Late last night I finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as part of my RIP 2013. I had read the abridged children’s version long back and I was very curious to come back and read this classic which had spawned more than 125 adaption in stage and films alone and has become a part of our everyday conversation when referring to people with hypocritical characters traits or with dual personality, medical or otherwise.
Wikipedia, (my ever trusted resource and where would I be without thee!) tells me that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 and may have been inspired by a dream as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifelong interest in the good and bad side of a man’s character that coexisted with each other.
I don’t think there are many out there who are not aware of this plotline. Nevertheless, here goes a brief synopsis – The tale is narrated from the point of view of Mr. Gabriel John Utterson, a well-established lawyer and a generous gentleman. It begins with Mr. Utterson being unease with a will which he had drawn up for his friend and well-known physician Dr. Jekyll and pertained to the half million sterling legacy which would go an Edward Hyde, after the latter’s death or disappearance. Mr. Utterson is in total distrust of Edward Hyde and believes that Dr. Jekyll is in the grasp of some vile plot which has forced him to name Edward Hyde as his successor and fears that Edward Hyde may actually murder Dr. Jekyll to get his hands on the wealth. He is aware of the loathsome nature of Mr. Hyde which is further blackened when his kin Sir Richard Enfield shares with him the story of Edward Hyde trampling a child. Mr. Utterson tries to argue with Dr. Jekyll and tries to make him change his mind about his will but it of no use. He even solicits the help of another friend Dr. Hastie Lanyon with whom Dr. Henry Jekyll has parted ways on reasons of scientific disagreement. Things take a turn for worse, when Edward Hyde is charged with the murder of an harmless and well respected Member of Parliament Sir Danvers Carew. Sir Danvers was also Mr. Utterson’s client and to ensure that he does not compromise one client over the other, he visits Dr. Jekyll to understand if the latter has been hiding his prodigy. Dr. Jekyll vehemently denies the same and promises Mr. Utterson that he is through with Edward Hyde and he shall never see the man again. Things begin to look up as Edward Hyde is no longer heard off and Dr. Jekyll once more begins interacting with society and doing good among the unfortunate and taking up his old friendship with Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Utterson. However things come to a sudden halt as suddenly Dr. Jekyll becomes a recluse again and Dr. Lanyon suddenly dies claiming to Mr.Utterson that he never wishes to talk of Dr. Jekyll again. Mr. Utterson then sets off on a quest to save his last friend and find the truth about Edward Hyde with startling results.
What can I say about this book that has not been said before? To begin with, I am sure you have read books which are like roller coaster rides – you rush through one page after the other with such intensity that when you reach the end, it leaves you grasping for breath. This is one of those books – its only 92 pages but it’s a tour de force. You do not read this book leisurely and it does not leave you feeling complacent. It’s something you sit down and read and then get up and go for a walk or a run or something, because its gets your adrenalin pumping. In my case because I read it far into the night I could not go for a run – the night watchman might have called the doctor or the police or both to see the crazy girl from flat #805 run around the apartment block at 3:00 am, as it is, he thinks I am a freak. Anyway, I went and cooked enough food for next two days and finally slept at 6:00 am in the morning!
Enough about the physical impact of the book – let’s talk about the book instead! It’s written in a direct and no frills voice. The descriptions are minimal and the author does not waste words in describing the house, garden or the table patterns. He gets right to the story and starts his narration with very little prelude. There is ample time spent however in building the characters and though he uses very limited words to describe a character, their actions define them infinitely better – showing once again what a good author can do without being verbose. There is a lot of action in this book; however, there is no description of anything gruesome or vulgar. It’s only through words and atmosphere that the author manages to convey the feeling of depravity and terror in the presence of Mr. Hyde. The author therefore uses a description of the weather and the fog as a constant companion to the action; but I cannot help but think that it is both an effort by Stevenson to create an eerie atmosphere as well a metaphor for clouding of a good man’s thought which prevents him from seeing the whole truth.
Metaphor in fact seems to be the very corner-stone of this tale. One could state that novella was an attempted Victorian morality tale. I am not sure what was Robert Louis Stevenson’s motivation in writing this piece and I am sure it was much more than a simplistic understanding of good and evil. The story talks about the duplicate nature of Victorian society, where behind the veil of gentlemanly conduct, there lurked many depravities of character. There is the concept of how both the good and bad exist within a man and too much pressure on bringing out the good may lead to violent eruption of the bad side. It’s also a can be seen as a cautionary tale of development of science – 1880s saw a number of scientific advancement and the tale could have been a question on how too much scientific interference in man’s constitution may alter it – something far-seeing considering we see the side effects of many medications our character everyday now .
The story is far seeing in many ways and there are multiple layers through which one can interpret this tale. Ultimately it’s a very very good read and I now understand why this work has been adapted more than 125 times.