In our literature page, we look back on great works of literature realised in the current month. For April, Max Feldman unmasks the cultural fears behind The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of those novels that has become so well-known in our cultural subconscious that often when actually reading it for the first time, readers can be thrown off by how the story doesn’t necessarily fit how they expect it to. Rather than plunging you into the tortured mind of the famous scientist we are instead introduced to two gentlemen by the name of Utterson and Enfield, characters who have resolutely not entered said aforementioned cultural subconscious. The pair spend the beginning of the novel discussing how they suspect the thuggish and mysterious Edward Hyde to be blackmailing the wealthy and urbane Henry Jekyll and the readers heart sinks upon realising that the well-known duality of the two is actually meant to be a shocking final twist.
However if one perseveres they will discover a novel constructed like a steel trap, which overflows with economy, tension and wit. The thematic concerns of the novel help to show the modern audience the seething social and moral tension that lurked beneath the primness that we commonly associate with the Victorian period. The stifling nature of the strict morality that governed (or was supposed to govern at any rate) the upper classes is what leads Jekyll to develop his transformative serum, in less of a battle between good and evil as between civilisation and barbarism.
The tale originally came to its author in a dream. Robert Louis Stevenson had always trusted to “brownies” (his daydreams and nightmares) for artistic inspiration. He often felt that stories and characters were being channelled to him from elsewhere. As a young man his fantasy life had been kept in check. He had grown up in a family of engineers and was himself destined for a career in the law. He lived with his family in a large house in Edinburgh’s “New Town” (constructed to a rational, geometric design in the late 18th century) but was captivated by the “Old Town”, squalid, drunken and actively dangerous to which he would sneak out at night, away from the watchful eyes of his family.
Stevenson suffered ill-health all his life, and was being dosed with an experimental drug at the time when his “brownies” assailed him with the story of the good doctor and his evil other self. It must have struck Stevenson that there were more than a few parallels to his youthful fascination with the seamier side of his home town. As a writer, Stevenson wanted to explore the various facets of human nature, but through the prism of the suspicion that the vaunted Victorian civilisation was just a thin veneer over an internal savagery. Jekyll feels trapped by his own respectability, straightjacketed into his own skin, made to comply with the rigid conventions of his class and society. Being Hyde frees him from this, but the sensation of liberation becomes addictive. It is no accident that Hyde is described as being much younger than Jekyll. Jekyll himself is a man of 50, regretting times past and opportunities missed. The folly of youth, along with a sense of infinite possibility and invincibility, is regained when he becomes Edward Hyde. This is the unspoken fear of much of the Fin De Siècle literature of the period: That the reason society needs to cling on so tightly to its conventions and traditions is that the unleashed primal hungers once tasted will overwhelm any reasoned mind. It’s a depressing view of human nature, but the continued power of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows that it’s not one that we have entirely discarded.