Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Adventure classics -- The monster outside, the monster inside

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson


Monsters are real ¼ they live inside us, and sometimes, they win.¾ Stephen King

Who doesn’t know the story of the good Dr. Jekyll and the bad Mr. Hyde? It’s become such a taken for granted part of our culture since its publication in 1886 that I was startled when I actually read it recently. Why did Robert Louis Stevenson entrust the narration of this strange tale to such a dry, dour, but strangely loveable narrator as the lawyer, Mr. Utterson?

Was the character Utterson retaliation for the legal career Stevenson had undertaken (but never practiced) to please his father? Was he the staid, just the facts, sir, narrator chosen to given some semblance of verisimilitude to Stevenson’s bizarre story of the repressed doctor driven to free himself from what he feels to be his baser instincts by inventing another character to carry his moral load?

Although Stevenson is reputed to have written the book in a burst of feverish activity (literally feverish¾ he was confined to bed at the time from a serious illness) the idea of the story was not a new one. “I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at ties come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature,” Stevenson would explain.

At first glance, the tale appears to be a relatively simple morality fable. Dr. Henry Jekyll, “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a slyish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness” is known for his kindness and philanthropy. Unknown even to his dearest friends, he harbors a dark secret. In his chemical experiments, he has found a way to free this public side of his nature from the constraints of its baser instincts. (Or is it that he has learned to free his more instinctual side from his reasoning side?) In doing so, he creates a younger, stronger, “freer” version of himself, Edward Hyde.

But the more Jekyll yields to the desire to be Hyde, the more dominant Hyde becomes. At last, Jekyll finds himself trapped permanently in Hyde’s body, which after all, is his own. Jekyll has met his monster, and he is him.

Preachers on both sides of the Atlantic seized on the story of Dr. Jekyll for its apparent illustration of the dangers of yielding to wicked impulses. But wicked though Hyde is, it’s obvious that he’s the one having fun. Poor Dr. Jekyll remains to the end the sexless member of this pact terrified of joy, who only truly lives through the deeds of his alter ego, Hyde.

Despite the enthusiastic sermons, there were readers even in the dim Victorian era who saw the tale as a story of sexual repression, an aspect emphasized even more in the movie versions a few decades later, such as the 1920 film whose poster illustrates this post.

Stevenson at first protested such readings, writing to the New York Sun that Hyde was not “a mere voluptuary ¼ but people are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality.”

Privately, Stevenson, like Jekyll, told a different story. His stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, reported that Stevenson railed about the conventions that kept English writers, in contrast to their French counterparts “muzzled like dogs ¼ What books Dickens could have written had he been permitted! Think of Thackeray as unfettered as Flaubert or Balzac! What books I might have written myself!”

(Is it possible Stevenson took notice of what this unfettering would entail when, four years after his story, a writer dared to speak more openly about the many-spangled world of sexuality? I’m referring, of course, to Oscar Wilde, whose own story of duality and its consequences, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the focus of next Wednesday’s post in an October of Halloween horror.)

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