Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" by Robert Lewis Stevenson

This year is beginning much like last year; I've promised myself to read some of the classics that I've somehow missed, depsite being a total book nut and a bona fide English Lit major. Yep, I have the B.A. from Indiana University to prove it! Anyway, I only made it through a few titles last year, then my summer sort of took over my life (more on that later), and I was lucky to read much at all.

I'm going back to the plan of last January, and thus, a review of the tormented doctor. There's not much to tell here, really; if you've seen one version of the movie, pretty much any version, you know the basic story. That's the first surprise - this is really a short story, perhaps a novella, at best. The version I picked up was published by Amereon House, and the story runs only 117 pages, followed by some a short biography of the author, some historical background of the time, and some critical responses to the work when it came out.

The tale is told in the third person but mostly from the point of view of one Mr. Utterson, lawyer to Henry Jekyll, professor and chemist. There's an initial meeting with a fellow friend of Utterson's, a Mr. Enfield, where they encounter a small door in a thoroughfare, and Enfield tells Utterson of his first run-in with Hyde; the "brute" physically ran over a small girl, then disappeared through said door. Slowly but surely it's revealed that the door is connected to the laboratory found on the grounds of Jekyll's estate, and indeed, Utterson receives a will written by the good doctor leaving the bulk of his fortunes to one Edward Hyde. The lawyer is dismayed at the contents of the document, but says nothing.

A year later, the evil Mr. Hyde is seen slaying Sir Danvers Carew, and the chase is on to find and bring the murderer to justice. Except Hyde seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth; at the same time, the reclusive Henry Jekyll starts reappearing in high society, having dinner parties, etc. Then after two months or so, he completely disappears again. There's the death of a mutual friend of Utterson's and Jekyll's, one Dr. Lanyon, that really spurs Utterson to wonder at the true nature of the mystery of Mr. Hyde. Eventually, Utterson is summoned to the Jekyll estate, where he helps the butler, Mr. Poole, break down the door of the lab.... only to find Mr. Hyde dead on the floor. There is no sign of Henry Jekyll, and the two men fear the worst: that Hyde has killed Jekyll and buried the body somewhere nearby. Of course, a series of letters will reveal all, and the tale is now told.

As I said at the start of this review, if you're even somewhat familiar with Stevenson's tale, you know the story I read here. There really weren't any surprises, other than perhaps the description of Hyde. Rather than the hulking brute that I've seen portrayed in more than one movie, he's actually smaller of stature than Jekyll, slighter of build, and lighter of foot. When Utterson reads Jekyll's final letter, it's revealed by the good doctor that he believes his alter ego is thus formed because it hasn't been "exercised" as much as his "good" self. In fact, after Hyde has taken over for a while, Jekyll writes that he believes the brute is growing in size.

The other thing I found interesting from a modern reader's perspective is Jekyll's description of his "transformation": The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. As someone who loves to read supernatural novels, I read that line and immediately thought of the many and various descriptions I've read of humans changing into werewolves. Granted, Jekyll isn't turning into a lupine beast, but he is physically changing into something else, or someone else, as the case may be, leaving me to wonder if this is perhaps one of the first descriptive narratives of shape-shifting in literature. Probably not, but damn - it comes so close to the modern versions that I've read in the last few years! It would be interesting to know if any of my authors have read this and been struck by that passage as well.

Overall, I would recommend reading this classic. It's a fairly good story, well written, and best of all, short. Shouldn't take you more than a few hours to read, and it's never a bad idea to examine our dual nature as humans.

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