Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson

book cover Original Publication Date: 1886

Genre: mystery, horror

Topics: madness, good vs evil, society

Review by heidenkind:

Mr. Utterson, a London lawyer, is concerned that his friend, Dr. Jekyll, has developed a relationship with an unsavory character named Mr. Hyde, especially as Hyde has been connected with several incidents of violence and assault. Eventually Jekyll assures Utterson he's cut off all ties with Hyde, but the mystery of Hyde's connection to Jekyll persists, especially after Jekyll disappears.

A few weeks ago, I got it into my head that I was going to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This is a book I'd had no interest in reading before; and, considering I DNF'd Treasure Island earlier this year, I didn't have super-high hopes for it. I was pleasantly proved incorrect—I loved Jekyll and Hyde, and this novel will definitely land on my short list of favorite reads of the year.

Robert Louis Stevenson had me from the very beginning of the story with his comparison of Utterson—a completely conventional, moderate, and reasonable man—to that of his friend and distant relative, Mr. Enfield, a "well-known man about town":

It was a nut to crack for many, what these two could see in each other, or what subject they could find in common.

In this way Stevenson immediately sets us up for a story about the multiple sides of men's characters—for, if Utterson was completely mild-mannered and Enfield completely dissolute, how would they manage to enjoy one another's company so much? Clearly there's a little of Utterson in Enfield and vice versa.

Fittingly, it is through Enfield that the character of Hyde is introduced, seen in a disreputable part of town knocking over a little girl. Utterson also knows Hyde, or knows of him, because Hyde is mentioned in the will of his friend, Dr. Jekyll. Like Utterson, Jekyll is an upstanding gentleman whose friends are "all intelligent, reputable men and all judges of good wine." So what would Jekyll have to do with a reprobate like Hyde? Utterson wonders.

Obviously we all know the answer to that question, even if we haven't read the book. But the real issue driving the story is WHY—what would drive Jekyll to even conceive of a way to isolate a part of his personality and then switch from one to the other?

Jekyll and Hyde was not what I was expecting based on the adaptations I've seen. It's more of a detective story than a horror story, and neither Jekyll nor Hyde are as good or evil as they've been portrayed. Is Hyde really evil, or is he just uncivilized? He knocked over the girl by accident, and he did offer recompense to her family. It seems like Hyde's demonic nature is more perception than reality; as soon as people see him, they detest him. According to Enfield,

I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child's family, which was only natural. But the doctor's case was what struck me. He was the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him.

How else is a person supposed to react when people treat them like that?

Jekyll wasn't the mild-mannered shy physician I anticipated, either: he's a gentleman bachelor NOW, but it's stated that in his youth he was "wild," and there's a certain "slyness" about his face.

It's for these reasons that I don't see The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as being a tale of good versus evil—instead, it's a cautionary tale about conformity. Jekyll wants to be normal and to fit in with those men who are respectable and intelligent, so he tries to remove the part of himself they would shun if they knew about it. Whether it's addiction, the id, or a demon, Hyde represents whatever society rejects. In Jekyll's attempt to conform to society's definition of a gentleman doctor, he in turn rejects the part of himself that society finds distasteful, and in the process he destroys himself.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those deceptively simple novels, like Animal Farm, that's a good story and also makes you think. It's accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds and can be read simply as a great story, an indictment of Victorian society as a whole, or anywhere in between. Definitely a book I think is a must-read.

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