Stevenson, Robert Louis: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

We read “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson alongside Dorian Gray for purposes of comparison (and indeed they had been the subject of comparison after first publication). Please refer to separate entry.

 Jekyll and Hyde was published five years earlier in 1885, prior to the publication of “Kidnapped” and Stevenson’s other best-known works. The proposer of Jekyll and Hyde pointed out that the first version of the story (which Stevenson said had come to him in a dream) had been thrown into the fire after his wife had been invited to give her criticism. She had encouraged him to bring out the “dualism” theme more clearly, which he does in a very explicit, rather didactic passage. It was interesting that Jekyll and Hyde were not completely different characters, as Jekyll admits he was already conscious of feelings and desires for the vices that Hyde indulged in.

 He re-wrote the story in just three days, which may help to explain its pace and the unrelentingly oppressive, gothic atmosphere of the London setting – there was no beauty in this story. The atmosphere was such that it was unsurprising that the book was written just three years before the first of the Jack the Ripper murders. The description of London was partly based on Edinburgh, and Stevenson, despite his respectable background, had consorted with the working classes and prostitutes in his early Edinburgh days. Conan Doyle had also used his experience of Edinburgh in writing the Sherlock Holmes stories set in London. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been the great era of the short story, and it was intriguing that Stevenson, in particular with Jekyll and Hyde, and Doyle, were amongst the few still widely read today.

Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray had much in common. They shared the Faustian theme and the gothic approach. Both stories involved having an objective correlative for moral turpitude – an alter ego in one case, and a degrading picture in the other. Both stories were sufficiently powerful for their titles to have entered the language as metaphors.

 However, the plot of Jekyll turned on science, whereas Gray turned on magic. Jekyll was tauter and better structured, but was less moving and had less depth. Dorian Gray went beyond the Faustian myth in a way that Jekyll did not. The former was a novella, but the latter a short story. Stevenson, like Wilde but even more so, seemed constrained by Victorian mores to give no description of the debauchery that Hyde is enjoying. (However, we were quite unconvinced by the attempt of one critic to find homosexuality hinted at in Jekyll and Hyde).

It was impossible for a modern reader to approach the story of Jekyll and Hyde without knowing the ending because the title had become a metaphor, and therefore you could miss the fact that the story had been a real page-turner for the original audience. Despite that, we felt the story was not so exceptionally good that it had become a byword in the language simply because of its intrinsic quality as a story. Rather, it had become the most famous short story in the English language because it was the perfect metaphor to express the fact that everyone has a darker side – a Hyde – within them. Jekyll and Hyde had also been filmed many times, although an advantage of the original story format was the marvellous vagueness about what Mr Hyde actually looked like. (However, it was odd that Hyde was described as smaller than Jekyll – would you not expect the evil version to be bigger?)

 Noting Stevenson’s interest in science, we wondered if he had been influenced by any contemporary medical descriptions of bipolarity or schizophrenia. A more obvious source of his interest in dualism was his personal experience of revelling in Edinburgh low life. The dualism of man was also a theme in literature and ideas which went back as far as Plato – and included Calvinism. The story of Edinburgh’s Deacon Brodie, which Stevenson wrote up separately, was another source, although the Deacon Brodie tale was not extraordinary –a “strange case” – in the way that Jekyll and Hyde was.

 Finally, we discussed the fact that both books had originally disturbed their audiences, but were no longer disturbing today. Was this because of the Victorian language, or because post-Freud we now all accepted we had a Hyde within us, or because homosexuality was now so openly discussed? Another factor was that there was in Victorian times a moral consensus, based on religion, which did not apply in today’s plural society. Dorian Gray’s hedonism was not going to disturb a contemporary audience, half of whom might readily subscribe to hedonism as a philosophy. Moreover, in today’s society the visual media of film and television had taken over from the printed word much of the role of shocking and disturbing people.