While I have have previously criticized Mr. John Wain for certain of his selections to those hard-bound Oxford editions which end up in people’s living rooms, I was pleased last week to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I had previously known only in scary movies.
Most striking was the image of Hyde which came to me later in bed: the cartoon character of Uncle Sam, whom we all know must have a larger and comelier form, if only because rock ‘n roll and human flight were discovered in the USA.
Wain praises Stevenson broadly in his introduction, claiming that ‘every thing he did was first-rate of its kind and classic English prose at its highest point of perfection before the distorting and disintegrating pressures of the twentieth century got to work on it’ Be that as it may, and I have admired Stevenson myself in the past, one of the strongest impressions of this short novel is that they sure used English differently in those days. I leave it to the reader to concur or not on the basis of lines excerpted.
The proper focus is the story: I quote from the beginning of Dr. Jeckyll’s full statement of his case: ‘I was bornto a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow-men, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future. And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public I hid [irregularities] with an almost morbid sense of shame… It was on the moral side and in my own person that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man.’
Dr. Jeckyll was a big man but when he transformed into Hyde, he shrank. If the impulses of the body were the essential problem, one might have expected him to grow. But, it is not the body that is to blame; rather, a repression of knowledge of bodily function. Jeckyll says of his younger self, ‘It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was, and with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature.’
His experimenting with a complete separation of the two halves is undertaken in the belief that each might be happy without the other. ‘If each, I told myself could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous fagots were bound together-that in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins should be continuously struggling.’
One problem with Jeckyll’s reasoning here was that when the unjust went his way it still had to go around London. Consequently, a good old Sir Danvers Carew, M.P., was clubbed to death.
Luckily, the crime was witnessed in the moonlight by a maid in her upstairs chambers. ‘And as she so sat she became aware of an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair drawing near along the lane: and advancing to meet him another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention. When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content. Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognize in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master, and for whom she had conceived a dislike. He had in his hand a very heavy cane with which he was triflingAnd then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot, and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds the maid fainted.’
During the murder, Mr. Hyde broke his cane. He left half of it beside the body and took the other half back to his house in Soho.
On the body of the deceased was a letter addressed to Mr. Utterson. ‘This was brought to the lawyer next morning before he was out of bed; and he had no sooner seen it, and been told the circumstances, than he shot out a solemn lip. ‘I shall say nothing till I have seen the body,’ said he, this may be very serious.”
Utterson later revised his opinion of the seriousness of the incident and concluded that the disappearance of Mr. Hyde at this time was probably worth the death of Sir Danvers, but in early hours he and an inspector went to Mr. Hyde’s house and found there, among other things, the other half of the stick, which, coincidentally, Mr. Utterson had himself given as a gift to Dr. Jeckyll. (It would seem that we are all guilty of one other’s crimes in some degree.)
Mr. Hyde had the run of Dr. Jeckyll’s house and the staff there were instructed to let him come and go as he pleased; so he was famous in those parts, if thoroughly detested. (It is tempting to digress into a lengthy criticism of police work of the day, but I restrain myself and hope that Scotland Yard has by now studied the case and learned its lessons.) Anyway, Mr. Utterson headed over to see what Dr. Jeckyll might make of things, and basically, Dr. Jeckyll promised to have no more to do with Mr. Hyde. That was good enough for Mr. U.
Getting back to the appearance of Mr. Hyde: another of Dr. Jeckyll’s friends, one Dr. Lanyon, was asked in a letter to break into Jeckyll’s laboratory, seize a drawer (containing the antidote to being Hyde), take it home to his own house and await Mr. Hyde’s midnight call. Naturally, he complied.
Says Dr. Lanyon: ‘Upon the reading of this letter I made sure my colleague was insane; but till that was proved beyond the possibility of doubt, I felt bound to do as he requested.’ Hyde did show up at midnight and knocked on the door. ‘Are you come from Dr. Jeckyll?’ I asked. He told me ‘yes’ by a constrained gesture; and when I had bidden him enter, he did not obey me without a searching backward glance into the darkness of the square. There was a policeman not far of, advancing with his bull’s-eye open; and at the sight I thought my visitor started and made greater haste. These particulars struck me, I confess, disagreeably; He was small, as I have said; I was struck besides with the shocking expression of his face, with his remarkable combination of great muscular activity and great apparent debility of constitution, and-last but not least-with the odd subjective disturbance caused by his neighbourhood. This bore some resemblance to incipient rigor, and was accompanied by a marked sinking of the pulse. [As a Canadian I can tell you, this captures it perfectly with Uncle Sam.] At the time I set it down to some idiosyncratic, personal distaste, and merely wondered at the acuteness of the symptoms; but I have since had reason to believe the cause to lie much deeper in the nature of man, and to turn on some nobler hinge than the principle of hatred’ [me too]
May the kindly Dr. Jekyll awake once and for all. If Hyde continues to stalk the Earth as bad government run amok, invading other counties and wreaking havoc through murder and torture and kidnapping, there will come a point where his pious view of himself must be rejected, not just in his neighborhood, but in his home.
PETER R. HARLEY lives in Newfoundland. He can be reached at: email@example.com