale of Mr. Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer, who is the focal character of the novella, with thoughtfulness punctuated by well-crafted suspense. Utterson is described as not particularly emotional, which makes the moments in which he is frightened or confused all the more gripping. The character description also comes with costs, however, as the reader is privy to little of Utterson’s inner imaginings and motivations, making the book more focused on action and fantasy rather than social critique, at least towards the beginning.

The end is marked by switching centers of narrative gravity from Utterson onto Lanyon, the doctor Mr. Hyde/Dr. Jekyll horrify into death, and then to Dr. Jekyll himself, a deeply self-aware man who lets us in to the tortured imaginings of his all too human mind. This contrast between his writing and Utterson’s speech and internal thoughts is ably set-up and put to good use. Dr. Jekyll’s final letter, filled with references to the dual nature of man into good and evil (though he on one occasion reference the possibility of multiple natures, undermining the dichotomy), is expected, since it is after all the central theme of the book, but it is still interesting without being heavy-handed. The reader still feels a perverted sympathy towards a man who has transcended in such a permanent way the inner contradictions we all experience in our daily lives.

Interestingly enough, it might be argued that the social critique is not a critique at all, but rather an affirmation of the importance of keeping the evil self and the good self in one body, tightly controlled by the strictures of society. Man is too chaotic, too volatile to be trusted with essential natures on their own. Furthermore, while encapsulating pure evil in a body seems to be within the reach of an ambitious scientist, pure good is rather a long way off, strengthening the need for a communion of natures.

More intriguing than a discussion of the essential nature of mankind, though, was the science aspect of this work of science fiction. Here, science plays the role of devil and of savior, and in particular, of knower. Science allows Dr. Jekyll to know the “real him” though he carefully notes that all aspects of him are equally ‘him.’ Regardless, distilling the purest essence of a form is a basic strategy in science, and in particular in chemistry, and it is simply this with Dr. Jekyll has done. Given that the book does not in fact challenge the social status quo, it may be that it in fact is questioning the nature of science and forcing the reader to grapple with the question: Are there things we are better off not knowing?

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