by Robert Mighall
Robert Mighall is the author of a study of Victorian Gothic fiction for Oxford University Press (1999). He has also edited a selection of Oscar Wilde's poetry for Everyman and Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray for Penguin Classics.
When I started work on the new Penguin Classics edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I was amazed how few people had actually read the book. Of course they all knew what it was about. They had seen the films and TV shows, laughed at the sketches and cartoons, and were fully conversant with the idea of a 'Jekyll-and-Hyde Personality'. After all, we are regularly confronted by sensational examples of this condition when we learn that the latest serial killer, homicidal maniac or terrorist didn't spend all his daylight hours pursuing these activities, and was known to occasionally pat a puppy or take a bunch of flowers to his mother. He's a real 'Jekyll and Hyde' we might say of someone we know; meaning we are never sure what to expect of him. With these ideas having taken such deep roots in our collective consciousness, and with our having seen countless versions on screens both large and small, it might seem almost unnecessary to actually read the hundred pages that make up Stevenson's tale. What is there to gain, when there are more thrilling, relevant and immediate examples of what he described staring at us from the front pages of newspapers, stalking the dark ways of our cities or quietly bumping off patients in our villages?
The short answer is, a lot. There is much that is missing from the popular form. Much that can't be captured in the cinematic form. And much that can be reclaimed from the historical context of its original creation and publication. Reading the tale also helps us understand why the idea has been so successful that it has entered folklore. New readers can still discover the 'secret' of what makes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde one of the most original, disturbing and influential creepy tales of all time. Some of these factors, and the contribution they have made to our imaginative landscape are discussed in this essay. (A much fuller treatment is offered in the Introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition.)
Imagine that you are given the following lines in a literary quiz and asked to identity both the source and what it is happening: "He put the glass to his lips and drank in one gulp. A cry followed ... his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter". Chances are you would identify the source (even if you had never read Jekyll and Hyde), but slip up on the second part. For this is not Dr Jekyll turning into Mr Hyde, but the opposite; a crucial difference which points to something fundamental to the story Stevenson wrote.
Because we all know, or think we know, what Jekyll and Hyde is about we are denied a perspective enjoyed by its very first readers, and which is central to the readerly 'experience' of the tale. And that is that the most shocking revelation of the text is not that one person is two, but that two people are one. The tale is a mystery concerning a Dr Jekyll and a Mr Hyde, who turn out to be the same person. Mr Hyde first appears but a few pages into the tale (in an anecdote recalled by a minor character), rather than emerging from a grimacing Dr Jekyll, clutching his throat and slipping behind a conveniently-placed item of furniture to stage his makeup-department transformation. The lines quoted above provide the first revelation that Mr Hyde is really Dr Jekyll when the murderer turns into the Dr in the second to last chapter. And we don't have the whole truth about how and why Dr Jekyll occasionally became Mr Hyde until the final chapter, entitled 'Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case'. Up to then the sole focus and narrative drive of the text (which is in part a detective story) is to get to the bottom of a very strange association between two most unlikely fellows: the respectable physician, Dr Henry Jekyll, and the brutal thug, and later murderer, Mr Edward Hyde.
The 'strange case' of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is exactly that. Its primary shock effect is achieved by the introduction of fantastic elements into what was progressing nicely as a detective mystery undertaken by a lawyer, who was troubled by his client and friend's implication in a murder case. The case turns strange when Mr Hyde mixes his chemicals in front Dr Jekyll's friend Dr Lanyon, and:
It is the chemical formula that makes the case 'strange', transforming the genre from detection into fantasy or terror at this point. But there is another sense in which the 'strangeness' of the case resides almost entirely in Dr Jekyll's bubbling green potion. And this is another surprise awaiting the first-time reader brought up on the cinematic or tabloid version of the story. Thanks to Hollywood, we are used to thinking of Hyde or even that composite being 'Jekyll-and-Hyde' as monstrous, the third member of a terror triumvirate alongside Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. The folk Jekyll is at worst a monster, or at best a hypocrite. For us he is the prime exemplar of the split personality, or what might be called severe 'psychic instability' as depicted in screen versions and popular psychology. He is unstable and that is why he ends up splitting off into the monstrous Mr Hyde and going on the rampage. But Stevenson takes great pains to stress that Dr Jekyll, by his own confession, and by the evidence of others in the tale, is not really so very different from many people. His condition is presented as universal:
For Dr Jekyll, psychic duplicity or even multiplicity is 'the curse of mankind', and not an aberration peculiar to himself. He just happens to be a scientist who has the inclination and the chemicals to do something about it. Dr Jekyll is therefore neither particularly 'monstrous' in himself, nor is he a hypocrite. For as he reasons:
treatments or readings of Jekyll and Hyde, this emphasis might come as something of a surprise. In fact Dr Jekyll's experiment is designed to avoid hypocrisy:
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...
It is therefore not even wickedness that gives birth to Mr Hyde. As Dr Jekyll reasons: "Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame". It is morality, or an accepted, 'official' version of what is considered correct conduct, that is responsible for the monster Hyde. A very uncomfortable and disconcerting suggestion, both for its original readers and for us today, ruled by an equally rigid sense of right and wrong. This is perhaps a reason why Mr Hyde continues to haunt our fantasies, and provides a useful model to explain why supposedly 'normal' citizens go off the rails.
So much for Dr Jekyll. What of Mr Hyde, the real hero of the horror show? Another reason why page-turning beats screen-gazing when it comes to Jekyll and Hyde, also holds true for many works of fiction, especially horror fiction. And that is that the reader's own imagination is able to conjure up more disturbing images than those depicted (and therefore limited by) the screen. Any screen version is usually compelled to depict Hyde. It therefore loses half of the imaginative potential lurking in the written page. It is limited by the technological capabilities of the time of the production. And, post The Exorcist and Alien, it runs the risk of ridicule for being just not very scary. But Stevenson makes the potency of obscurity absolutely central to his tale, which is almost as much about the difficulty of describing Hyde as it is about explaining or capturing him. No one, not even Jekyll, who largely confines himself to explaining that "evil was written broadly and plainly on [his] face", can describe Hyde accurately or to his own satisfaction. Many try, but are forced to concede: "I never saw a face I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. ... He's an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; ... I can't describe him. And it's not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment". When Hyde is wanted for murder this predicament causes real difficulties: "he had never been photographed; and the few who could describe him differed widely; as common observers will. Only on one point, were they agreed; and that was the haunting sense of unexpected deformity with which the fugitive impressed on his beholders". This is partly explained when we learn that Hyde is not really a whole person after all, but the evil fragment of a "composite" being. But it has the more enduring effect of allowing Hyde's blank features to be filled in by our own imaginations, and to even take the form of many representatives of his supposed condition - from unpredictable acquaintances to serial killers - down the decades after the original publication.
Reading Jekyll and Hyde rather than relying on popular or filmic versions, therefore, far from being an unnecessary exercise in re-familiarisation, actually provides insights into the very reason why its central idea remains so familiar and relevant today. For Stevenson used his skill as a story teller to create something that has seeped into our imaginations, making it almost impossible to imagine moral duplicity, or the foggy streets of late-Victorian London, in any other way.
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