Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the first classic that I was ever introduced to. I was (roughly) twelve years old and absolutely hated it. Now, having reread this classic, I am honestly surprised that my school asked us to read it. They probably chose it because it was short; not – certainly not – because it was an easy read.
A Bit of Context
Title: (The Strange Case of) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson.
Publication: 1886, Longmans, Green & Co.
My Edition: 2012, Penguin.
Length: 74 pages.
Genre(s): Classic, Gothic, Horror, Sci-Fi.
My Rating: 3/5.
There is some speculation as to what inspired Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One argument is that the writer was inspired by his friend Eugene Chantrelle, a French teacher who, after appearing to lead a perfectly ordinary life, was executed after the murder of his wife in 1878. Yet it is also true that Stevenson borrowed the name “Jekyll” from another friend, Reverend Walter Jekyll, whilst others suggest that the plot of this novel came to Stevenson through a dream.
Regardless of its inspiration, however, Stevenson finished writing this renowned, gothic novella in 1886. He then presented it to his wife, who promptly rejected it. There is some debate as to what really happened during this time, but it seems as though she may have burned the first draft of the novel, or else inspired Stevenson to do so after she had reviewed it for him. Her argument seems to have been that she thought that it should have been written as an allegorical novel, rather than simply a story.
Although Stevenson was, at this time, severely ill with turburculoisis, he rewrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in three to six days. It is debatable whether or not he chose to add an allegory to the novella; some scholars claim that the story of Jekyll’s temptation, combined with the mention of a forbidden poison, reflects Adam and Eve’s Fall. At the same time, however, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may reflect contemporary fears regarding technological advances as Jekyll begins to interfere with the human condition, attempting to change what it meant to be human.
The story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is surprisingly well known for a classic novella, yet most of its modern adaptations tend to make some serious changes to the story’s plot. Indeed, in some adaptations, the only link to Stevenson’s original work appears to be that there is a character called Jekyll, and a character called Hyde. I am therefore going to provide a brief overview of this story’s plot, but if you’re thinking of reading this story at some point, then I suggest that you skip to the “My Conclusion” part of this review.
To an extent, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is rather like a detective novel. It follows the journey of a Mr Utterson, who has been a close friend to Dr Jekyll for many years. As the story progresses, he notes how his friend has been acting rather strangely, and has been allowing another man, by the name of Hyde, to stay in his house. There are strange stories circulating about this Hyde, too, as his cousin, Enfield, reveals how he witnessed Hyde stamping on a small girl as he walked past her. Things then begin to grow more serious as Hyde is blamed for the murder of a notorious MP, by the name of Carew.
Hyde is now known as a murderer, but he appears to have disappeared from sight. Dr Jekyll, meanwhile, has become more active in society, going to church and hosting meals for his friends to attend. Utterson seems to believe that they have seen the last of Mr Hyde when, quite suddenly, another of his friends, Lanyon, dies. He leaves behind him a letter addressed to Utterson which, as we discover at the novel’s end, reveals the whole story. Dr Jekyll had begun to experiment with various chemicals until, one day, he had produced a drug that would separate the two sides of himself. In doing so, he hoped to rid himself of his evil tendancies, so that he would be left only with the good.
Inevitably, however, Jekyll failed. He instead produced an entire, separate, human being. He could take his potion and become the infamous Mr Hyde at his own will, where he could live a younger life filled with bodily pleasures and excitement. He could keep his reputation intact whilst living a life that he’d always (secretly) longed for. What Jekyll doesn’t realise, however, is that Hyde grows stronger, the more that he becomes him. Soon, Jekyll begins to revert to Hyde without taking any of his potion. He continually wakes up as Hyde until, one day, there is no Dr Jekyll. It is as though he has never existed, and Mr Hyde is all that is left of him.
Published as a ‘shilling shocker’ in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark psychological fantasy gave birth to the popular idea of the split personality. Set in a hellish, fog-bound London, the story of outwardly respectable Dr Jekyll, who unleashes his deepest cruelties and most murderous instincts when he is transformed into sinister Edward Hyde, is a Gothic masterpiece and a chilling exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil. – book blurb.
