Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeStrange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I conclude this October’s rereading of fin de siècle horror fiction—see also my entries on Dracula and The Turn of the Screw—with Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic 1886 novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The title’s abrupt lack of an article and its juridical and medical implications (legal case, case study) emphasize the estranging secularity and modernity we saw in Stoker and James, even amid the trappings of new popular fiction intended for a mass readership. As Elaine Showalter notes of the period’s fiction in her Sexual Anarchy, the commercial collapse of the three-volume realist novel (predominantly associated with female readers and writers and with Victorian family values) cleared the way for fresh subversions and newly accentuated precedents in the art of the novel:

The revival of “romance” in the 1880s was a men’s literary revolution intended to reclaim the kingdom of the English novel for male writers, male readers, and men’s stories. […] Thus, in place of the heterosexual romance of courtship, manners, and marriage that had been the specialty of women writers, male critics extolled the masculine and homosocial “romance” of adventure and quest, descended from Arthurian epic.

In his essay, “A Gossip on Romance,” Stevenson clarifies his own intention in writing fiction that deemphasizes psychological analysis and minute social drawing (“the clink of teaspoons and the accent of the curate”) in favor of incident and circumstance:

There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

Granted his novella of Jekyll and Hyde—a “bogey tale” that famously came to him in a nightmare—belongs to this moment of romantic reaction and revival; but it also introduces artistic and formal complications that bely any intention to portray the “human will” in an “obvious and healthy” way. Showalter also comments:

[T]he genre of the fantastic also introduced the theme of split personality at the same time that psychoanalysis was beginning to question the stable and linear Victorian ego. Thus many of the stories of the fin de siècle are also case histories which describe deviance, rebellion, and the abnormal. Like Freud’s accounts of hysterical patients, they are fragmented, out of chronological sequence, contradictory, and incoherent. Rather than being told by the omniscient narrator of Victorian fiction, they are told by multiple narrators…

Stevenson’s “Gossip on Romance” stresses the need for the writer to attain for his fiction an “epic” quality by “embody[ing] character, thought, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind’s eye,” and this novella, with its famous potion-induced transformation of the respectable physician, lawyer, and scientist Henry Jekyll into his worser self, the malign Mr. Hyde, certainly qualifies. It’s an instantly recognizable modern myth. Yet Stevenson conveys this sensational tale in a weirdly fragmented narrative written in a vividly concise but dreamy style that led Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, to class it alongside Flaubert and Gogol as a poem in prose.

I am even tempted to view this novella as the synthesis of Dracula (thesis) and The Turn of the Screw (antithesis): if Stoker’s novel is a feverish potboiler, written for thrilling effect but not especially “artistic,” and if James’s novella is a proto-modernist transformation of popular material into an almost airlessly rarefied work of self-communing high literature, then Stevenson’s earlier book represents the writer’s and reader’s dream of having it all: a shilling-shocker keep-you-up-at-night sensational plot that is also a carefully-wrought prose poem—Stoker’s killer instinct in finer prose and a more conscious structure, or James’s artistry without the cloistral suffocations of his late manner. Take Stevenson’s extraordinary opening paragraph:

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. “I incline to Cain’s heresy,” he used to say quaintly: “I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.” In this character, it was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of downgoing men. And to such as these, so long as they came about his chambers, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour.

The whole book is compressed here: already we have the double life of our bachelor viewpoint character, the contrast between duty and desire typified by English gin and foreign or exotic wine, respectively (Nabokov remarks on the novella’s “delightful winey taste”), the longing for vicarious vital human experience on the part of tortuously repressed Englishmen, and the hint of the diabolical evil that liberated desire will bring in the allusion to Cain, whose “heresy” is more popularly thought to be murder than tolerance.

The difficulty of interpreting “silent symbols” in a culture of repression foreshadows the interpretive hardships that will face both characters and readers of this novella, with its profusion of mysteriously portentous urban landscapes (the first chapter is called “Story of the Door,” the central one named “Incident at the Window”) and its flurry of cryptic legal documents arranging for the rights of Hyde in relation to Jekyll’s estate. Any recourse to simple romance with legible characters and healthy conduct is made impossible by writing so ambitious and intricate. Just as George Eliot is more than a writer of feminine domesticity, so Robert Louis Stevenson exceeds the bounds of masculine romantic adventure.

From the micro to the macro, consider the novella’s structure. Its first two-thirds is written in restricted third-person from the viewpoint of the lawyer Utterson. He is part of a group of professional men, bachelors all, among whose most distinguished members is the brilliant Dr. Henry Jekyll. Utterson learns that a mysterious Mr. Hyde, a man “not easy to describe” but who gives a “strong feeling of deformity,” and who is first seen in the novella almost trampling a little girl to death, is somehow connected to Jekyll. Jekyll has given Hyde the freedom of his house and has even, with Utterson’s legal aid, designated Hyde his heir. Utterson suspects the Hyde is blackmailing his friend, and his interest in the case becomes more urgent with Hyde’s gratuitous murder of Sir Danvers Carew.

Utterson, as a man trying his hardest to be normal and respectable, but with a bent toward the curious and the tolerant, is the perfect conveyance for such a tale. But the third-person narrative gives way in the novella’s final stretch to two first-person narratives delivered to Utterson: first, is the dying testament of Jekyll’s friend and rival, Dr. Lanyon, who witnesses Hyde’s metamorphosis into Jekyll upon the quaffing of a mysterious potion. Finally, Jekyll’s own testimony, his “Full Statement of the Case,” concludes the novella.

