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


It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Sundial

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958)

SundialSo, I was thinking I would read Life Among the Savages for Shirley Jackson Reading Week, because it’s a humorous book about living with small children (for which a sense of humor certainly comes in handy), and seemed like a fun summer read. But I was sidelined by Jenny’s enthusiasm for The Sundial and decided to read that instead, to start with anyway. Because Jenny’s enthusiasm cannot be easily ignored.

If you decide to follow our lead, just be aware that this is a very strange book. It is funny, sometimes hilariously so, but it’s also disorienting and savage and mystifying. The premise is, to say the least, odd: a megalomaniac matriarch, along with various descendants and hangers-on, have gathered in her walled estate to await the end of the world, of which they expect to be the only survivors. Given that most of the characters detest most of the others, the mind boggles at what will happen when their already-insular social circle is made even smaller. Classic country-house scenes of deliciously venomous dialogue are interspersed with visions and mysterious occurrences that give the whole book the quality of a nightmare from which it is singularly difficult to wake. I kept wondering what it would be like on stage or in a film, though sadly, I don’t think this has a chance of coming to pass.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say — as you have before — that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but — although I am of course not permitted to threaten — all the regrets will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, imperfections erased.”

I wonder if anything has been done about the hedges,” Mrs Halloran said. “Essex, did you speak to the gardeners?”

Is there a point to all of this oddity? By putting her characters in such an extreme situation Jackson makes us meditate on some fundamental questions of life. How do we know what is real, and what is illusion? Are all relationships doomed to ultimately begin and end in selfishness? Faced with the end of everything we know, would we too stock up on canned spaghetti and burn all books except the Boy Scout manual?  These are not comfortable questions, and this is not a comfortable book.

But for sheer startling-out-of-complacency, perspective-shifting weirdness, it’s something of a marvel. After Jackson has relentlessly skewered a materialist’s view of Heaven, what will be left to us in the new world? There’s something to think about.