Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Back in October, as part of the Scottish literature reading challenge, Amateur Reader and Kevin of Interpolations had a series of posts on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a book I had hoped to have read by that time, especially because of my love of The Beach at Falesá and the fact that I’d already been jonesing for more Stevenson. Now I’ve filled in this reading hole and…well let’s not say I was disappointed.

I didn’t like it as much as Falesá. That’s all. It is better, probably “the best thing he ever wrote,” as AR says. And anyway there is lots in it for me.

As Kevin notes, “one of the most important vehicles of action in the story are letters and written documents,” and we know I’m beyond on board with this sort of thing. This is the epistolary tale done, at least for me, super right. The documents that form part of the narrative itself are deeply important to the plot, and there are loads of other documents embedded in the story that create an environment where such papers are generally important. Stevenson is good; this is sophisticated, not superficial, stuff.

And I’d like to take a shot at Kevin’s question about the three sets of three windows, or at least at a very minor part of it. One thing rather noticeable (and unsurprising) in the book is the doubling. There is Jekyll/Hyde, of course. There are two violent crimes committed by Hyde and witnessed. There are two letters Utterson must read to learn of what has gone on. There are two wills made out by Henry Jekyll, in nearly identical language but with different beneficiaries. There are even two envelopes containing the letter from Dr Lanyon, and his language in turn is the twin of (or triplet of, but wait just a minute on that) Jekyll’s.

But back to that first doubling, the titular one. Jekyll, in his letter to Utterson, describes “man’s dual nature,” calls himself a “double-dealer,” discusses “both sides of me” [emphasis mine], later to declare “that man is not truly one, but truly two.” But he immediately qualifies it: “I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyon that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines, and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.”

And when Jekyll describes what happens when Hyde breaks off, it’s clear that there isn’t one of them “good” and the other “evil.” There is one of them “evil” and the other still “multifarious [and] incongruous.” Hyde is pure, but Jekyll retains the same “imperfect and divided countenance” he always had—retains, underneath his respectable exterior, the same illicit desires that seem to help Hyde reassert control without help of the potion, say, when Jekyll has been having a naughty dream.

So even if we take this one facet, and forget about all the other oppositions that go into man’s character, Jekyll is still stuck in the middle, just as he is at the middle window of three. The tale doesn’t double Henry Jekyll; it leaves him just where he is, raising the possibility of two other creatures but only giving us one. (Or, perhaps more precisely, raising the possibility of infinite other creatures, with two of them on this particular axis.)

I need the Have at me! badge for this one; I seem to have made an argument of some kind.

5 comments to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

  • I have something that approaches love for you.

    Don’t be creeped out by this.

    It’s a platonic compliment.

    I’m delighted that you took a stab at this whole window thang, and am particulary happy that your answer doesn’t dawdle with any lazy Freudian tripartide distinctions.

    Sweet!

    Tonight I’ll cheer you with a glass of wine, I will.

    Do you think that Hyde is purity of evil/selfishness incarnate?

    Does he have *any* redeeming qualities?

    My Thursday is off to a fantastic start!

    Cheers,
    Kevin

  • Oh, it’s completely complimentary; thank you! What friendly neighborly blogging…

    Your question about pure evil, I think I want to do another post on. It was something that I think didn’t really work for me and what made me not love the book.

  • All right. I was thinking about writing something about this, but never got it straight. I still don’t have it straight.

    Have you seen VN’s scribbley diagrams in the Lectures? Hyde as a little corner of Jekyll. Nabokov is pushing back against the misconception that Jekyll is “good” and Hyde is “evil,” and he’s right about that – take Hyde as evil, but then Jekyll is a mix, like any of us. Maybe not even very evil, and thus, the diminutive Hyde. As you show, this is all straight from the text. Maybe the movies muddled the issue.

    I completely agree that the existence of the third creature, the all-good being, is then implied. What I didn’t do, because I didn’t think of it in time, is to search the book for traces of angelic Jekyll. That third window may well be one. Jekyll’s “reformed” period, after the murder, might be a good place to look. Or maybe that’s part of the argument, that such a creature can be imagined or exists as part of a syllogism, but can’t exist in reality, while the evil part can. An anti-Calvinist idea, maybe, that there are no “elect.”

    Which side was Jekyll actually trying to isolate or bring into being in his original experiments? I think it is possible to read the book (or perhaps creatively misread it!) with a less cartoonish metaphysics, deflecting that “pure evil” question, even rehabilitating Hyde a bit. But I don’t want to tread on your next post.

  • “Which side was Jekyll actually trying to isolate or bring into being in his original experiments?”

    According to J’s Full Statement of the Case, he’s trying to isolate both, so that one half of his nature can indulge in all sorts of nameless selfish pleasures without any attendant regret, and that the other half could go about its life in a spirit high rectitude. In other words, J wants to supress memory and conscience so he can eat his id and have his ego, too.

    Cheers,
    Kevin

  • Okay, now that I’ve posted, and not really addressed some of your most interesting ideas, I’ll comment as well. I haven’t gotten to the Nabokov lecture—YET—but that box is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking. Leave it to VN to get there before me, ha!

    And neither have I looked for any other bits of Jekyll’s angel. I started thinking about some of this while I was reading, but it took some time to come together after reading Kevin’s post on the windows, but it would be a good thing to look for. And I think the reformed period is the right place to look. But I like the penultimate sentence of your penultimate paragraph. You may really have something there.

    As far as which side Jekyll was trying to isolate…it seems to me he wants to truly split apart all our sides, so each can live on its own without affecting the others. Stop forcing all our multiple personalities to get along; free them all so that “life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin, and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together….” (I also enjoy a sociopolitical reading of this issue.)

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