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Friday
Aug012008

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Some of us have the unfortunate habit of ignoring those works or manifestos which do not concur with our own.  Only too natural, we might say, because life is short and consecrating time to theories we know to be patently false (for whatever reason) is a waste of our dwindling days.  So bereft of imagination or credibility are many of these decrees that more demanding readers, readers whose main aims are beauty, truth, enjoyment and a moral framework for all aspects of life, are infuriated.  If that sounds like a lot to ask for, you might question why you read at all.  Personally, I read to seek out that one moral law that has always existed within me and is reflected by the starry night above me.  I do not find it often; sometimes it only exists in snippets or flashes amidst a garish carnival of platitudes.  In some rather infrequent cases there obtains a concatenation of detail evoking the shadow of that law, however ignored by the text itself, and the result is what the Greeks called irony.  Rarer still are images of purported truth cast in colors and shapes that could not possibly mean anything more than earthbound pleasures – until you look very closely and see that a few of these pleasures (especially affection, physical attraction, laughter, and friendship) are indeed reflections of something much, much greater.  Thus we are bound to examine all information we come across.  In fact, we can and should assume that within the maze of misperception, bias, and fear there lurks a crazed beast whose roar can bring us something of this law.  Modern psychology, a field with which I am very unfortunately well-acquainted from readings, has taken it upon itself to explain all our dreams, nightmares, waking moments and desires through a children’s set of boxes and crayons.  It has tried (and failed gloriously) to make us think we are all puerile players in a nonstop run of a tasteless musical on the Great White Way, singing the same chants and dancing to the same bongo drums.

Now there is nothing wrong with childhood, but there is something terribly wrong with its ignorant revolt against authority.  Curiosity, optimism, the sense of immortality that many children’s circumstances permit them to enjoy – all of this we should never forget; the love of family, of one’s homeland, of the moments and other souls that make us into responsible adults, all of this we should cherish.  When people long for their childhood, it is either because their childhood was very happy or their current life does not contain this sense of immortality, of unending meadows cascading among unending hillocks.  The assumption of another persona to the psychologist indicates a deep-seated urge to escape one’s existence, although every writer of fiction, like every actor, assumes a myriad of guises over a career and can still be (and often is) very content with his “real” self.  To what other vocation does such an apparent paradox belong?  To those persons of deep faith, those who appreciate their earthbound existence but also look forward to redemption in some higher state; loving one does not mean hating the other.  A lengthy but necessary introduction to one of the finest short stories of the English language.

The basic facts are known even to people who have never opened Stevenson’s text: Dr. Henry Jekyll, a scientist of genius and loner by nature, has acquired a nasty and violent friend by the name of Edward Hyde.  That Hyde might be sponsored by Jekyll is the direct suggestion of the narrator, who culls his details from Mr. Utterson, a London lawyer who hears of an awful crime involving a young girl and a payoff to her relatives from very respectable circles (a strange foreshadowing of these legendary crimes).  Since Utterson is in every way an upstanding Victorian citizen as well as a scholar of the law, this crime of moral turpitude cannot go unpunished.  The trail boomerangs back to Jekyll, who happens to be one of Utterson’s clients as well as an old friend, reminding us of the aphorisms about how well we think we know our dearest comrades. One wonders what the first-time reader might have made of the strange comings and goings of Hyde from a building adjacent to that of Jekyll, and from the physical deformity and abhorrent cruelty that distinguish Hyde from his maker:

The lawyer stood awhile when Mr. Hyde had left him, the picture of disquietude.  Then he began slowly to mount the street, pausing every step or two and putting his hand to his brow like a man in mental perplexity.  The problem he was thus debating as he walked was one of a class that is rarely solved.  Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him.  ‘There must be something else,’ said the perplexed gentleman.  ‘There is something more, if I could find a name for it.  God bless me, the man seems hardly human!  Something troglodytic, shall we say?  Or can it be the old story of Dr. Fell?  Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?  The last, I think; for, O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend!’

The story proceeds in magnificent suspense until a pair of fatal decisions are made, and Utterson is left with a letter from Jekyll detailing his descent into hell.  The letter, which I should like to quote in toto, is such a literary delight that we are struck anew by the ability of its author, and of the temptations of evil in the face of knowledge and progress.  It is here that Jekyll becomes Hyde and Hyde turns into Jekyll, that the two persons once thought distinct appear as anagrams of their own weaknesses.  It is also here that Jekyll reveals why he might have wanted such an escape, and his explanation – for a moment, in any case – appears to be as lucid an ancient codex on combating evil as anything else we might have heard, in this case by grasping, literally and figuratively, at its tenebrous strength.

What one shouldn’t conclude, however, is that the titular bicephalous beast somehow metaphorizes an affliction.  Nor should we suppose that the whole project can be reduced to the modern plight of a small percentage of our population with a misunderstanding of their proper persona, in some cases leading them to conduct their business as totally separate people.  Stevenson, like Utterson, was a lawyer not a doctor, and his interest is in the motives of men not some cerebral malfunction.  That evil and goodness should operate within the same immortal soul is our oldest and still our most critical moral quandary; nevertheless, that a man of superior intellect would generate, in his own nightmare, such a lowlife scum as an alias speaks more of his own inner darkness than any shame he might have had in inducing the transformation.  Despite his claims, Dr. Jekyll is not a good man gone wrong: he is a bad man who finds an outlet in his creative work, in time making himself into his own Frankenstein's monster.  For that reason perhaps is man “commingled out of good and evil,” whereas Edward Hyde, “alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.”

Reader Comments (2)

This blog should be required reading for every graduate student who "studies" literature.

Why do we read?

Because we are alone.

My usual response. But I like yours better:

Personally, I read to seek out that one moral law that has always existed within me and is reflected by the starry night above me.

You may try to hide it, but I have discovered the true purpose of your blog--not literary or cinematic criticism, an obvious front, M. Deeb--but an attempt to teach us something of the moral law.

August 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

Much appreciated as always, Steven. The true purpose of this site may indeed be what you propose, provided that each reader were to come to that conclusion on his own, a heartier task than one might imagine. Behold the starry night!

August 2, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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