Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It’s a breathlessly fast paced story where the protagonist, Dr Jekyll, is dead (sorry, spoilers) halfway through the very short novel, and yet Stevenson manages to sustain the excitement until the big ‘reveal’ at the end. We now know of course that Dr Jekyll is Mr Hyde, but it is still possible to imagine the excitement readers must have experienced on first finding this out, perhaps having worked it out for themselves a few pages earlier.
The novel uses a traditional framing device and a combination of diaries and other documents to provide some distance from the main action. Gabriel Utterson, a lawyer, is told by his cousin about an encounter some months ago, when he witnesses a sinister figure named Edward Hyde and a young girl accidentally bump into one another. Hyde trampled on the girl causing her some undefined harm. In a form of mob justice, Hyde was forced to pay £100 to avoid any scandal. He paid this on the spot fine with a cheque drawn on the account of Dr. Henry Jekyll, an old friend of Utterson. This tale reinforces Utterson’s fear that Jekyll is being blackmailed by Hyde – he has recently drawn his will to make Hyde the sole beneficiary in case of his death or disappearance. Jekyll assures Utterson that there is nothing to worry about. Is there a suggestion that the reason Jekyl tolerates and funds Hyde is due to an ‘unnatural’ sexual relationship between the pair? This would explain the need to pay off witnesses to avoid a scandal, and also fits with the unspecified sins or vices that Jekyll admits to later in the novel when explaining his experiments.
Later, Hyde is implicated when a servant sees him beat a man to death with a heavy cane. Police find half of the cane, which is revealed to be one which Utterson himself gave to Jekyll. There is no trace of Hyde, and for a while Jekyll reverts to his former friendly manner. This cannot last, and soon Jekyll starts refusing to see any visitors. Then a mutual acquaintance of Jekyll and Utterson, Dr Lanyon, dies suddenly of shock. Before his death, Lanyon gives Utterson a letter, with instructions that he should only open it after Jekyll’s death or his disappearance. It soon seems as if that time has come, because in the next chapter Jekyll’s butler, Poole, visits Utterson and explains that Jekyll has locked himself away in his laboratory for several weeks. They break into the laboratory to find the body of Hyde wearing Jekyll’s clothes and apparently dead from suicide.
They also find a letter from Jekyll to Utterson promising to explain the entire mystery. The suicide note and accompanying documents reveal that Lanyon’s death resulted from the shock of seeing Hyde drinking a serum and, as a result of doing so, turning into Dr. Jekyll. The second letter explains that Jekyll, having previously indulged unstated vices found a way to transform himself and thereby indulge his vices without fear of detection. Unable to control the transformations he resolved to cease becoming Hyde, but it is too late – he is ever more helpless and trapped as the transformations increase in frequency and necessitate ever larger doses of the draught to reverse them. Eventually, one of the chemicals from which he had prepared the draught ran low. His ability to change back from Hyde into Jekyll slowly vanished in consequence. He finally realises that he will soon become Hyde permanently.
I class Jekyll and Hyde, along with Dracula and Frankenstein, as the one of the three great horror novels of the 19th century. I appreciate that places me in the mainstream of critical reaction, but for some reason while the latter two works have been recognised as great works of fiction in their own rights, divorced from the industry of ‘inspired by’ films, television adaptation and novels they have generated, Jekyll and Hyde remains largely unread. Which is a pity, because it is genuinely scary. Hyde is a monster largely because he is so un-monstrous. The potion which Dr Jekyll discovers allows him to physically separate the good and evil parts of himself, but the Mr Hyde which emerges feels at first to be something quite positive. Outwardly he appears to be a normal man, although anyone seeing him is struck by his profoundly evil character:
“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but innocent freedom of the soul.”
But this younger, lighter, happier personailty comes with a catch:
“I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”
What I find fascinating about this novel is the way Stevenson brings together in one short story many of the prevailing big themes of the day: that science can unlock dangerous secrets, that people have dual or multiple personalities, and that some of our instincts are animalistic:
Jekyll experiments with splitting himself because he wants to find a way to indulge his appetite for vice with impunity. He releases a beast he cannot control:
“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.”
These vices are not specified, but sexually transmitted diseases, and their debilitating effect on men’s health, were a particular dread of the time. More specifically, the novel lends itself very conveniently to an allegorical reading of the need for homosexual men to live double lives. The Guardian noted in a review of a stage production a few years ago that:
“Even though Stevenson may not have intended leaving them, there are suggestive markers throughout the text: the suspected blackmail of Jekyll by his “young man”, his “favourite”; the “very pretty manner of politeness of Sir Danvers Carew” when approached in the street – terms that may have denoted forbidden liaisons to a Victorian readership. The hidden door by which he enters Jekyll’s house is the “back way”, even “the back passage”. It happens that the year of composition, 1885, was the year in which an amendment to an act of parliament made homosexual acts between men a criminal offence.”
This is a fascinating, chilling and hugely influential book, horror for grown-ups, Stevenson’s best writing for adults.