Monday, 6 September 2010

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
This is another one of those books we’ve all heard of but few people have actually read. As a result, people often have the impression they know what the book is about, but don’t actually because much of the story has been dramatized and Hollywoodized over the years. I don’t actually mean that as a criticism even if it does sound like one. It’s brilliant that people can take an idea and expound on it to create other stories and I wouldn’t want to give up our Mr. Hyde of today, or our green Frankenstein, or our Coca-Cola Santa Claus. It’s just that often the successors wind up overshadowing the original to the point where it almost disappears except to the few who choose to look at the origins. Granted, there still are a lot of people out there who have read the originals, but the average person hasn’t.

Dr. Henry Jekyll has gone a bit soft in the head. He shuns visitors, changes his will in an odd manner leaving all to Mr. Hyde should he die or disappear, and his friends are becoming increasingly worried. Most of all they are concerned about his connections with the man Mr. Hyde who is seen running down a small girl in the street. Mr. Hyde gives a check signed in Jekyll’s name to the father in the way of compensation, but doesn’t show much remorse. Jekyll swears afterward that he is finished with Hyde, but when Jekyll’s friends find his cane at Hyde’s house, they know he’s still under Hyde’s influence and soon they find out that the truth is even more horrible than they had imagined.

It won’t be giving anything away to mention that Jekyll and Hyde are one in the same. Hyde is the creator of a potion which changes him into a being free from moral subjugation and Jekyll revels in the freedom this gives him at first. However, like most addictive substances, it soon takes over his life and his free choice is removed so that he is subjugated to the beast he has created. Here’s where “fact” and fiction separate though. Hyde is often portrayed as a larger than life figure with great strength and power. However, in the book, Jekyll is the larger of the two men and Hyde much the smaller, more crude looking figure with no particular powers except his lack of morals which allows him to do things forbidden to most humans. Stevenson also doesn’t present the case from Jekyll/Hyde’s point of view, instead choosing to tell the tale through the rather clinical and Victorian observation of his friends. This lends the book a bit of a dry air as opposed to making it a thriller. Thus, Stevenson wasn’t actually trying to create a monster for our Halloween pleasure, he was presenting us with the dichotomy of man vs. the monster within himself, or what we would be without voluntary moral or ethical subjugation.

I think he also, perhaps unknowingly addresses the subject of addiction and its ends. As mentioned, the potion becomes the master of the man until the effect is no longer the one desired, and instead reflects the essence of the potion which is evil. Many drugs have the same effect of being pleasurable in the beginning, but soon grow to control the user instead of the user controlling the drug. Finally, he also, rather obviously, addresses split personalities and mental illness. Jekyll and Hyde being one and the same makes that pretty much a given. Although, to his credit, Stevenson doesn’t make the split black and white, as Jekyll tells his friends, while Hyde was wholly amoral, this did not make Jekyll his diametric opposite and render him wholly good. Jekyll remained much as he was while Hyde only embodied the evil in him. Thus, it was less of a split than a personality graft, like cutting off one pit of a plant so that it grows into its own plant, only this particular bit only contained certain parts of the makeup of its parent plant. In essence, this is a more accurate reflection of mental illness as it is seldom comprised of a simple black and white split.

I could babble on about this forever because it is a terribly interesting book which opens up a lot of room for discussion. Yes, it is a bit on the dry side as a read, especially if you’re expecting fast paced action, but the subject matter makes up for that in leaps and bounds. It’s one I can recommend to anyone, so it’s another 5/5 book.


Jeane said...

You're right, all I knew of this story was its modern dramatization. I've never seen a film of it, but just heard about it. It does sound kind of dry but interesting nevertheless.

Kya said...

What an interesting review and you're right, I have not read this although I'm familiar with it through popular culture. I'll put this on my reading list.