“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”
When one thinks of Halloween-appropriate reads, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exists alongside the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a favourite read of this morbidly celebratory season. Aside from a willingness to deal in creepy supernaturalism, these three literary masterpieces are connected by an intrinsic understanding of the problems most fundamental to the human experience. Leslie Fielder wrote that “the Gothic mode is essentially a form of parody, a way of assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of grotesqueness.” In this knowledge that the gothic genre provides an almost unlimited capacity for the exploration of those debates and clichés that we find most intriguing – the battle between good and evil, notions of gender, the connection between identity and belonging – Stoker, Shelley, and Stevenson all work to unpick their respective themes through a fearless fascination with the grotesque. The timelessness of their novels – otherwise surprising, giving our ever-increasing tolerance for graphic violence and horror in the media that we consume – owes so much to the authors’ understanding of the possibilities inherent in gothicism and engagement with the supernatural. Rather than attending simply to a very human desire for fear-inspired adrenaline, these authors all use their capacity for creepiness to examine a set of human concerns so fundamental to our condition that the novels have outlasted countless political, social, and cultural shifts across centuries.
Of these three novels, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is certainly the most unexpected. Known globally for his wholesomely adventurous children’s fiction, Stevenson’s ability to engage in the most ferocious and appalling limits of human desire are a testament to his literary skills beyond the thrilling piracy of Treasure Island. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a short read dealing with remarkably deep themes. Through the experiences of the lawyer, Mr. Utterson, the reader is introduced to a supernatural conundrum in which one man’s body is seemingly occupied by two disparate personalities. The kind and intelligent Henry Jekyll believed to be in the thrall of the murderous and physically grotesque Edward Hyde, later revealed to be quite the same man. The novel follows Mr. Utterson as he attempts to unravel the mystery of Jekyll and Hyde and Jekyll’s own actions in bringing Hyde’s existence to fruition.
“I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point.
Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens. I, for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…”
That the notion of a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality has entered our vernacular does, in many respects, a great disservice to the depth of Stevenson’s gothic novella. In this, as in most of the popular notions regarding the themes of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the assumption that we already understand everything that this work has to say ensures that most of us miss out on an opportunity to engage fruitfully with the novel in all of its visceral intensity. Where popular depictions of Stevenson’s work typically focus on the poles of Jekyll and Hyde – usually rendered visual in the grotesque disruption of Jekyll’s features as he ‘becomes’ Hyde – there is little appreciation for the subtlety in the questions that Stevenson poses about identity and desire. Jekyll and Hyde are not two different men – they are one man who, in the guise of Hyde, permits himself free expression of his most base and socially prohibited wants.
The werewolf-esque transformations of John Barrymore, Frederic March, and Spencer Tracy as they bubble and lurch their way into the slack-jawed, hunch-backed, and chip-nailed depictions of Edward Hyde capture only a small part of what Stevenson’s novella aimed to project. Although a dramatic physical alteration is certainly present in Stevenson’s fictionalisation of Jekyll’s transformation, it is on the doctor’s duality and the coexistence of these two opposing natures – something to which Jekyll himself attests – that the novel truly focuses. Where Frederic March’s Academy Award-winning interpretation of Hyde depicts the man as ape-like in appearance – thus seemingly suggesting that his desire for violence references something far back on the evolutionary ladder – Jekyll and Hyde actually represent a sophisticated, science-driven recognition of the way that cultural norms shutter us from the full expression of ourselves. Although the novel certainly does not argue that we should be able to murder at want, Stevenson himself pointed to Jekyll’s hypocrisy as the novel’s central tension.
“Under the strain of this continually impending doom and by the sleeplessness to which I now condemned myself, ay, even beyond what I had thought possible to man, I became, in my own person, a creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak both in body and mind, and solely occupied by one thought: the horror of my other self.”
What we have in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, therefore, a novella that is wholly unexpected in many ways. Beyond its gripping premise and Stevenson’s seamless narrative execution, this is a story that crossed boundaries in terms of what literature permitted itself to explore about the nature of the human character. Stevenson gives no easy answers – Jekyll is not possessed by the devil, nor has he relinquished his soul to some other supernatural power. He is a man who has utilised his scientific knowledge to effectively remove the barriers that prohibited him from giving voice to those desires by which he had been both consciously and subconsciously plagued. Interestingly, the final draft of the novella submitted for publication was a significant toning-down of the author’s previous attempts to explore the limits of Jekyll’s unconscious avarice. He almost entirely eliminated the theme of sexual tension that had previously been one of Hyde’s – and Jekyll’s – principal motivating factors. The admission by Jekyll that had been “in secret the slave of certain appetites,” was wholly eliminated and replaced with lines far softer in their connotations. Yet what we are left with is a novel that remains willing to discomfort its readers in a willingness to challenge traditional notions of good and evil.
Although written over 130 years ago, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a surprisingly easy and relevant read. The fact that the novella has received over 120 adaptations is testament to the continued interest in its themes. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, Stevenson’s gothic experiment is limited in reach to its humanistic foundations – it has less space to inspire the breadth of world-building content that has followed both Stoker and Shelley’s creations. Yet, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has survived on its own merits. Where it lacks the sexy intrigue of a neck-biting supernatural philanderer or the pity inspired by a non-human being in search of belonging, Stevenson’s masterpiece retains all the fullness of its questions on good, evil, and self-acceptance. Where Jekyll’s transformation and the surpassing evil of Hyde’s murders give the novel an appropriate degree of creepiness for the darkening days of late October, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a novella that reaches into the very limits of desire to examine the tensions that exist between resistance and recognition.