If what divides “popular fiction” from “great literature” is that the latter stands the test of time, it’s safe to say that Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s place as a literary giant is pretty safely secured. This week, December 4, commemorates the 120th anniversary of Stevenson’s death. Stevenson, who died at the young age of 44 in 1894 is remembered for a number of novels, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is the last of these that Jackson Presbyterian Examiner will take a deeper look into.
At a brief 70 pages and 10 chapters, Jekyll and Hyde is a quick read. The novel opens up with two men, Utterson and Einfeld, walking through London, discussing a recent incident that numerous people in the neighborhood witnessed. A small girl and a peculiar, dwarfish man rounded a corner at the same time, but instead of stopping or stepping aside to avoid colliding with the girl, the man proceeded to brutally trample the girl. It is revealed that this callous man is named Edward Hyde. This sets Utterson ill at ease because he is the lawyer for a reputable doctor, Henry Jekyll, and in his will, Jekyll has recently made this same Hyde his sole heir.
The will’s wording itself is disquieting to Utterson, as it states that Hyde inherits Jekyll’s estate in the event of Jekyll’s “disappearance or unexplained absence exceeding three calendar months”. As Utterson hears more about Hyde around town—all of it bad impressions—he feels certain that the only reason Jekyll would make Hyde his heir, and make such an odd stipulation about “disappearance” is that Hyde must be blackmailing Jekyll, forcing his way into the will with sinister intentions.
Several months later, a respected elderly citizen Danvers Carew is murdered—beaten to death with a cane. Numerous people witness the murder, and there is no doubt that the perpetrator is Edward Hyde. This is the last straw for Utterson, who again confronts Jekyll about the will. “I swear to God I will never set eyes on him again,” Jekyll reassures Utterson, making it plain his association with Hyde is over.
Even with Hyde out of the picture, Utterson continues to be concerned for Jekyll who has increasingly become a recluse, locking himself up in his lab for days at a time, admitting no visitors. Soon afterwards, Lanyon, a mutual friend of Utterson’s and Jekyll’s, passes away, but not before sending to Utterson a letter with a strange inscription: “Not to be opened until the death or disappearance of Henry Jekyll”. There’s that word again, “disappearance”, the word in Jekyll’s will that had so unnerved him.
Weeks later, Jekyll’s butler, Poole, pleads with Utterson to return home with him, explaining that he fears foul play has been done against his master. For the past week, Jekyll hasn’t been seen coming or going from his lab. Poole has been getting notes from the lab to go into the city to retrieve ingredients for a certain drug, but each time the ingredients are purchased, he gets more notes from the lab to try again, explaining that the elements are not pure enough to be used. Befuddled as to what concoction the doctor so desperately needs, Poole scours every chemist shop in town, but always with the same result—a complaint about impurities.
Though Jekyll hasn’t been seen for days, the lab is occupied, and the voice that is coming from it appears to be—and this makes Poole shudder—the voice of Hyde. Utterson and Poole fear Hyde has apparently come back and killed Jekyll, but what would cause him to stick around in the lab is what puzzles both men. Finally, they break down the door, and soon discover the body of Hyde, who has just died from a self-inflicted wound. There’s no trace of Jekyll, so Utterson assumes Hyde has hidden his body or that, on the slim chance he’s still alive, Jekyll has fled.
In the lab, Utterson finds a note in Jekyll’s handwriting with the day’s date on it addressed to him—a fact that at least appears to prove Jekyll was alive earlier in the day. Before calling the police, Utterson tells Poole he will take time to read Lanyon’s still unopened letter, as well as this note from Jekyll. Lanyon’s letter explains how one night he witnessed Edward Hyde drink a concoction from Jekyll’s lab and, after doing so, he morphed into Henry Jekyll himself!
What we can learn from the novel
Jekyll’s letter, which constitutes the last chapter of the book, explains the mystery once and for all and is a profound glimpse into human psychology. The book is well worth reading if, for no other reason, this chapter alone—“Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case”. Jekyll begins his letter by explaining how, ever since he was a young man, he detected a certain duality in his nature—a longing to do good, and an appetite to do evil. He was conflicted; his good side hated his bad side, and vice versa. He said, “Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” Reminds one of how Paul described himself in Romans 7.
Jekyll became convinced that he could segregate the good and evil within himself: “If each… could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the remorse and aspirations 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.”
This is Jekyll’s first error. Rather than wanting to put to death the evil in himself, he merely wanted to compartmentalize it, not realizing what his evil side, if not kept in check by his good side, was capable of. Jekyll goes onto invent a potion that makes possible the division between his good self and evil self, but the focus of the novel—unlike some of the movie versions—is certainly not on the potion. The focus is on Jekyll’s own secret, inherent bent toward evil. The potion doesn’t make Jekyll into anything he isn’t already; it merely unleashes what’s already inside.
