I was six years old when I walked into a bookstore in Holland, Michigan with my family and met Dr. Jekyll for the first time. We had recently watched The Great Mouse Detective and I saw the unmistakable archetypes of villainy and goodness emblazoned on an inexpensive hardback edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous horror story: here, to the right, was the hero – handsome with his steely eyes and brown sideburns, analyzing a test tube that to me symbolized detective work and wisdom, neatly attired in a high collar and a warm, brown frock – and there, to the left, was the unquestionable evildoer – wearing the top hat and satin cloak, and wielding the silver-headed cane that I somehow instinctively associated with decadent aristocracy, his animalistic teeth were set viciously, his face was corded and dark, and his eyes bulged madly from beneath the rim of his hat. In the background of the hero glowed the warmth of a Victorian parlor. In the background of the villain shone the silhouette of a moonlit cityscape. So the story was clear to me, and in my childish way I explained the tale: here was the brilliant detective – dashing, intellectual, and openhearted – examining the evidence that would lead him to capturing the debased enemy – a wealthy degenerate, possibly insane, certainly cruel. But my mom patiently pulled down the book. I was close, she said, but wrong: they were the same person.
The revelation went through me like a shock of electricity. Without having read the story, only primed by the cover, I was stupefied to learn the truth of one of Western literature’s most enduring parables. And it haunts me to this day. That man is not one, but two (or as Jekyll noted, presaging Jung, manifold), that goodness can conceal wickedness, that goodness could willingly give birth to wickedness. Why would a good man want to be bad? I think that even at the early age, I instinctively understood: sometimes it’s nice to be bad – sometimes getting away with what is wrong is attractive. And even though I hated the very sight of him – the clenched fist and teeth, the peering white eye, the wild tangle of black hair – I secretly understood the attraction in his existence, and that secret understanding shamed me and brought wonder to my mind.
HISTORICAL AND THEOLOGICAL INSPIRATIONS.
Of course, the book whose cover had stunned my embryonic mind was Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror masterpiece, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (there is no article “The” in the title, and the doctor’s name should be pronounced JEE-kull, like “fecal,” and was until the 1941 Spencer Tracy film popularized the erroneous “JZEH-kull” pronunciation). The story of the tale’s genesis is famous, and frequently repeated in introductions for its sheer dramatism. Louis was sleeping fitfully, as he regularly did, but his wife, Fanny (a strong-headed woman from my native Indiana) elbowed him back into consciousness when the tossing escalated into the shouts of a night terror. Dazed and shocked, he turned to her with a look of admonishment. In his thick, Edinburgh brogue he hissed: “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale…” He had been dreaming of man’s duality, and there in the mists of his unconscious, a tall, handsome man had drunk a potion, and now there stood his transformed body: dwarfish, dusky, and vile. Stevenson had much reason to brood over this topic: as a resident of Edinburgh he was well aware of the stories of Burke and Hare, and of Deacon Brodie, especially.
Burke and Hare were two thugs – or as Jekyll would say, bravos – who found a loophole in their poverty-stricken lives when they sold the body of a lodger to representatives of the esteemed surgeon, Dr. Robert Knox, for roughly $1,200 in modern currency. The first body died in a kosher manner, but the subsequent 16 corpses were victims of foul play, and no one questioned why these two shady louts were so capable of feeding Knox the bodies he needed. When the news broke that Dr. Knox was turning a blind eye to serial murder, the scandal in Edinburgh society was seismic. Hare became Crown evidence, Burke was hanged, and Knox – once reputable if eccentric – became an abhorred pariah.
At the time of the nightmare, Stevenson had been working on “Markheim,” which had springboarded off of a play he had attempted on the life of Deacon William Brodie. Brodie was an 18th century gentleman who moonlighted as a burglar. A cabinet-maker and carpenter, Brodie rose rapidly to the executive post of the tradesman guild of Edinburgh – Deacon, or president – and at the peak of his career even sat on the city council. He hobnobbed with the gentry, even meeting Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, and one the confidence of Edinburgh’s richest and most esteemed citizens. It was with this trust that he began a campaign of crime: doing odd repairs on the homes of his friends and professional clients, Brodie acquainted himself with their security devices. As a cabinet maker, he was also part-locksmith, and would often be asked to fix doors and office drawers that needed repair. He used these opportunities to make wax impressions of the keys, which he would later use to create copies.
