Even if you haven’t read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you almost certainly know the premise. The image of Jekyll and Hyde has entered the English language as an idiom right along many allusions to Scripture and Shakespeare, and it’s been adapted into other media many times. Talking about it here, then, seems almost like a waste of time; after all, it’s already one of the most famous stories in English.
Well, I’ve found that many classic books, even if they are well-known, are in reality often seldom read, so one can never assume that just because something is famous that many people are actually familiar with the original work. Besides, there are a handful of books that are more enjoyable in their adaptations than in their original form, like Dracula, I’m afraid to say. At a glance, Jekyll looks like it may fall into that category, since it’s old, everyone knows the plot twist and themes, and it’s written in a slow-paced, wordy style common in the Nineteenth Century but unpalatable to many today. So, is Jekyll still worth reading?
I’m actually not going to give an unqualified “yes,” but will say that for most people, especially if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers your whole life, will enjoy it as long as you have the patience for Stevenson’s writing style. Not that his style is bad, of course – as we’ll discuss shortly, I think it’s very good. It’s just not for everyone. It is short, though, so it’s worth a shot.
Now, to the book itself. Perhaps Stevenson’s greatest strength here is his power of description. Right from the first paragraph we get an excellent portrait of protagonist Mr. Utterson, a lawyer and friend of Dr. Henry Jekyll:
Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.
Here we have a quick list of characteristics that add up to a fine introduction to what kind of person Mr. Utterson is. Of course, we learn more about him and the other characters as the story goes on through their words and actions, but this type of artistic description gives us a solid introduction to each new character, so we have an idea of who we’re dealing with very quickly. Stevenson also puts in the occasional poetic line, as when one character describes an empty street at night, “Street after street and all the folks asleep—street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church—till at last I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman.” It’s not strictly necessary, but makes for a pleasant read and, again, really drives home the image Stevenson is going for.
The story develops slowly over the course of the book; we hear of the wicked Mr. Edward Hyde, and how he’s somehow a friend of the highly respected Dr. Jekyll, and much of the first 2/3 or so consists of Utterson and others trying to understand why Jekyll would associate with such a man, even going so far as to make Hyde the sole inheritor of his property in his will. It’s only after the climax, when Utterson and Jekyll’s butler, Poole, attempt to confront Hyde, that the famous plot twist is revealed (and again, if you somehow don’t already know, I recommend that you stop reading this review and pick up the book). That reveal comes from a brief account written by a former friend of Jekyll’s who knew of his experiments, which is followed by a written account from Jekyll himself.
Jekyll and Hyde’s theme is well known and is developed straightforwardly enough that I don’t think I need to dwell on it, but I do appreciate how Stevenson develops it. First, Jekyll isn’t the only one who isn’t quite as he appears. In that initial description of Mr. Utterson, Stevenson writes, “‘I incline to Cain’s heresy,’ he used to say quaintly: ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.'” Yet, that isn’t the case. Mr. Utterson is a stoic and does prefer minding his own business, yet we see him go to some lengths to tell Jekyll about his concerns regarding Hyde and is quick to follow Poole to Jekyll’s home when he learns that Jekyll may be in danger, even helping break down a door to confront a possible murderer. He even comes across as caring, in his own unemotional way, about his friends and servants.
All of this makes him a foil for Dr. Jekyll. On the surface he’s fully respectable; the only wrinkle is his association with Hyde and Utterson’s remark to himself that Jekyll was “wild when he was young,” which makes him assume that Hyde must be blackmailing him somehow.
I also notice that Jekyll is described as essentially a drug addict. Despite his assurances to Utterson that “the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr. Hyde,” he later admits himself in his account of events that, “my new power tempted me until I fell in slavery. I had but to drink the cup, to doff at once the body of the noted professor, and to assume, like a thick cloak, that of Edward Hyde.” When Utterson sees the body of Hyde at the story’s climax, he even notes that he “knew that he was looking on the body of a self-destroyer.” Interestingly, though Jekyll does admit that he made a terrible mistake, that he failed in virtue and was overcome with hubris (like, I may add, perhaps the only mad scientist more famous than Jekyll, Dr. Frankenstein), he’s also quite clear that he enjoyed being Mr. Hyde. Again, I don’t think I need to belabour the moral of the story here.
There may also be some things to say about Jekyll’s conception of man as “not truly one, but truly two,” one good and one evil, but he doesn’t go into a lot of detail so I’ll just leave that discussion to those better read in philosophy. In short, though, if you’re looking for a short read before Halloween or just want a good story, and don’t mind reading something a bit slow paced, Jekyll will fit the bill perfectly.