Friday, January 29, 2016

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

Old Chelsea, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Stevenson was concerned that Zola's pronouncement "I insist upon the fall of the imagination" reduced fiction to a transcript of life. He thought the writer should "half-close his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality". Stevenson was wrong, but Zola overstated the case: his great works are triumphs of the imagination. Anyway, Stevenson could only be the writer he is. His best book is possibly In the South Seas, which is the most open-eyed. But half-closure did lead him to such incomparable things - in their way - as Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, an amazingly prescient parable. I don't know if it influenced Freud directly, but it certainly looks that way.

Jekyll insists on distinguishing his own identity from Hyde's, but under stress before Lanyon, this breaks down to some extent; Jekyll's medical "we" comes through Hyde's voice. Hyde's taunting speech to Lanyon expresses Jekyll's scientific triumph over Lanyon. Perhaps what happens in the parable, i.e. the increasing ineffectiveness of the chemical switch, amounts to Jekyll's recognition that in the end it's too much of a strain to keep up the pretence of Jekyll and Hyde being two distinct persons.

It's a world in which all the normal characters are slightly imperfect: sly (Jekyll), theatrical (Lanyon), dusty (Utterson), an idle socialite (Enfield) etc.

Utterson likes to think of Jekyll, Lanyon and himself as three old friends, but Lanyon has evidently long disliked Jekyll.

The battering down of the door compares to the body jumping in the road under Hyde's blows. Though Poole and Utterson don't know it, their own riotous act is killing Hyde (i.e. the certainty of discovery makes him take the poison).

The book's weather, fog, wine and leaping cockroaches suggest a London heavy with psychic tension seeking relief.

Hyde is of small stature. Jekyll has some rationalizing ideas about that, but we can look deeper into it:

Accounts of Hyde are beautifully varied depending on the implied consciousness of the observer. Lanyon's medical narrative is amusingly distinct - Poole's sentimental but sometimes powerful conceptions are very well worked out too. It's the maid who, we suppose, reports seeing Hyde belabour the old gentleman "with ape-like fury"; Poole speaks of "that masked thing like a monkey"; Jekyll himself of "the ape-like tricks that he would play me". This line of analogy might arise from a culture digesting Darwin. What is unspoken is that Hyde's small stature is also child-like. He has a fierce love of life, he is conscienceless but, accordingly, completely frank in his passions ("'Have you got it?' he cried. 'Have you got it?'"), he can be timid (the meeting with Utterson), he weeps. It is not only Jekyll who can feel, along with all the revulsion, a sense of pity for someone so unformed. And after all, Hyde is like a child in another respect: prior to Jekyll's draught, he has no former existence and no history.

Jekyll's analysis is not quite to be trusted. It's he who defines Hyde as all evil, other people as a mixture of good and evil;  comfortably assuming that in his own case the proportions are about 90 to 10. But the nature of his good, except as a way of repressing his evil, is not given concrete form. Perhaps one way of reading the parable is as disputing, not only his assessment of the proportions, but the adequacy of these terms good and evil.  


Kipling's bogey-tale "The Mark of the Beast" (1890) owes something to Jekyll and Hyde. Fleete's metamorphosis into a wolf-man, obviously, but it was particularly that beating down of the door by the righteous that stayed with Kipling: the horror that most excited him was the sober necessity, by the righteous, of tortures not to be printed (involving red-hot shotgun barrels), and the different "give" of leprous skin under your boot.

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At 10:45 am, Blogger Vincent said...

Excellent review & enjoyable read. I haven't read In the South Seas but wonder if you have read The Amateur Emigrant? You don't get much more open-eyed than his account of a trip to the States as a young man among "the steerage class" and across to San Francisco by train. (His was a return trip - he went at the invitation of a young woman Fanny Osbourne as the blurb tells us). He observes the poor emigrants and how they are received by their reluctant hosts. It's an eye-opener for the reader too. We get to see how America got to be the way it is today. All the elements he notes are still there. Perhaps time has rubbed off some of their sharpest corners, but the lineaments are still recognizable.

At 11:56 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

No, that's true, I haven't read The Amateur Emigrant ... I had heard something about it being good ... I will certainly look out for it now!


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