Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Warning: this review contains spoilers. 

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Title: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Year: 1886
Pages: 144

I had heard of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I was convinced I knew the entire plot as I had seen part of the BCC mini-series Jekyll. I knew thus, that Dr Jekyll suffered from some sort of dissociative identity disorder. What I was expecting was a ground-breaking psychological novel.

Clearly, one should not base their knowledge of literature on adaptations, especially not on only partly watched ones. Here is the real story of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Through the eyes and ears of Dr Jekyll’s lawyer Mr Utterson, we learn about Mr Hyde, a man who abuses a young girl and pays off the girl’s parents. It is quickly found out that there is a link between Jekyll and Hyde, as the former has written a will which would leave all his possessions to the latter. Years pass and nothing happens, until Hyde strikes again and kills a man. Slowly but surely similarities between Hyde and Jekyll are uncovered, and eventually we learn that Jekyll had developed a potion to which he became addicted, which transformed him in character and physique, into Mr Hyde.

The novella fits very well into its time and plays with the tradition of this Victorian era. In the late 1800s, one “sought to fix and pin down events” (Middleton x), while this story challenges everything that is thought to be fact. Moreover, it is a prime example of Gothic fiction, which was the popular genre in this time. Gothic literature “throws into question the idea of a fixed, stable individual identity”(Middleton xii), of which Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is of course the epitome.

This idea of double identity really only surfaces at the end of the novel, after confessional letters explain everything. This is also the case with the theme of addiction, as well as with some motifs such as the contrast between Dr Jekyll’s house and his laboratory. Only when we know how the story is set up, we understand these layers. Therefore, to me the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of those which really only becomes interesting after having studied it for a while.

In his review of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Emmet Early shows that Jekyll is described positively, but is granted much less description than Hyde, whose evil character is highlighted over and over again (32). He writes “Hyde is obviously a constellation of a variety of vices, the most prominent of which is violent anger”. While little can be argued against this, I do feel that this completely disregards the fact that Jekyll is the true instigator, as it is his addiction which allows Hyde to even exist. Somehow it feels as though Stevenson disregarded the protagonist’s misdoings and only criticises the consequences of addiction rather than the addict himself.

I am quite sure my apathy towards this novella is fed by my confusion regarding the plot. I was constantly annoyed by the fact that Hyde looked so much different from Jekyll, although I thought they were supposed to be the same in appearance. Moreover, I felt it took the characters too long to figure out what was really going on. Perhaps I should give the novel a reread, now with the correct expectations, and perhaps I will be able to appreciate it better, and give it a fairer judgement. 

Works Cited
Early, Emmet. “The Strange Case of Ego and Shadowman: A Review of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.” The San Fransisco Jung Institute Liberal Journal 4.3 (1983): 28-36. PDF.
Middleton, Tim. Introduction. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories. By R.L. Stevenson. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1999. vii-xvii. Print.

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