Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (revisited)

This is my second re-read of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson this year. This time I'm reading it for the Dueling Monsters Read-a-Long. Heather at Age 30+...A Lifetime of Books is pitting her favorite Jekyll/Hyde up against Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde's classic story. Just like Jill at Fizzy Thoughts (who champions Dorian), Heather has posted a list of questions for participants to think about during this read along. And, again, I'm not going to try to tackle them all. Here's a few thoughts.

Dr. Jekyll strikes me a sympathetic character. He has decided that man is truly made up of two natures: the good and the evil. And he is interested in discovering whether there is a way to separate the two natures so that the evil nature will not be hampered by the regrets and conscience of the good and the good will not have to endure the evil thoughts and actions that his other nature is tempted to engage in. While Jekyll does seem to embrace his "adventures" as Hyde rather too enthusiastically at first, he does have the redeeming quality of truly trying to put an end to Hyde on various occasions. It is hard to say whether the fact that he is not successful is due more to the weakened nature of the good/composite Jekyll or the hold that the drug now has over him. It is easy to see Jekyll as the scientist whose experiment has gotten the better of him.

The implication that Man Cannot Always Be Good has been posited. "No matter how hard Dr. Jekyll tries to live a good, upstanding, sober life, he cant' resist the temptation of transforming into Mr. Hyde. Is this true of mankind? Can we never build a good society?" Given the state of the world today...it would certainly seem so. Of course, given examples of such people as Mother Teresa and Gandhi and the many philanthropists that do so much good for so man, it is obvious that the triumph of the good nature over the evil inclinations is possible. I think more than anything, it comes down to pure selfishness--an addiction to self & self-pleasure, if you will. Whether it's on a personal (one-on-one) level...This person is bothering me/keeping me from what's due me/has more than me...therefore I need to eliminate him/make him look bad/take what he has. Or on a more wide-spread level...Sure my company does things that pollute the environment/cheats others/makes my employees work way too hard for way too little, but I've got to get ahead; I've got to make MY living. It's all about self and doing whatever it takes (no matter how bad) to please self. The temptation to become Hyde that Jekyll faces is presented as an addiction. First, it gives him a vicarious thrill to become his evil self. He tells Utterson, that "the moment [he chooses, he] can be rid of Mr. Hyde." This echoes the drunkard or drug addict who believe that they can give it up any time they want. Finally, it takes more and more of the drug to return Jekyll to himself...ending with the drug not working at all.

This story is, of course, the ultimate morality play. It tells us all too well that if we are not very careful, then evil can overtake us. Once started down the road, lesser sins soon lead to bigger until finally it becomes near impossible to turn back and become what we once were. It is particularly difficult for those with addictive personalities--one looks for bigger and better thrills and that is part of what leads one further down the road.

It is interesting to think about the fact that there are no major female characters in this story. Does the story suffer from this lack? I'm not sure that it does. Nearly every movie that has been based on this story HAS had a female character (sometimes two--one "good," proper lady interested in Dr. Jekyll and one fallen/loose woman for Hyde to torment). It seems that it is necessary to use Hyde's behavior towards women as a way to truly show his evil character to viewers. It has been suggested (in the annotated version of the novel which I have just completed) that the story is too cerebral and the only way viewers would truly "get" the difference between Jekyll and Hyde is in how they treat women and behave sexually towards them. Jekyll is good (which seems, in film, to mean repressed), while Hyde is evil (licentious). I see nothing wrong with the "cerebral" story. I think Stevenson perfectly presents his case for the good in man to curb his evil nature.

As far as Stevenson's other works go: I've never read Treasure Island, although I have seen filmed versions, and most of my experience with him beyond Jekyll/Hyde is with his short stories. He has written some marvelous ones including "Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts" and the "Adventure of the Hansom Cab." For more on these, please click here. Jekyll/Hyde is one of my favorite stories by Stevenson. I love the atmosphere and the time period. I love his powers of description, although I think he does better in some of his short stories. But the description of Jekyll's last few days and hours...how he tried very hard to get his old self back and vanquish the evil Mr. Hyde was quite effective. It showed exactly how difficult it is sometimes for our better nature to win out.

Coming soon: Jekyll/Hyde vs. Dorian Gray. Who do I think is the bigger baddie? (For that matter, who do you think is the bigger baddie?)

[FYI: The annotated version that I read for this is The Essential Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: The Definitive Annotated Edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Classic Novel.]

Stevenson's story earns four out of five stars.

3 comments:

Heather J. said...

I had to skim your review b/c I'm not finished the book yet, but I promise to read it thoroughly very soon!

ruthhill74 said...

I say that Dorian Gray is the bad one. Dr. Jekyl doesn't always seem to be able to control when he becomes Mr. Hyde. And it is all a science experiment--a dangerous one, but science no less. Dorian Gray makes a conscious choice to do all the horrible things he does. He looks at the picture, and he compares it to how good he looks. Since only the picture changes, he figures things aren't too bad. He can get away with anything. He didn't have to do what he did! Nothing was compelling him!

Heather J. said...

Ok, I am finally back to really read your review. You make a good point about the lack of female characters - I hadn't even thought of that. I don't think the book suffers by their exclusion though, but I can see why a movie version might want women in it (can you really imagine an all male movie? It would certainly be different ...). I'm jealous that you have annotated version of this book - I'm sure I'd really enjoy that one!

Thanks for participating in Dueling Monster - I'm off to check out your other posts now.