The title of this book varies from one edition to another. Sometimes it is published with a “The” at the beginning. Sometimes “Strange Case of” is omitted. Sometimes it is even given simply as Jekyll & Hyde. It’s not as though the printer needs to save ink; it’s a very short book, a novella really. There are even more versions of Stevenson’s story than variants of its title. Next to A Christmas Carol, it has probably seen more adaptations for stage and film than any other work of English literature, including parodies and re-imaginings that (ha, ha) transform the original story almost out of recognition. I have seen and read several of these re-tellings, which share little in common except the essential concept of a man who, by taking a potion, transforms himself into another person—in most versions, an identity compounded of all the dark, evil parts of himself. And of course, the trouble that bad Mr. (or Ms.) Hyde gets into, always complicates things for Dr. Jekyll as well.
What I never realized until now, on finally reading the story as Stevenson wrote it, is how different his novella is from any and all of the dramatizations, abridgements, contextualizations, and “for dummies” versions on the market. The popular idea of what this story is about is also quite out of order. It isn’t about split personalities or “dissociative identity disorder.” It is about a man’s struggle with the conflicting powers of good and evil within his one personality, and the tragedy that takes place when he experiments with a drug to separate the two. It is a story about the course of a life-destroying addiction, together with a man’s losing struggle against moral corruption, guilt, and the terror of justice. It is a true tale of horror. It resembles nightmares I have had and—assuming that I’m not alone in this—explores something that troubles many people with a well-developed moral conscience and an understanding of the evil nature within each of us. And it does this in a story that combines shock, suspense, mystery, and a really chilling final confession, as only a master writer can. Here is a sample of the story you thought you knew, in case you’ve never read it:
This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life.
When I started reading this story, I thought the quote I was going to drop into my review was going to be, “‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.’” At first it doesn’t seem to take the Jekyll/Hyde mythology as seriously as it ought to, judging from more recent redactions. Pretending that we don’t know what the story hasn’t openly revealed to us (though we do know, we do), we don’t find out what’s up with Jekyll and Hyde until almost the end of the story. We come at the truth slowly, through the investigations of a lawyer friend of Henry Jekyll’s, named Gabriel Utterson.
Lawyer Utterson knows something fishy is going on between the good doctor and his bad protege. He worries that, by making his will in favor of the violent and amoral Edward Hyde, Jekyll puts himself in harm’s way. But Jekyll tells him not to worry. Then Hyde is seen committing a notorious murder, and worrying is back on the menu. But the mystery only grows more perplexing as Hyde disappears and as Jekyll, after a season of unusually sociable behavior, suddenly goes into strict seclusion. A mutual friend of Jekyll and Utterson’s, a physician named Lanyon, suddenly suffers a physical and mental breakdown and dies within weeks, leaving Utterson a sealed letter to be read only on the death or disappearance of Jekyll. The crisis finally comes when Jekyll’s servants appeal to the lawyer for help, suspecting that Hyde has done away with Jekyll. They break down the door of the chemist’s laboratory and make the kind of ghastly discovery that can only be understood after reading the last testament of both Lanyon and Jekyll. And the chill deepens the farther you read, all the way down to the bone.
This isn’t about a man innocently, accidentally, and (at first) uncontrollably being split into two persons, one good and the other evil, and then having trouble keeping his double life from being detected. It is, rather, about a man who struggles with the spiritual duality within himself. He thinks he can create two persons out of one, and separate the bad from the good; but when he tries it, he discovers that he was wrong. The Jekyll part of him remains as he was before, with both the good and bad held in constant tension; the Hyde side, however, is deformed, stunted, and purely evil. Because of this imbalance in favor of evil, and the weakness of Jekyll’s human nature, and the wicked abandon of Hyde, and the decreasing effectiveness of the drug, all working together, what starts as a weird experiment quickly becomes an addiction. And while Jekyll increasingly loses control, Hyde has become a hunted man, doomed to the gallows if captured.
Any civilized and decent person must be able to imagine and sympathize with the horror a man feels as he sees himself becoming a monster, and knows that his identity will soon be lost. The top horror fetishes of the moment—zombies, vampires, and werewolves—can also be understood in the light of losing yourself and becoming something monstrous. But Dr. Jekyll’s situation is, if anything, even more cruel: he has, at least to start with, the ability to come back to himself at will. But through his own weakness, errors, and the biochemistry of addiction, he lives through the agony of losing that saving grace, bit by tiny bit. And all the while, he knows that he brought it on himself by choice; nothing bit him or scratched him to make him this way. This is what he chose, rather than having to struggle between his high aspirations and his low appetites. It’s an instructive horror, then, for the rest of us who sometimes feel discouraged as we fight our own inner demons. But it’s also a horrible horror, and no mistake. I, for one, will have something new to pray about tonight, after finishing this book. I might as well pray anyway, since I’ll be lying awake!