Friday, 25 October 2013


“Even if we have not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” most of us are familiar with the concept -- a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The concept connotes a rare mental condition of a “split personality,” where within the same person there are two distinct personalities. The novella's impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next. In Doctor Jekyll’s case the two personalities are apparently good and evil, with completely opposite levels of morality.

“Written in 1886, it was an immediate success and is one of Stevenson's best-selling works. Stage adaptations began in Boston and London within a year of its publication and it has gone on to inspire scores of major film, television and stage performances.”

The tale is well known. Amiable Doctor Jekyll, invents a potion, which transforms him into the brutish Mr Hyde. There is another potion that changes him back to Doctor Jekyll. In the persona of Mr Hyde, he commits the sort of atrocities that nightmares are made of. But the transformation becomes involuntary, and Doctor Jekyll is unable to reverse it because he has run out of the original batch of the powders. “The brute that slept within me” is now in control.

When he falls asleep as Jekyll, he wakes as Mr Hyde. Could the character of Hyde irrevocably take over? Concerned that he had overstepped his bounds, Jekyll chooses to give up the freedom of Hyde and for two months maintains the identity of Doctor Jekyll. But he is tortured with Hyde's longing to freely take part in evil doings, and he once again he takes the potion. During this transformation, Hyde commits murder.

There is a manhunt for Hyde, and Doctor Jekyll vows never again to make the transformation. He sets out to try to remedy the evil inside him. But he has given too much power to his evil side. Hyde is an irrevocable part of Jekyll's character, and the many transformations and evil behaviours have only strengthened his power. One night, while contemplating Hyde's deeds, Jekyll spontaneously transformed into Edward Hyde.
Finally, Hyde kills himself, thus finally releasing both Jekyll and Hyde.

Stevenson never says exactly what Hyde takes pleasure in on his nightly forays, generally saying that it is something of an evil and lustful nature; so Stevenson is writing within the context of the times. Whatever Hyde has done, it is abhorrent to Victorian religious morality. Stevenson had to take into account Victorian sensibilities. Hyde may have been revelling in activities that were not appropriate to a man of Jekyll's stature, such as engaging with prostitutes or burglary. However, it is Hyde's violent activities that seem to give him the most thrill, driving him to attack and murder Sir Danvers Carew without apparent reason, making him a hunted outlaw throughout England.

I think that if it were written today, Mr Hyde would be a counterpart to someone like Josef Fritzl. We wouldn’t be talking in veiled terms of evil and lust. We would be talking explicitly about rape, sodomy, torture, incest, bestiality, necrophilia. We’d be thinking about stuff that even Hannibal Lector couldn’t dream up. But I think that Stevenson’s novella is all the more compelling, because of what he doesn’t say. Our own imaginations are more powerful than anything that can be written down.

Realizing he will soon be Hyde forever, Jekyll leaves behind a testament; pointing out that while Jekyll often felt like a charlatan, Hyde felt like a "genuine man" years younger and far more energetic than his more "sociable" self. He also states in his final confession that although Hyde knew people recoiled from him, he, Jekyll, did not.

“The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” pre-empts Freudian psychoanalysis. As far as I can ascertain, Sigmund Freud was not talking about the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego, before 1899, when he published “The Interpretation of Dreams.” As I said earlier, Stevenson published his book in 1886.

So, Stevenson was talking about repression, and the return of the repressed and demonstrating the concept through his characters, before Freud had even thought of it. Although the reader of Jekyll and Hyde is led to believe that the threat of evil comes--as in earlier Gothic stories--from without, it is actually within the breast of the good and kind Jekyll that the danger lurks. Perhaps Stevenson himself, was afraid of what he had unleashed in his creation, Mr Hyde.

It is a creepy tale. It has been a long time since I read it, but whenever I think about Stevenson’s novella, I think about the CI programmes on Sky, that I am addicted to. Sky even has “Serial Killer Sunday”. I watch programmes about Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Before Ted Bundy was executed a senior policeman asked; “what’s all this about Ted?” Ted Bundy’s response was; “I like it…”

It seems that serial killers, really cannot stop killing. And neither can Mr Hyde. Stevenson’s creation, revels in the choking ashes of the dark and primal.

I think of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, where the monstrous Humbert Humbert, the handsome academic, who hides his paedophilia so well, constantly insists -- “I am not a monster.”

Is there a monster lurking beneath the surface in all of us? When I think about some of the weird stuff that I think about, that I write about in my fiction, I sometimes think -- where the hell did that come from?

The only honest answer that I can give is -- I don’t know. And what is “normal?” Is that knock on the door Mr Hyde rattling to get out?

I read this in the Observer newspaper some years ago.

“We acknowledge the receipt of your order for 5 triple furnaces, including 2 electric elevators for raising the corpses. For transporting the corpses, we suggest light carts on wheels. We are submitting plans for our cremation ovens which operate with coal and have hitherto given full satisfaction.”

So went the estimate from the Berlin heating firm, to the Commandant at Auschwitz.
Who typed it? Who priced it? Who put it in the mail? Nice normal people I don’t doubt.

From Bruce Kent in an open letter to the Observer newspaper. 13th November 1988

“ ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ was initially sold as a paperback for one shilling in the UK and one dollar in the U.S. The American publisher issued the book on 5 January 1886, four days before the first appearance of the UK edition issued by Longmans; Scribner's published 3000 copies, only 1250 of them bound in cloth. Initially stores would not stock it until a review appeared in The Times, on 25 January 1886, giving it a favourable reception. Within the next six months, close to forty thousand copies were sold. The book's success was probably due more to the "moral instincts of the public" than any perception of its artistic merits; it was widely read by those who never otherwise read fiction, quoted in pulpit sermons and in religious papers. By 1901 it was estimated to have sold over 250,000 copies.”

Here is Johnny Cash, growling out the lyrics to “The beast in me.” It seems appropriate…

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