With the cash and valuables that he stole, Brodie was able to afford a second life of gambling, multiple families in different cities, and fencing stolen goods. Eventually he even commanded a little band of thieves who followed his bidding and assisted his crimes. After an armed attack on a tax office failed, Brodie realized that his net had gone too wide, and attempted to claim a pardon from the government, but to no avail. He was arrested in Holland en route to the United States. The fallout of his unmasking was earthshaking, and he became something of a folk figure (certainly not a folk hero) to the Scottish in the same way that Billy the Kid, Al Capone, and Lizzy Borden have fascinated Americans with their duplicitous villainy. Burke and Hare were transformed into his second most notable bogey tale, “The Body Snatcher,” and Deacon Brodie found life in Dr. Henry Jekyll.
The foundation of Stevenson’s tale, however, was more philosophical than historical: his family’s Calvinism. Calvinism rears its head in so many of Stevenson’s stories, but Jekyll’s struggle to have fun on the side is particularly suggestive of Calvinist social mores. Let’s begin by discussing the theological basis of the faith, and then look at how Calvinism was so often practiced. The basic concept behind the faith that had made such an impact on Stevenson’s childhood was the idea that God chooses, or predestines those who will be saved, called the Elect. He also chooses who will be damned, all before birth and time. Nothing can be done to change this destiny: a man born damned can give to the poor, spent whole hours in pious prayer, and devote his life to Christ, without altering his infernal destination.
Likewise, one of the Elect can spend his life whoring, killing, thieving, and corrupting, but due to the holy seal on his head, he will be saved. The basic element behind all of this is a belief in the absolute power of God; unlike Catholics who saw the Pope, saints, and confessors as having been apportioned divine power, or even Anglicans who acknowledge the Archbishop of Canterbury, or Lutherans who celebrate the lives of the saints, Calvinists saw all power in God’s hands – even the power to receive salvation. In Christianity, there is a potent struggle between two major concepts: “salvation by grace” (which implies that salvation is a gift freely given without any expectations) and “faith without works is dead” (which argues – from the same phrase used in James – that salvation is free, but faith cannot be real without the evidence of good deeds, or that you don’t have to be good to be a Christian, but that a real Christian will naturally tend towards goodness). Calvinism falls sharply on these concepts, and while it looks harshly on those who do good things hoping that God will let them into heaven (violation: salvation by grace), it also deals roughly with those who do not do visible good deeds (violation: faith sans works).
The resultant society is a group of people who pretend to be humble (you can’t tout your deeds or be proud of them; this implies you are not Elect) but are in fact desperate to be seen doing good deeds to squash any gossip that they are not among the Elect. To avoid being judged or considered un-elected by the members of their church, Calvinists would work strenuously to cultivate a good public image (think Jekyll), to make their neighbors think that the good behavior signaled a natural member of the Elect. This was less in order to spread goodness (after all, good works meant nothing in and of themselves; they were but a SYMPTOM of election), and more to avoid gossip or suggestions that they were not among the Elect. But behind closed doors, actions did not matter and whatever wickedness had been pent up during the daytime could be unleashed (think Hyde).
Calvinists believed that there was no good in man, so wickedness was expected and as long as a person was a churchgoing member of the Elect, no amount of evil could be privately mourned: it was just the human condition and there was no use restraining it (except in public to avoid gossip). Stevenson loathed this hypocrisy, and it stained his entire oeuvre with themes of secrecy, doubt, two-faced-ness, and shame. When we consider also the fact that his nanny, Cummy – a brutally strict Calvinist – alternatively read him the Bible (complete with bedside sermons about damnation and hell) and told him folk stories of ghosts, body snatchers, and goblins, it is easy to see the connection between Stevenson’s religious upbringing and tales of terror.
After his dream, Stevenson worked feverishly on creating a text out of the vision. Stricken with a very literal fever, bedridden from a hemorrhage, and buzzing with the cocaine that he used to push down the agony of the affliction, he blazed through three days of white-hot scribbling before reading the story to his wife. Fanny was his editor, sounding board, and muse, and she listened carefully to the story while her husband rambled, mopping sweat from his flushed skin and coughing into his hand.
While the others in the room were thrilled with the story, Fanny seemed unmoved. She took the manuscript in hand, writing notes of critique in the margins. Leaving it for him to read, she explained that her husband had been too heavy handed: what could be a powerful allegory had been over dramatized into a cheap fright story. As Sir Graham Balfour relates, in the original draft, Jekyll had been more of a Deacon Brodie: “bad all through,” using Hyde “only for the sake of disguise.” Stevenson was livid. He raged his way upstairs and avoided the household. This lasted for a brief time, however, and he called her into his room, pointing proudly to the fireplace. To her horror, she realized that he had burned the manuscript. He had taken her notes to heart, and – in fear that he would try to revise what he considered a disaster – had destroyed it. He started fresh again that day. Inflamed with cocaine, Stevenson underwent a frantic rewrite, completing the new novella in just three days. In just six days he had written the same story twice over – a phenomenal rate of work. Fanny recalled the vitality that the mission seemed to stir in him, bringing him out of his solemn sickness into a frenzy of creative power. He polished the text up over the next four weeks, and it saw daylight on 6 January 1886, when it became an international sensation.
WEREWOLF FOLKLORE AND HISTORICAL MODELS.
In his groundbreaking review of the horror genre, Stephen King divided the horror story into five possible prototypes, with five definitive exemplars. The archetypes were The Nameless Thing (Frankenstein), The Vampire (Dracula), The Ghost (The Turn of the Screw), The Bad Place (The Haunting of Hill House), and the Werewolf (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Purists may take umbrage with the suggestion that Hyde is a werewolf, and may blame Frederic March’s makeup for giving the impression that Hyde (only described as having a disturbing expression, corded and hairy hands, dwarfish stature, and an ape-like personality) is some kind of literal monster with fangs and a snout. While this complaint has its grounds, Jungian myth theorists would unquestionably consider the transformation to have its roots in the werewolf legend. So while Stoker may be seen as the godfather of the literary vampire, Shelley the parent of the literary monster, and Conan Doyle (Lot No. 249, The Ring of Thoth) may be viewed as sire to the literary mummy, Stevenson has a debatable claim to the literary werewolf.
As with my commentary on the vampire folklore that led to Dracula, I think that in this book it would be fitting to discuss the werewolf mythology that led to Hyde – and what exactly it all means. The shapeshifting man – the civilized person who is capable of concealing their passions – is more dangerous than a madman. A madman is obvious, unchanging, and easily tracked, but a shapeshifter is subtle, cunning, and disguised. The concept of hidden character – repressed, denied, or covered up – has been a fascinating and terrifying part of the human narrative since men began to murder one another and deny their guilt. They didn’t rage until they were captured, they butchered, then they concealed, then they walked away and reentered the village, unchanged. Werewolf stories have saturated our global folklore long before stories were printed, bound, and sold. Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and Bluebeard each concern a man whose nature, whether wicked or good, is concealed.
In Greek mythology Herodotus wrote of the Nueri, a tribe of shapeshifters who changed into wolves for a span of several days each year. Lycaon gave his name to lycanthropy (or werewolf-ism) when he tricked Zeus into eating his own offspring (a ploy borrowed in Shakespeare’s infamously brutal Titus Andronicus) and was turned into a wolf as punishment. Ovid described werewolves lurking through the Arcadian woodlands, and Virgil and Pliny the Elder both recorded stories of lycanthropes. Vikings described Berserkers – or bear-shirted men – and Ulfhednar – or wolf-shirted men: warriors who wore animal skins into battle and adopted the personality of the fiends they wore, transforming into bears, wolves, and wild cats (and giving us the phrase “to go berserk”).
