Classic book review: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Jekyll and Hyde movie poster

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886. It is a short novella (about 70 pages) and often found in a book of collected works. The version I bought included Markheim, The Body Snatcher and Olalla.

The basic plot is so well known I won’t detail it here. It is a bit strange how it is revealed through the book, though. Until the final reveal at the end of the novella the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is obscured – it is suggested that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for some reason.

Reading the book with the knowledge of the plot from such quality remakes as Looney Toons it is a bit frustrating that Dr Jekyll is so rarely in the plot and Mr Hyde is not sinister so much as unaware of his violence.

The book is supposed to be one of the first theories and novelizations of bipolar disorder, but in this case it is self-inflicted. Dr Jekyll has created a potion which allows his suppressed darker side to come out. This split-personality is not only apparent in his actions but also his appearance. As his transformation to Hyde becomes more frequent this darker version of himself grows in stature and power, until eventually the changes start taking place without this need for the potion.

At this point Jekyll becomes scared that he has lost control and attempts to stop traveling down this path. Unfortunately, Hyde has become too strong and the story ends unhappily for pretty much everyone.

The story is really about the conflict between good and evil in man’s nature. Stevenson seems to be suggesting that a carefree life reveling in sin can be a relief from the stress and strain of a life upholding the law and right behaviour. As Christians we know that life is difficult and that the struggle is not for our own purposes but to fulfill God’s will for us.

The ugly side to Stevenson’s idea of this low behaviour is that it is related to or represented by appearance. Hyde is depicted as short, stocky, hairy with a thick forehead – evil. Jekyll is tall, fair, elegant – good. This seems to be paternalism at best and racism at worst – other nations must be less developed than the English due to their lower appearance, cultures and respect for law and justice.

It was good to read this novella to understand the original, not just the modern translations, but I did feel uncomfortable with some of the concepts and the conclusion of the story seemed to be one chapter short – not everything was tied up neatly and explained.

External link: Wikipedia entry for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde