Back to the Classics: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

I’m not a horror fan, so I’ve never made an effort to read the classics of the genre — but for one reason or another, in the last few years I’ve read Frankenstein, Dracula, and now this brief but hugely influential tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

With all three of these books, it is hard to come at them with an unspoiled mind because the basic facts of the story are usually well known. In this case, the dual identity of Dr Jekyll can hardly be news to anyone. But the reading of these stories usually holds other surprises, as the author’s particular method of storytelling is not held sacred in retellings or dramatizations, perhaps for good reason.

Here, most of the novella is concerned with characters who observe Jekyll and Hyde but are unable to put the two together. However, since any suspense meant to be caused thereby is no longer effective, it’s with some impatience that we wait to hear from Jekyll himself — which comes only at the end, after the fact, as it were. The oddly distant, third-hand point of view is not the most obvious way of creating a tense and thrilling tale. But perhaps there was some hesitancy about approaching this subject that caused Stevenson to put it at arm’s length.

As with Victor Frankenstein’s creature and the undead Count Dracula, Stevenson has created an image of the Double, the dark shadowy figure that lurks in our unconscious and that plays out our inadmissible desires. While Frankenstein is haunted by the product of his overly intellectual thinking, and Dracula embodies the evil bloodlust of egoistic feeling, Jekyll shows the dangers of splitting off a part of the will. Wanting to be an outwardly good and upright person, but still to indulge the drives (never explicitly spelled out) of his worse nature, he “precipitates out” that part of himself into the horrible Hyde. But his ability to control the transformation is limited, and becomes more precarious until the final tragic outcome.

All three of these works are powerful and compelling expressions of a psychological problem that has great relevance for our time — the encounter with the evil that lurks in each one of us, an unsolved riddle which calls up fantastical images as we try to understand and master it. Each author has created something that transcends the work it came from and has taken on a life of its own. But it is still always interesting and worthwhile to go back to the origin and experience its particular qualities.

Stevenson wrote the book after a disturbing dream, and it can resonate with some of our own nightmare experiences. The spiral of addiction, of being unable to come to oneself while in the grip of some overmastering drive, is imaged in Jekyll’s downfall, for example. To this dilemma Stevenson offers no answer, no viable solution, except perhaps that as readers we can observe this sad fate and try to learn something from it ourselves.

It’s notable that it’s when Jekyll has renounced the draft that transforms him into Hyde because of its dangers, but yet is unable to resist indulging in the vices of his dark side, that he starts transforming uncontrollably and unpredictably. How do we truly become masters of ourselves and all our parts and possibilities? Why are evil habits and compulsions so strong, even for fundamentally good people? The tale feels unfinished, and raises many questions. But it’s up to us try to answer them.

Back to the Classics: Name in the Title


12 thoughts on “Back to the Classics: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

  1. A fine and fair review, Lory, with many points that struck me too, particularly that the source text is rarely presented in a way that respects the author’s narrative in its entirety. Oddly, I’ve read it three times over many decades and each time the story has somehow morphed as I’ve picked up details I hadn’t noticed before.


    1. I think that’s what keeps us coming back to the classics — there is something that continues to speak to us, unfolding over time. A magical and mysterious process.


  2. What a great review! I will be adding this to my own challenge, I think. I didn’t know that he wrote it after a disturbing dream and the fact that it resonated with you on that front is so telling as far his ability to bring strange dreams to life. So cool.


    1. I think for the Victorians this book was perhaps more disturbing than it comes across today. The dark side of human nature is a very familiar phenomenon to us now and, sadly, we’ve seen too many examples of “Jekyll and Hyde” behavior to find it very surprising. Still, Stevenson’s work retains its fascination.


    1. This one is a quickie — you can read it in no time. Dracula is much more of an undertaking,especially once Van Helsing takes over. However, I am glad I finally read it — and I highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay as a complement.


  3. I also found that knowing from the outset the secret of Jekyll/Hyde removed almost all the suspense from the story. The fact, however, that by the end Jekyll changes without the potion it a great point and one I missed I am sure when I read it. it makes me think that maybe the potion was never needed in the first place…Jekyll just let himself believe that it did. It’s like that old Star Trek Episode of Mudd’s Women when the drug they think makes them beautiful turns out to be a placebo , they had the power in themselves all along.


    1. If I remember correctly, he starts changing into Hyde without the potion and needs it to change back…Hyde is becoming the “default” as it were. Anyway, yes, I think it suggests that the potion can be seen as a catalyst or focus for some reality in himself. In a way it’s an excuse for him to indulge certain tendencies, which then get out of control. There is much to explore, psychologically.


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