Academic | Essay Contest

Sara Steinhouse

Sara Steinhouse For a book often cited as a psychological thriller, a horror story, and even a masterpiece of modern literature, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is awfully short. Spanning a mere 87 pages in the Signet Classic edition, it contains only ten chapters, each at an average of five to ten pages and two scenes. Of these latter, only a handful are based around action, such as the murder of Carew (the story of which involves two paragraphs) and the forced entry by Utterson and Poole into Jekyll's laboratory. Overall, the novella comes off as surprisingly quotidian, with many long passages of description of rather nondescript characters (such as the focal character, Mr. Utterson). Why, then, has it maintained such an appeal over the years, continuing not only to be read but also to be adapted into film and stage versions? Dan Choan's proposition that it is this very lack of action that compels the reader, leaving, as he says, "the sordid facts to the imagination," is quite a plausible theory when one considers the large breadth of scenes that are never detailed or described by the author and yet manage to raise the level of tension nonetheless. With Enfield's account of the conduct of Hyde and the final letter of Jekyll as main examples, it becomes clear how Stevenson manipulates the imagination of the readers to visualize more horrific scenes for themselves than are actually present in the novella.

The sort of "fill in the blank" style begins as soon as the novel does, with the chapter "Story of the Door." Mr. Enfield is, as is his cousin Mr. Utterson, a very unremarkable man: on their walks together, it is said, they appear "singularly dull" (38). The choice to have him narrate the reader's first encounter with Hyde is, thus, a significant one: instead of a sensationalistic character painting the scene in hyperbole, the reader is given a dryly detailed account in a tone that does not greatly vary, if at all, from that of the narration. This, then, is an odd but effective way of raising tension. A horror scene delivered in a bland tone, with no real description of the horror itself—Enfield spends more time emphasizing street lamps than talking about the little girl—serves to highlight the irrationality and cruelty of what Hyde does by setting it against, and allowing it to reflect off of, the bland and arguably "normal" character of Enfield. The reader is viewing the scene from a highly removed vantage point, and thus only the barest facts filter through; it is left up to the reader to visualize the crossing of the two characters, the way the girl looked as she fell to the ground, the decibel level and pitch of her scream. A common technique in the novella, it surfaces again in the instance of Carew's murder, when the story is heard fourth-hand: the maidservant tells the police, who find the letter and send an unnamed person to inform Utterson, who finally, through the third person limited omniscient point of view, tells the reader. There is no exploration of the body of Carew, how it looks or feels or smells, and the actual description of the murder takes place in one sentence. When left to itself, the human mind can prove quite adept at fabricating awful situations, and Stevenson relies on this fact to elevate the fear and suspense in his book.

Similarly, the letter of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Utterson does not delve into any breadth of description on the subject of Hyde's wrongdoings. At twenty-one pages, easily the longest chapter in the book, the letter focuses instead on philosophy and science, on the moral implications of what Jekyll has done. It is a heady, cerebral chapter, laying out each emotion and thought of Jekyll's with the utmost care while leaving actual actions to fall to the wayside: "... whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon the mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study... would be Henry Jekyll" (110). It is up to the reader to imagine what, exactly, Hyde has done; it is almost as if Jekyll cannot, or more likely does not want to, remember. This being the case, his exploits as Hyde gain a new level of tension: nothing that Stevenson could describe is quite as scary as the thought of what one's worse half would do were one to simply let it go. In this chapter in particular and the split of Hyde and Jekyll more generally, it becomes clear that this is where the terror of the book lies: in its universality, in the thought that each human being has a Hyde inside him or her that would be only too eager to break loose.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is almost nearer to being a philosophical treatise than it is to being a horror story, and in this very dichotomy lies the true repulsion of the novella. By leaving out detail and description, Stevenson achieves a more gruesome effect by allowing the reader to invent the scene for him or herself. He himself focuses instead on the morality and psychology of the book, this idea of humankind's duality, which expands the novella off the page and into the life of the reader. More terrifying, after all, than any description of Carew's murder is the thought that the reader could have done it him- or herself: that there is a Hyde in everyone that is just waiting to come out.


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