Jekyll was, he tells Utterson, a man divided between his devotion to duty and industry, those Victorian values, on the one hand, and on the other an “impatient gaiety of disposition” that vitiates his finer qualities. He concludes that “man is not truly one, but truly two,” and with his medical expertise devises a drug that he hopes will precipate out a purer self from his present mixture of good and evil. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the selfish ambition that motivates Jekyll, it is his worst self, not his best self, that the potion brings out: Mr. Hyde, a smaller, younger, and mysteriously malign creature representing that part of Jekyll’s self hitherto kept in check.

Since Jekyll is legally immune from Hyde’s crimes, since Hyde is a discrete being whom Jekyll can conceal with the mere quaffing of his potion, Jekyll gives this shadow self free rein to indulge his appetites all over London. By the logic of iniquity’s escalation when once restraint has slackened, Hyde grows and Jekyll diminishes as he further indulges in evil. Eventually, Jekyll can no longer control his transformations, and Hyde threatens to become his sole self. The novella concludes inconclusively, as Jekyll’s narrative breaks off just before his suicide (the aftermath of which we’ve already seen 40 pages before). We never return to Utterson and are left to wonder what this oddly-structured and disturbing narrative means.

As with The Turn of the Screw, critics have sought a sexual significance in the text. This is both persuasive and not. Unlike James, Stevenson doesn’t, to my mind, focus on sexual repression. The novella’s early hints that Hyde is a blackmailer signal to the reader as overtly as Stevenson could in 1886 that Jekyll may have committed a sexual transgression, whether gay or straight: that Hyde is Jekyll’s former sexual partner, blackmailing him with a threat to broadcast his predilection for rough trade, or that Hyde is Jekyll’s natural son, blackmailing him with a threat to expose his previous illicit dalliance with a woman. Surely the suspense of the novella comes partly from discovering what could be worse than these scandalous but mundane erotic possibilities raised in the opening chapters.

Stevenson attaches metaphors and metonymies to Hyde to intimate that he is a one-man compendium of all that Victorian society wished to cast out: not only non-normative sexualities, but also the inhuman (he is likened to a monkey and an ape), the evolutionary throwback (he is called a troglodyte), the criminal (he is a wanted murderer), the lower class (he accesses Jekyll’s house only from the rear), the greedy and ignoble capitalist (“money’s life to the man,” one character exclaims), the aesthete (he is the result of an experiment that has “no end [i.e., telos] of practical usefulness” and his “faculties are sharpened to a point”), the non-European (his hand, we’re told, is “dusky:”), post-Darwinian matter without spirit (Jekyll sees him as ambulatory and articulate “slime of the pit” and “amorphous dust”), and even Satan himself (to whom he is twice explicitly likened).

Not unlike Count Dracula, Hyde is the all-purpose anti-Victorian. To reduce him to any one of these meanings is to reduce too far. He is, like the fragmented and nightmarish novella he stalks, a figure for the inexplicable and illegible, the archaic and the futuristic, in a society losing its faith in its traditional ways of comprehending itself and the world.

But let us not be so historicist that we neglect Jekyll’s assertion, “the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man.” What is the nature of Hyde’s evil, if it is not merely social or sexual—an evil universal enough to have kept this story alive in other times, languages, and media than its own?

We only see Hyde commit three crimes: the trampling of a little girl, the brutal murder of Sir Danvers Carew, and the striking of a female match-seller. What unites these otherwise disparate acts of violence, whose victims differ in age, gender, and social class, is their gratuitous brutality, their lack of motive, their senselessness. They are not comprehensible crimes of passion, revenge, ambition, or greed, nor do they even have the splendor of rationalized freedom taken to its limit as in the later Existentialists. They are the squalid tantrums of the merely selfish. Jekyll defines Hyde’s evil this way:

This familiar that I called out of my own soul, and sent forth alone to do his good pleasure, was a being inherently malign and villainous; his every act and thought centered on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another; relentless like a man of stone.

There is, as other commentators have pointed out, a hint of sadism here, of aestheticism decayed to delectation in others’ agony, but what stands out is the focus on the self and its pleasures at the expense of others. When Jekyll describes Hyde as a kind of rioting primordial ooze (“this slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices”) and notes that as Hyde his “love of life [was] screwed to the topmost peg,” we detect a fear that mere life, matter without meaning, will lead to an evil so anarchic as to lose even the glamor of Satan’s rebellion, an evil that is, as Jekyll calls it, “commonplace”: to knock a child down and trample over her just because she is in your way. Evil, Stevenson suggests, is not actually interesting. If the self-mortifications of the bachelors who oversee Jekyll’s downfall err too far in the direction of a spiritualized and repressed death-in-life, Hyde’s mortification of others for his own mindless pleasure is an extreme no less livable or even desirable.

If Hyde is, unlike Dracula, impressively difficult to glamorize and so an apt depiction of evil’s squalor, Stevenson relies on his setting and his prose to create the novella’s bewitchments:

It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

London, like Hyde, is ancient and modern, both hell and the city of the future, and Stevenson’s precise evocation of its literal and spiritual pollution rivals Dickens. Passages like this, more observant and eloquent than Stoker but more outward-looking than James, reconcile high and low, aesthetic and popular, in a page-turning thriller so dense with motif and atmosphere, so alive to recondite questions of interpretation (its viewpoint character is linguistically constituted: the “son” of utterance), yet so in touch with the upheavals of its time (he is likewise—several other critics have pointed this out—the “utter son” of his society), that we never have to choose, as Stoker and James make us choose, between literature and life. Ironic that a novella about a divided self should be so consummate a unity.

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