Werewolves became a very real concern to Europeans in the Middle Ages, where werewolf trials were as spectacular and dramatic as those for witchcraft. Unlike the witchcraft craze, however, many of the suspected werewolves were genuine serial killers and cannibals (Peter Stumpp, for instance, was a German farmer who murdered and cannibalized 18 people, calling himself “an insatiable bloodsucker”) but the supernatural link was popularized to explain away the unthinkable as the work of Satan. In her Bisclavret (c. 1200), Marie de France depicted a werewolf (a shapeshifting courtier who was betrayed by his wife, trapped by the King’s hunting party, pitied, and made a member of the royal hunting pack), and The Tale of Igor’s Campaign depicted the historical Belarusian Prince Usiaslau of Polatsk (rumored to have superhuman strength and speed) as a werewolf (“as prince, he ruled towns; but at night he prowled in the guise of a wolf”). Slavic and Russian folklore offered the legends of the vlkodlak and the vourdalak – crosses between werewolves, vampires, and revenants: shapeshifting, cannibalistic corpses.
WEREWOLF LITERATURE IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN.
Some of the first werewolf literature to make an impact on the printed page were folktales repeated in larger works of fiction to conjure atmosphere. Such is the case of Captain Marryat’s Gothic novel The Phantom Ship (1839) which features the popular anecdote, “The White Wolf of the Harz Mountains” – a story about a Satanic female werewolf who attacks her stepchildren and eats rotting flesh like a ghoul. In 1847 – presumably trying to build on the momentum of the popular Varney the Vampire melodramas – G. W. M. Reynolds published Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, a Jekyll and Hyde prototype that follows the devolution of a good natured man who enters into a pact with Satan to become a werewolf for a year and a half in return for youth and affluence. Over the course of his journeys (in the company of fellow soul-exchanger, Dr. Faust), he kills, maims, and cannibalizes human beings that he encounters in manners that recall the death of Carew.
By the time that supernatural fiction was entering into its heyday (approximately 1864 – 1934), werewolves – or suggestions thereof – were becoming common tropes. Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan features a proto-Lovecraftian female werewolf who seduces men and terrifies them into suicide by revealing her otherworldly nature. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a similar story called “John Barrington Cowles” which hosts another erotic female lead who is equal parts dominatrix, sadist, vampire, hypnotist, and werewolf. Her unfortunate suitor, Cowles, calls her a “wehr-wolf” and compares her to the child-eating fiend in “The White Wolf of the Harz Mountains,” but her ultimate nature – like the shapeshifter in The Great God Pan – is left unclear. His “A Pastoral Horror,” the story of a mannerly pastor who is, by night, a pickaxe wielding psychopath, is cited as a psychological werewolf story, and contains obvious links to Jekyll and Hyde. Rudyard Kipling’s famous “Mark of the Beast” concerns a werewolf curse which slowly and horrifically changes a man into a beast after he desecrates a Hindu shrine, and Ambrose Bierce’s “Eyes of the Panther” tells the story of a woman who is afraid that she carries hereditary insanity, when in fact she seems to be an offspring of her mother’s violent rape by a panther (which is suggested to be her mother’s husband, who had left to go hunting, but returned as a were-cat).
Jekyll and Hyde represent the same essential concerns that all good werewolf stories do: that virtue can be faked, that wickedness can be concealed, and that enemies may walk, undetected, beside us every day. Werewolves have become metaphors for the far less romantic realities of our society: rapists, serial murderers, domestic abusers, child molesters, and all variety of other sequestered violators of our mores and standards. There is overall a sexual potency to the myth of the werewolf, and it is interesting that during the Victorian era most werewolves were women (suggesting the hidden lusts and appetites that men feared to acknowledge), but ever since World War One, most werewolves have been exclusively male (suggesting the wildness of male violence – of war, rape, and murder – which the horrors of the Great War exposed, and which suddenly made female libidos seem the least of our race’s worries). The myth continues to organize a conversation around our anxieties about the animals that prowl around us, work with us, and sleep beside us, and it is for this reason that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the whole gamut of werewolf literature – from Herodotus to Kipling – continue to fascinate and disturb us.
