The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is another one of those classics that is so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we all sort of know the story without really knowing it. Even kids know Jekyll and Hyde–it was an Arthur episode! But how well do we know it?
The story is told from the point of view of a friend of Dr. Jekyll’s, the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. We hardly even see Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. We hear about them from a distance. The dilemma unfolds slowly, but it is gripping nevertheless.
Utterson and a kinsman, Mr. Enfield, were on a stroll one day when they came upon a door. The door was–as Utterson knew–the back entrance to Dr. Jekyll’s home, his laboratory. Mr. Enfield was unaware of this and related a story about the door. He had seen a horrible man go in that door, one Mr. Hyde. Mr. Hyde had run down a child in the street, incurring the wrath of many witnesses, and had retreated to that door to retrieve a check to pay off the child’s parents. The check was endorsed by. . .Dr. Jekyll.
Dr. Jekyll was a well-known and much beloved man of science in the town. No one knew why he would befriend such a fiend as this Mr. Hyde. Utterson could shed no light on the mystery, but he had more reason to be concerned. Dr. Jekyll was one of his clients and he was aware of the man’s will which left everything to the nasty Mr. Hyde.
Time passed. My Hyde’s reputation for ill-doings increased. Jekyll seemed to be avoiding his old friends. Utterson worried about him more and more. And then, one night, Hyde commits a murder and disappears.
The town considers itself well rid of him. For awhile, it seems as though Jekyll is more his old self again. But this period does not last. Jekyll retreats from society and Utterson suspects Hyde has returned. When he is forced at last to confront Hyde, fearing for Jekyll’s safety, he finds Hyde dead. A letter is left for him explaining all.
The "Jekyll and Hyde" story that I thought I had known is really all contained in this short summary letter. It explains about the sinister potion Jekyll mixed up in his laboratory to allow him to separate his evil self from his good self. It explains how Hyde began to gain control and eventually took over. It’s oddly anticlimactic since the revelation comes too late and since that’s the part of the story that is so well known. And yet, I can appreciate the sensation it might have made when the tale was new.
There is also, of course, reason to read the book for its strength as a literary novel. If you care to pick apart the dual nature of man, good versus evil, Victorian mores, etc, its all in there. Stevenson is none too subtle with his symbolism.
I think I had been expecting something a bit more horrifying. I think I expected to suffer more with Jekyll as he spiraled out of control. But if the original intent was to keep the reader in the dark as to the identity of Mr. Hyde, I can see why this was Utterson’s story. It is, overall, a quick, enjoyable read and a classic I can heartily recommend.