Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jeckyll and HydeIn a way it’s too bad that most modern readers know the premise behind The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. We miss a lot of the build-up of the mystery the other characters are trying to solve. But it’s still an enjoyable story.

It begins in Victorian-era London when a lawyer, Mr. Utterson, is taking a walk with his cousin when they pass a door that stirs a memory for the cousin, Mr. Enfield. Once Enfield was walking in the same area when he witnessed a young girl being trampled by a man. He and the crowd around them insisted that the man pay the girl immediately for damages, and the man went into the particular door they’re now passing to obtain a check written on the account of a reputable man in the city. Enfield describes the man negatively, saying he seemed deformed, though Enfield couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was wrong with him. When he mentions that the man’s name is Hyde, Utterson stops him, for he knows who Hyde is and wishes to avoid gossip.

But the incident increases Utterson’s concern. His friend and client, Dr. Jekyll, has just changed his will to leave everything to Hyde, and Utterson feels sure that the account Hyde drew on was Jekyll’s. He fears Hyde may be blackmailing Jekyll, but Jekyll says Hyde is no one to worry about.

Some time later, a maid witnesses Hyde killing a man in the street who turns out to be a member of Parliament and another of Utterson’s clients. Hyde seems to disappear after that, and Jekyll says he has cut off ties with him. But then all of a sudden Jekyll stops going out and receiving visitors. One day when Utterson happens to see him through a window and stops to talk for a while, Jekyll seems glad to see him at first, and then suddenly with a look of horror slams down the window. Then one night Jekyll’s butler, Poole, come to Mr. Utterson to say that something is terribly wrong: his master has been locked in his laboratory for days and now doesn’t sound like himself. Utterson comes with Poole, and they decide to break down the door. What they find I will leave you to discover, but a couple of letters left for Utterson explain what has been going on.

As most readers know (and if you don’t know and don’t want to, skip this paragraph!), Hyde and Jekyll are the same man. What’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book to me is Jeckyll’s reasons for his experimentations. He had struggled with the conflicting parts of himself wanting to do good or evil, and decided to see if he could separate them – not in order to filter out the bad and therefore conquer it, but so the bad side could do what it wanted without restraint and without consequences such as marring the good name of Jekyll.

I had learned to dwell with pleasure as a beloved daydream on the
thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities life would be relieved of all that was unbearable: the unjust might go his way delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path doing the good things in which he found his pleasure and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

When Jekyll becomes alarmed at how far Hyde has gone and resolves not to let him out any more, Stevenson masterfully describes incomplete repentance which isn’t true repentance.

It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.

Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde. I made this choice perhaps with some unconscious reservation, for I neither gave up the house in Soho, nor destroyed the clothes of Edward Hyde, which still lay ready in my cabinet.

As the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence.

I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.

Elisabeth Elliot once wrote that she was dealing with guilt over something she had done and was astounded by it, thinking, “That’s just not me.” She was brought up short by the realization that it was indeed her fault, that she couldn’t blame it on provocation or circumstances. Even if she had been provoked, she could have looked to God for help to respond rightly. That jarred me, because I was too prone to blame my bad reactions on the circumstances that caused them rather than my innate sinfulness. It’s telling that Jekyll blamed Hyde’s wrongdoings on Hyde alone as if he were a separate being rather than actually himself. The first step in gaining any kind of victory over the Hyde in each of us is to recognize and own the fact that he is us.

I don’t know much about Stevenson himself. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia article about him says he grew up in a religious home but declared himself an atheist in his twenties. He recognized just how horrible what the Bible calls our “old man” or “flesh” could become, and seemed to realize that it couldn’t be reigned in just with conscience. I don’t know if he ever knew that we could be completely liberated from its penalty and power only through Christ: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-8:1a).

This is a short book: paperback copies are less than 100 pages, and the audiobook I listened to was only 2 hours and 19 minutes. So for those who might like to read classics but are intimidated by their length, this one might be good to try. Even though I knew the basic story, I gained much by reading the book. I started out listening to an audiobook, but though the narrator was fine in the narrative, he was terrible with the character’s voices, so I switched to the 99 cent Kindle version. I chose it for the horror/Gothic category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I’m not into horror at all and thought I might skip this category until I read Rebekah’s review of this book. I am thankful for both of those influences leading me to read a book that I would have been unlikely to pick up otherwise.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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