Dr. Henry Jekyll
Henry Jekyll has sadly been much maligned by pop culture. Rather than the figure of pathos modelled after Greek tragedies which Stevenson intended him to be (less Dorian Gray and more Oedipus Rex), he has been used to represent a subversive sexual predator and treated as a metaphor for sexual deviancy and violence – all this in spite of Stevenson’s well-controlled decision not to portray either Jekyll’s apetites or Hyde’s crimes (with three exceptions). In private letters Stevenson does acknowledge that he feels that Jekyll’s struggle was with “sexuality,” but in the book all we know is that his weaknesses were indiscretions – specifically “undignified” – without any further details. So the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold that Jekyll rapes and keeps locked in Hyde’s sex dungeon? Purely an invention of film makers. Jekyll represents so much more than sexual depravity: he represents human weakness and desperation in a way that should conjure nothing but sympathy and pity. Jekyll was raised with a tremendously strong Super-Ego – the internalized parent, or moral center of the unconscious – and found himself ashamed of behaviors and appetites that, as he put it, other respectable men would glibly brag about.
In other words, his “sins” were so inoffensive that most people in high society would laugh them off, but to him (and, based on two telling references, to his father) they were inexcusable. Jekyll wants to be liked and admired, but he also wants to enjoy life – not like a decadent sociopath, but like a regular guy. And this is all Jekyll wants – to be a regular guy. So he summons Hyde to siphon off his desire for unmonitored fun. That Hyde overwhelms both his Super-Ego and his executive Ego is not only an oversight, it is a great human tragedy. Here is a man who simply desires relaxation and self-contentment – to be and like himself for who he is – but instead of coming out of the closet (either as a manner of speaking or as we mean it in the euphemism), he continues to Hyde himself away from his friends. Jekyll is terrified of disapproval (Freudians would again blame his influential father—or at least the father that Jekyll has enthroned in his head), and has kept Hyde repressed for half a century. When he escapes, he is fed by an unmet hunger, not – as in Stevenson’s original manuscript – by a lifetime of hypocrisy.
Jekyll is not a secret sinner pining over a solution that would allow him to wickedly sin as much as he wants during the night and live comfortably during the day (although this IS Hyde’s M.O.); he is an overly-repressed man whose starved Id comes charging out of its cage, leaving carnage in its wake. Jekyll doesn’t even die with Hyde: his spirit departs their body eight days before Hyde kills himself, surrendering to the powerful lusts of an under-serviced animal nature which – had it been given more liberty to taste and enjoy life – may not have been such a brutal usurper.
Mr. Edward Hyde
Like Jekyll, Hyde is the subject of much misunderstanding – again largely due to film adaptations. Hyde may be a sexual deviant, but not necessarily. We know of three wicked deeds of his: trampling a girl, bludgeoning Carew (who may have been soliciting him for sex), and beating a prostitute/matchgirl. Films depict Hyde as very obviously misshapen, usually physically imposing, with brazen rudeness, a prostitute sex-slave at hand, and a flair for foppish togs. This is almost entirely wrong: Hyde is inexplicably disturbing to view, though those who have seen him blame his expression and aura, not a physical deformity. What we know of his physique is that he is dwarfish and slight (“troglodytic” is one of my favorite words in the novel), that he has ape-ish moods, a strange, lunging walk, and small hands with dusky skin, thick hair, and muscular flesh.
We also know that – hardly a dandy (silk top-hat, opera cape, sparkling rings, and Oscar Wilde-esque striped trousers and fey ascots are de rigueur for film adaptations) – Hyde is dressed plainly in expensive materials. We might imagine a man in a black frock coat with a Homburg hat and a black tie. To me, this is far more disturbing to imagine than the easily broadcasted Jack-the-Ripper crossover outfit (who, by the way, was also probably dressed plainly). Hyde’s height is his most telling trait, and it is a pity that this has almost never been depicted accurately. He actually seems to have the appearance of a teenager (Utterson calls him “Master” – an address used for males under the age of nineteen – and refers to him as a protégée, also implying that he could live on Jekyll’s legacy for many decades). Hyde has this appearance because his growth has been stunted – spiritually speaking – and it shows in his physical appearance.