Going Deeper into the Novel…
As this is a horror story, you cannot exactly expect a happy ending. Nevertheless, the story itself is shocking, if a little difficult to understand when first reading it. It is one of the few classics that I would recommend simply for its story, yet there there are several other things happening in its main narrative that I want to focus on. Namely, there are the links to urbanisation, and, perhaps more obviously, an emphasis on identity.
Written in 1886, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is undeniably a Victorian work of fiction. If you’ve read my reviews of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, then you will know that urbanisation was a huge theme in Victorian literature. This is because of a burgeoning of industry that peaked during the Industrial Revolution. New factories were being built all over English cities, whilst the invention of steam power meant that resources could be transported by ships, as well as by the railway. As a result of this, thousands of new jobs were made available in the cities, and so people began to abandon their rural lifestyles for the sake of working in what quickly became a very overcrowded urban environment.
Because of this overcrowding, the city is often presented quite negatively in Victorian works, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is no different. Stevenson notes, within the first few pages, “[t]he street was small and what is called quiet”. The “quiet” is, to Utterson, something unfamiliar, due to the general noise of the busy city. This complaint is reiterated later on in the novel as “London hummed solemnly all around”, the noise of the city presented as something ominous as the tension within the main narrative begins to increase. Yet Stevenson’s biggest complaint relates to technology.
As I mentioned earlier, some scholars argue that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be an allegory, reflecting contemporary fears regarding new technology. Medical circles were just as effected by the Industrial Revolution as companies who produced commercial luxuries were. They had gained new technology to discover more about the human body, helped along by an increase in disease which was triggered by the overcrowded nature of the cities. New medical proceedures were experimented with, yet, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson appears to be suggesting that Dr Jekyll has gone too far. He has tried to change – or cure – too much, perhaps usurping the role of God, and is punished for it.
This is a story about a man who splits himself into two separate people. Considering this, it would be quite difficult for me not to discuss the theme of identity in this review. Yet Hyde is not entirely separate from Jekyll. He has a separate body, with a noticably different appearance, but Jekyll suggests that he is perfectly aware of his actions when he plays the role of Hyde. The question then is: is Hyde a separate person, or merely a disguise through which Jekyll can hide his inner brutality?
[A]ll human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.
– Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
From the name “Hyde”, it would seem that Jekyll does use Hyde as his disguise. He is literally able to hide behind Hyde’s murderous reputation, allowing him to take the blame for his sins whilst he sits comfortably by the fire. Yet it is also true that, the more that Jekyll becomes Hyde, the more powerful Hyde becomes. Jekyll seems to lose a little control of him(self), such as when he murders Carew.
Regardless of whether Hyde is distinctly separate from Jekyll or merely a separate body, however, Stevenson suggests that a part of Hyde exists within all of us. He shows himself in our ugly, selfish desires, such as when we seek only bodily pleasures. For all of us, according to Stevenson, life is a balancing act, as we try keep Hyde concealed, putting forward only the good, moral versions of ourselves and suppressing our selfishness.
Having not read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde since my first encounter with it, I am glad that I have given it a second chance. Its story is certainly interesting, particularly the idea that there is a part of Hyde within all of us. Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I do not believe that this novella should be read lightly. Reading it at the age of twelve, it could have quite easily put me off the classics for the rest of my life.
Luckily, I was able to come back to this text and actually found myself enjoying it. The first few chapters may be a bit of a struggle, but this is simply due to the detective styling of the work. It begins slowly, picking up pace and tension, until finally the mystery is solved, and it is within those last two chapters, that I really began to enjoy myself.
I would almost suggest skipping through the first few chapters of the book, but I do think that the tension at the beginning is important, if only because it allows you to appreciate how truly spectacular its ending is. Stevenson’s writing really comes to life in those final chapters, his descriptions mesmirising and his ideas truly chilling. So, if you can manage to get through those first chapters (and you’re not a twelve-year-old child), then, chances are, that you should really enjoy this Victorian, gothic novella.
Thank you so much for reading this review. This book was a part of my June 2018 reading challenge which means, for those of you keeping up with my progress, that I only have three more books to go!
You can click here to view an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)!