Jekyll’s evil self, Hyde, is a small, dwarfish man, younger than himself (Jekyll theorizes that Hyde was smaller and younger because his evil self had hitherto been suppressed and not been given a chance to develop). It’s safe to assume that the name itself, Hyde, is significant, as he embodies the side of Henry Jekyll he feels most compelled to “hide” from the outside world. Whoever Hyde meets is filled with unexplainable disgust at his presence. Jekyll knows why: “All human beings, as we meet them, are comingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.”
The experiment was a failure; the compartmentalization didn’t work. Though Hyde is pure evil, Jekyll is not pure goodness; he is still the same old conflicted mix of both good and evil. To cover his tracks, Jekyll rented a room for Hyde, opened a bank account in his name, and explained to his household servants that Hyde was to be allowed to freely come and go through the house. Hyde was even made Jekyll’s sole heir. At first, Jekyll delights in having his alter ego. Through Hyde, he can live out his fantasies of doing whatever he pleases, with no consequences, seeing as how he has but to drink the potion to make Hyde disappear. No accountability for Hyde’s actions!
In time, Jekyll is conscience stricken at the depravity that Hyde indulges in. He resolves to never take the potion again. Then, Jekyll is shocked to discover one night that, although he went to bed as himself, he inexplicably woke up the next morning as Hyde! Because Jekyll has been “nourishing” his evil side so much as of late, it has grown stronger (Jekyll notices Hyde is getting taller) and is pressing to be released, even without aid of the potion. Jekyll has to start taking double and triple doses to return back to his normal self, as the Hyde part of himself is getting harder and harder to suppress. Christians will certainly see something they can glean here: when we feed our sinful desires, they only grow more and more. We can’t “dabble” in disobedience and expect to avoid consequences. The only safe road is to kill sin at the root.
Jekyll still thinks he has the situation under control at first. When Utterson presses Jekyll for some explanation about his will early in the book, Jekyll assures Utterson, “The moment I choose, I can be ride of Mr. Hyde.” Reminds one of an alcoholic who underestimates his dependence on alcohol who tells himself and others that he can stop whenever he chooses to. In a moment of weakness, Jekyll caves in and drinks the potion. That night, as Hyde, he goes out and murders Danvers Carew.
Henceforth, Jekyll knows he can no longer ever become Hyde, seeing as how he’s wanted for murder. Even realizing this, Jekyll decides to continue renting Hyde’s old house and to keep Hyde’s old clothes. Isn’t that just how we sinners behave? We repent of a sin, and yet in the back of our minds retain some connection to it, some bridge leading to it, reminding ourselves that if we want to indulge in the future, the door is still technically open. This was Jekyll’s error, and it’s the error of everyone with a sin nature.
To “compensate” for the evil he’s done, Jekyll outdoes himself devoting time and energy to philanthropic causes. While sitting on a park bench, feeling very self-satisfied, Jekyll reflects on all the good he’s been doing and how, all things considered, he’s better than most of his neighbors. During this moment of self-conceit, he starts to feel the pangs of change come upon him; a moment later, he has, against his will, turned back into Hyde. As C.S. Lewis said, “Whenever we feel that our religious life is making us feel that we are good, above all, that we are better than someone else, we may be sure we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil.”
Jekyll resorted to being a recluse for fear that, if he ever were in the light of day, he could unwillingly turn back to Hyde and would be immediately arrested. Unable to get the chemicals he needs for more potion, Jekyll realizes he’s about to succumb to being Hyde forever, with no chance of turning back to his other self, prompting him to write his confession so at least Utterson will know the mystery.
Stevenson effectively uses foreshadowing. The first page of the novel describes Utterson’s morally indifferent personality. Utterson says, “I incline to Cain’s heresy. I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.” The narrator then says, “It was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of downgoing men.” This surely proves to be the case in his relationship with Jekyll.
Stevenson’s book is not an allegory, but the truths Christians can glean from it and apply to the spiritual life are numerous, making it a more “edifying” read than one might expect to get from a 19th century horror novel. Jekyll is portrayed so as to make readers sympathize with him. He is a villain, but a tragic one. As he says of himself, “If I am the chief of sinners, I am also the chief of sufferers.” What’s so horrifying about Stevenson’s tale is that the evil he portrays is not external, something out there, as in books such as Frankenstein or Dracula. The evil is inside the human heart. If the book has a “moral”, it is that all of us have a Hyde inside of us, waiting to get out.