The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Recommendation: I mean, it’s a classic

Where to read: After watching a live recitation of the darn thing, apparently

Read with: Smooth Amber “Contradiction” Bourbon

In brief: This was both much shorter than I was expecting, and very much not what I was expecting. Like so many texts of the time, it has been reinterpreted and the characters put into so many other contexts it is actually something of a surprise to return to the original.

I was a huge fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s delightful Treasure Island as a child but was prompted to read this after watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s excellent adaption. Being a Kit Williams script, the play actually contains whole chunks of the original text so reading the actual novella was something of an exercise in repetition.

Suffice to say that Jekyll & Hyde is no Treasure Island – there is a complete lack of pirates for one thing. It is also not much of an adventure. Set entirely in a claustrophobic, polluted, foggy London, Jekyll & Hyde is a landmark of the Gothic horror genre. It also sits alongside texts like Dracula, Frankenstein, Portrait of Dorian Grey and The Invisible Man, all of which introduced iconic characters and have had marked cultural impact. Of course, many later treatments of the text have deviated wildly from the original material, so much so that I actually was not sure what to expect actually reading it.

The hero of the story is a lawyer by the name of Mr Utterson, a school-fellow and close friend of the titular Dr Jekyll. Dr Jekyll is the heir to a reputable and wealthy family and is widely admired in London society. Utterson becomes aware, however, of his troubling association with one Mr Hyde, a violent psychopath and eventually a murderer. Dr Jekyll’s strange behaviour eventually leads Utterson to discover the dreadful truth – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were one and the same, the latter a chemically induced expression of all of Dr Jekyll’s darker impulses.

The idea of the good man and the violent beast inside has become something of a trope (Hulk, anyone) but this misses an essential element of the novel. The point is not that Dr Jekyll is good and Mr Hyde is bad, but that Dr Jekyll has impulses to both good and evil. Mr Hyde is the manifestation of that inner evil but if, or so the story implies, he had been more influenced by his nobler side the first time he tried the concoction, the transformation would instead have brought forth a pure expression of all of Dr Jekyll’s best qualities. Also interesting is the idea of inner corruption being made physically manifest. Hyde is both younger, shorter and more twisted than Jekyll, a beastly sort of man who visibly repels those who look at him. This is a theme for Stevenson’s contemporaries, most notably Oscar Wilde in The Portrait of Dorian Grey (also a recent Kip Williams adaption at STC).

Jekyll & Hyde is also more a novella than a novel, more thought experiment than actual narrative. Contrary to my expectations, it is a very quick read and one that is well worth the (limited) time required. Also an excellent reminder that sometimes one needs to return to the source material.

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