Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic horror novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is probably known to many people; it’s been adapted many times and is often a symbol of the horror genre in pop culture. We all know the story; mild-mannered Dr Jekyll by day but at night, thanks to a potion, Mr Hyde is unleashed. But do we really know this tale; the tale of good and evil, or maybe the unleashing his secret inner persona, or maybe this is a story about dissociative identity disorder?
This is a reread for me so like I did in The Great Gatsby; I’m going to quote my old review (which is relatively short) but expand with what I know now. First we need some context; Robert Louis Stevenson had already had some success as a Victorian adventure writer before he came up with the idea of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He had already written Treasure Island and his collection of short stories New Arabian Nights; in fact it is believe that he came up with the idea while working on his revisions for the short story Markheim (which, in my opinion, is his best piece). So already you get a sense that he knows what he is doing and if you’ve read Markheim you can see the similarities clearly. It was the late into the Nineteenth Century where there were extraordinary technological advances being made and people had a growing pessimism towards a possible decline in arts and religion.
The Promethean personality is something we’ve seen in books like Dracula by Bram Stoker, but this novella has more in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both involve scientists that defy the laws of nature and God with major consequences. Also, they play on the concept of good and evil and the dangers of advancing sciences but they also have been written in a way that to this day people debate the meaning of the novel.
Some say this is a novella that looks at that great Victorian idea of inner conflict with humanity; that good and evil exist in us all and it is an internal struggle between the two. While others suggest that maybe Stevenson was interested in exploring mental health, especially when it comes to split personalities or what should be correctly called a dissociative identity disorder? When I first read this book I got a sense of both, saying “[That] it’s a vivid portrayal of a split personality, split in the sense that within the same person there is both an apparently good and an evil personality each being quite distinct from the other.” As an interesting side note Vladimir Nabokov has famously argued that the “good versus evil” view within this novella is misleading, as Dr Jekyll himself is not, by Victorian standards, a morally good person.
“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.” While this is true, the tale has left a bigger impact on pop culture than just one phrase and classic horror movies. Within comic books both The Hulk and Batman’s rival Two-Face have clear influences from this novella; in fact you might argue that all superheroes are influenced as well, all living a double life. Even the framework has been used in other fables, gothic, horror and speculative fiction.
“Robert Louis Stevenson is an amazing writer and this book is well worth the read, I’ve always enjoyed a story that tries to explore two sides of a situation.” Not only does this highlight how much I’ve improved in my reviewing but it serves as a reminder of my interest in plots that explore both points of view. Frankenstein still remains my ‘go to book’ for this even though rereading Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has rekindled an interest in Robert Louis Stevenson’s thoughts on the whole “good versus evil” view. I much prefer Markheim and think I might go read it again now.