Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that he got most of the inspiration for his writing from lucid dreams. Jekyll and Hyde came to him in a nightmare - his wife concerned at his fitful sleeping cries, woke him. Disappointed he replied ‘'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.'
The book opens with Mr. Utterson, a prosecutor, who is friends with a friendly and scholarly man, Dr Jekyll. He has been hearing from various sources about the dastardly exploits around London of one Mr. Hyde. Hyde, gossip tells, had recently wantonly trampled over a girl in the street. Mr. Utterson is concerned as he knows that Jekyll has some kind of relationship with this fiendish Hyde. In fact, Jekyll has given Hyde unrestricted access to his house to come and goes as he pleases. Fearing his friend is under some dark influence, Utterson makes some enquiries. These become even more urgent when Mr. Hyde is believed to have brutally murdered an MP. Finally, Utterson discovers the truth in a letter from Jekyll. It explains that, with the aid of a ghoulish medical concoction, he has managed to split his personality into a good part and an evil part. However, now having run out of potion, he must remain permanently as the infamous and degenerate Hyde.
This story is phenomenally well known. So much so that the main characters ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ are commonly used to describe anyone whose personality is somewhat changeable. Our cultural knowledge of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so strong that actually reading the thing feels like going back to your house and finding everything in a slightly different place. There is much less exciting dual personality, good vs. evil, action than you would expect from a book that typifies the genre. Even the title, ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ feels weird and wrong.
Jekyll and Hyde is thought-provoking though. To an extent, living in society necessitates suppressing our basest urges. You could think of it like a clown’s balloon. As we squeeze one part of our personality into an acceptable shape, all that energy just pops up somewhere else. I think it’s also quite familiar to feel a distinct shift between modes. We talk of ‘bottling things up’ and then letting them go, or ‘blowing up’. And we notice this in our friends too. Part of the reason I think Jekyll and Hyde is so well known, is it speaks to the truth of this. People often do seem to have different sides to their personality, and this novella is the archetypal narrative of this.
Stories help us understand the world around us. They give us a structure to events. From religious stories to fairy tales and fables each contains pinches of reality, triple distilled down to its very essence. Jekyll and Hyde, then, describes something quite fundamental in the human experience. I think it was the first story to capture our changeable nature in a way that resonates with the world we live in.
Welcome to the dark side
Whilst Jekyll and Hyde is an exemplar story, I think its morality is quite subversive - and very different - to that of our times. I see it as a deeply and fundamentally a Christian narrative - which is odd because Louis Stevenson rejected Christianity. To me the basic moral takeaway is: don’t dabble with your dark-side, because it will consume you. The plot condensed into one sentence would be: Jekyll releases some of his inner base urges, finds he can’t control them and get stuck as his shadow self.
Some say that, actually, Dr. Jekyll went too far in suppressing his animalistic urges - when he released the valve it came out like an explosion. But I don’t think that really makes sense. Mr. Hyde is far darker than Dr. Jekyll is good. Jekyll is, if anything, a normal member of society, not some bastion of saintliness. He isn’t helping old ladies cross the street or donating his money to orphan children. In fact he dabbles in a dark laboratory dissecting animals, and says that although he tries hard to be pure he continually experiences dark urges. Hyde, on the other hand, is a murderous thug, almost sub-human in his capacity for evil and lack of regard for social norms.
So to me, the story wants to tell us that in every human there is a bottomless pit of evil which can’t be allowed out without devastating consequences. That sounds very evangelical. Taking one more small step of conjecture, it almost seems that Louis Stevenson took on board all of the teachings of Christianity about the nature of humanity, and rejected just the spirituality. By doing so, perhaps he felt forced into taking the pessimistic view that there was then nothing we could do to control the animal inside all of us. Stevenson even appears to have lived a little of the libertine lifestyle too.
By my reading, Jekyll and Hyde isn’t really an exploration of good and evil, it is really just a study of the evil - the animal - inside of us.
The last word
Jekyll and Hyde is a short little book - worth a read if you've got an hour to kill. What more could you ask for? It’s a little gripping Victorian horror that explores the consequences of living a double life, but more importantly it’s a good look at the philosophy of what it is to be human.