I’m on a bit of a roll now with books that have been turned into films, and – as it turns out – novellas written by dead white guys. This week, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886 (and, yes, the original publication intentionally and infuriatingly left out the definite article that would have made the title grammatically correct, ugh). Stevenson wrote the first draft in under three days, but then – the story goes – his wife told him it was shit, so he burned it and started again. He was (allegedly) coked up during the re-write, which probably wasn’t such a wise idea for a guy with a history of hemorrhages.
In sum, Stevenson conceptualised and completed the work in less than ten weeks; it sold 250k copies in the U.S. by 1901, and achieved far greater commercial and critical success than the novel he spent five years perfecting, which just goes to show.
The fact that he pumped it out so quickly is not quite as impressive once you figure out that it’s only 66 pages long – closer to a short story than a novella. I’m clearly a bit thick, because – even knowing how short it was – I was surprised that it was over so quickly!
That said, Stevenson managed to cram a lot into those 66 pages, and literary types continue to analyse Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to death. The introduction to this edition (which is almost longer than the book itself) goes deep. Apparently, a psychoanalytic reading of the text reveals that Stevenson had Daddy Issues. My eyes kind of glazed over once it started talking about his handling of metaphysical confusion… but then it turned to queer theory and the reading of Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and I was back on board!
(Incidentally, I also learned that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the prototype of a sub-genre called “doppelgänger lit”, which is just so gloriously niche, I laugh every time I think of it).
So, the story: London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. Utterson is a bit freaked out by that, because he knows that Jekyll recently rewrote his will to name Hyde the sole beneficiary. He figures Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for reasons unknown; he asks a few nosy questions around town, but he doesn’t actually do all that much about it.
“‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.'”Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde
Hyde continues to stomp around London having a grand old time doing awful things, until he takes it too far and murders an actual member of parliament. Everyone is understandably upset. Utterson tries to get Jekyll to snitch on Hyde, but Jekyll tells him to fuck off. One of Jekyll’s doctor mates tells Utterson that he knows what Jekyll’s been up to, but it’s so bad that the poor man literally dies of shock before he can spill the beans.
Jekyll starts acting really weird, and his servants freak out when they don’t see him for a few days; he’s apparently holed up in his mysterious laboratory, but they get it into their heads that Jekyll’s actually been murdered and an imposter is living there in his place. Utterson breaks in to Jekyll’s secret room… only to find Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. This seems strange, so Utterson finally gets around to reading the letter left behind by their dead doctor friend, and a letter-slash-suicide-note from Jekyll himself.
Turns out, Jekyll had gone full mad scientist and found a way to temporarily transform himself into a degenerate alter ego so that he could indulge all of his sicko fantasies without besmirching his own good name… only he lost control, and couldn’t stop the transformations happening, so he offs himself in order to kill the monster. The End.
Unless you spent the 20th century (and then some) living under a rock, that “twist” ending won’t come as a shock to you. Still, I’d imagine at the time of publication it caused quite a stir. The biggest problem with a contemporary reading is that it’s really hard to enjoy organically when the “twist” has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for over a century. There have been at least 120 film and stage adaptations – I have seen exactly none of them, and yet I’ve still used “Jekyll and Hyde” as shorthand in conversation. Like Vader being Luke’s father, or Bruce Willis being a ghost, you end up reading this one as an academic exercise, picking apart the layers and metaphor rather than letting yourself get lost in the story.
That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had! I quite like the queer reading of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there’s lots of fodder in the imagery of Hyde standing over Jekyll’s bed, Jekyll having to atone for unspeakable sin, etc. When you look at it that way, you can see Hyde as a vehicle for the closet-homo Jekyll to indulge his vices without getting busted. (This was the end of the repressed Victorian era, after all.) Eventually, of course, Jekyll loses all control and his gay sex urge runs rampant – I love it!
Much like Wuthering Heights, there are so many layers to this story that the debate about Stevenson’s “true” meaning will probably rage on for another century yet. As I said, my preference is the queer reading, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their own interpretation – there’s plenty to go around! I hear some folks read it as a commentary on Scottish nationalism versus union with Britain…
What I would say is this: if you assume you’re familiar with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and you don’t need to read the original, you’re really missing out.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:
- “Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. This is the best place” – mary gagliardo
- “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” – Kevin Palmer
- “Ending was abrupt, liked the musical more. Wish there was more detail in the murders and perhaps a love interest….” – Chanebradshaw
- “Although it is fantasy, I couldn’t accept the physical change in size between Jekyll and Hyde, regardless of the symbolic intent.” – R. L. Riemer
May 29, 2018 at 8:20 PM
I read this myself for the first time a few years ago. As you say, the story is so well known that it offers few surprises. It is so well told though that I found it to be a great read.
I also think that the psychological twists and turns contained in this book are more complicated then the simple good and evil story that it is often presented as.
May 30, 2018 at 12:42 PM
Oh my gosh, the economy of language is incredible – Stevenson managed to cram so much into such a short tale!! I think you could read it a hundred times over and find as many philosophical points of view and metaphors and allegories… true writing talent!!
May 30, 2018 at 5:40 AM
For me, I’ve always enjoyed Stevenson’s short stories more than his novels. “The Grave Robbers” is another excellent thriller.
May 30, 2018 at 12:41 PM
How interesting!! I’ve not read any of his short stories – or any of his other work at all, as far as I can recall. I’ll have to go digging out some more by the sounds… 😉
May 30, 2018 at 6:07 PM
It sounds like most of the film adaptations are a lot better and without the psychological mumbo jumbo, another one for the avoid list
June 1, 2018 at 1:40 PM
I’ve actually never seen any of the film adaptations that I can recall, but if you’re not wanting any mumbo-jumbo, yeah, they might be the way to go 😉 Luckily, there’s plenty to choose from!!