Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was an incredibly well plotted story which became immensely popular, and implanted itself into the popular psyche.
The story is told mostly from the perspective of a third party, the lawyer Mr Utterson, and concerns his friend the scientist Dr Jekyll and Jekyll’s associate, the misanthropic and widely loathed Mr Hyde. Utterson suspects Hyde of using Jekyll due to a change of will; however when Hyde disappears following a brutal murder Utterson is temporarily satisfied. However Utterson grows increasingly concerned about Jekyll’s erratic behaviour, and after Jekyll becomes a recluse in his room making strange demands in an unfamiliar voice Utterson, along with Jekyll’s butler, break down the doctor’s door, only to find Mr Hyde who is dead from apparent suicide.
The events of the story are later explained through the testimony of a doctor, Lanyon – who witnessed a transformation from Hyde into Jekyll – and, in greater depth through Jekyll. It turns out that Mr Hyde was the result of one of Dr Jekyll’s experiments, and that, upon consuming the ‘transforming draught’ Jekyll became a loathsome character almost the opposite of his usual self. Over time Jekyll found himself transforming into Mr Hyde without taking the draught, and when the drug ran out he became trapped as Hyde. Upon taking the last of the drug Jekyll writes ‘I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end’.
The book is often said to be typical of a certain type of Victorian gothic novel, with suspense playing a key role, and a gruesome aspect prevalent. The role of medical science was also an important theme, as well as the theme of dual personalities, a theme which Stevenson often studied.
The novel was immediately incredibly popular, and stage adaptations occurred in Boston and London within a year of publication. The tale was also used by many as a moral fable, and religious leaders used the story for moralising sermons – altering the tone of the book. It has often been noted that the book has since become popular by those who don’t read novels, largely as it was initially seen as having a moral dimension which the author probably didn’t intend. However the language of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has passed into popular culture and has an enduring popularity for many reasons.
One reason which the tale may still be as popular as ever is the psychological power of the idea of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Many people claim to have a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality, or claim to know others with that personality; it is a powerful psychological idea which many people relate to. According to Dalrymple it allows people who claim to follow such a pattern themselves to be able to say that, though they may do evil, they are intrinsically good. Similarly if they claim that someone they love has a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality it justifies they’re love saying they are ultimately good, even if that is not mirrored in the way they often act.
The psychological attraction of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story is merely one way in which it holds onto the popular imagination. It is also possible to talk of it as being relevant to alcohol, with the ‘transforming draught’ turning an individual from one of virtue to one with all the worst possible characteristics. It is worth looking at the following passage when Jekyll describes first taking the transforming draught, seeming to replicate the sensation of being drunk for the very first time:
‘…I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked…’
It is certainly worth noting the Stevenson is alleged to have written much of the book under the influence of cocaine, and he was not one averse to transforming his own mental state.
Another way in which the book could be tackling themes which people can still relate to, is the fact that the book could well be seen to tackle the changes which occur with age. Stevenson often talked of the profound changes which come with age. Was Jekyll having a midlife crisis, and was therefore reaching out to the more reckless side of his personality?
In conclusion there are many reasons why this book has the enduring popularity which it does. Not least among these reasons is the fact that it is still a very good read.
- Cooper, N., Reed, Thomas L., Jr. the Transforming Draught: Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Victorian Alcohol Debate, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, Volume: 50. Issue: 3, 2007, p365+
- Dalrymple, T., Mr. Hyde & the Epidemiology of Evil, New Criterion, September 2004, p24+
- Mills, K., The Stain on the Mirror: Pauline Reflections in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Christianity and Literature, Volume: 53. Issue: 3, 2004, p337+
- Stevenson, R. L., The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Puffin Books, 1985
- Stiles, A., Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and the Double Brain, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Volume: 46. Issue: 4, 2006, p879+