Hyde is also not a brute, but a coward. Tremendously polite to Utterson (especially under the circumstances), he is also pandering to Lanyon, and sugar-lipped to his would-be lynch mob (most cinematic Hydes have a “fuck you all” attitude, even when faced with brutality). But the real Hyde is – as Jekyll notes – propelled by two chief emotions: fear and hate. He is animalistic, an Id which never fully developed and is thus stunted and devolved. In fact, there is a great deal of Darwinism in Stevenson’s regular references to apes and monkeys when describing young Hyde. Frederic March’s makeup showed this literally (he was chimp-like in appearance and devolved as the film progressed), but Stevenson only implies that his behavior and moods had simian qualities. Like an animal, though, Hyde is not motivated by deep emotions, but by self-preservation and egoism. He is almost like a toddler with terrifying muscularity, and his demise is actually cause for pity rather than digust: for eight days he madly paces his prison cell, weeping “like a woman” and calling on God. Hyde is not the vicious beast we so often picture, but a pathetic egotist made dangerous by self-involvement and pitiable by spiritual idiocy. Hyde grows stronger as Jekyll invests more and more of his Ego into Hyde, robbing the Super-Ego of the executive Self which should be evenly spread between the animalistic Id and the puritanical Super-Ego.
The switch that most terrifies Jekyll happens when he is in a park, mulling over one of his forays as Hyde (and debatably masturbating in public over the memory). Hyde springs into his skin unbidden and without the potion. This brings up Stevenson’s great metaphysical argument (repeated in “Olalla”) that mankind is truly four parts: a fleshy vessel – the mortal organ of humanity – a spiritual nature (the Super-Ego), a gluttonous nature (the Id), and consciousness (the Ego) which struggle for dominance. The mostly spiritual man is a saint, the gluttonous one a sinner, the fleshly one an imbecile, and the purely conscious one a ghost. Hyde pushes the Super-Ego out, killing Jekyll (whose consciousness is tied up in it), and finds himself trapped in the stunted, hairy, dwarfish fleshly vessel of young Master Edward Hyde.
John Gabriel Utterson
Utterson is the consummate Victorian man of honor – not particularly clubbable, certainly not the man about town that his cousin is, dry, curmudgeonly, and irascible, but beloved by his many friends. What makes Utterson so likeable in spite of his cantankerous ways is his indefatigable loyalty. Utterson has a taste for pathos: like Horatio in Hamlet or the chorus in a Greek tragedy, he is intimately involved in the lives of ruined men, undaunted by scandal, and stubbornly loyal. Utterson’s comfort with imperfection makes him a perfect observer of Jekyll’s implosion: he is not judgmental or gossipy, and is typically unattracted to the melodrama of scandal, and yet he is deeply disturbed by Jekyll’s alliance with the young Master Hyde, and his dreams are haunted by visions and speculations of what might be happening behind the battered lab door.
Unimaginative Utterson is tormented by dreams, unromantic Utterson is driven to heroically intercede, uncorrupted Utterson is reminded of his youthful sins, univolved Utterson becomes a bonafide busy body. This is how strong Hyde’s shadow over Jekyll is, and while Utterson’s character may say more about Hyde than Utterson himself, he is still a dynamic, rich character, terribly maligned by his exclusion from most film adaptations. The power of Utterson’s personality is his dogged loyalty, his stubborn integrity, and his imperviousness to scandal; he is not ashamed of wayward friends, but he keeps his own weaknesses in check; he does not shun the corrupted, but he suppresses (not represses) his own temptations by accepting them and rechanneling them (he “mortifies” a gluttonous taste for rich wines by drinking cheap gin). Utterson is the perfect, grounded observer to watch the drama unfold in a relatively impartial manner. Like the steadfast Horatio or the unwavering Greek chorus, Utterson follows Jekyll in his steady degeneration and is present at his pitable end… “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Dr. Hastie Lanyon
Lanyon represents the conservative wing of the scientific establishment – a symbol of emotionally constipated, intellectually timid, morally repressed Victorian manhood. Grounded, hard-nosed, and practical, he loathes Jekyll’s speculative nature, preferring accepted facts and ideas to possibilities and imagination. Lanyon is a consummate Victorian, and a model Darwinian (in my illustration I couldn’t even help but to suggest a similarity between the two) whose materialism – the belief only in that which can be observed and measured – cements in him a deep-founded trust in his senses: he can sense who is good, see who is bad, and note who belongs and who doesn’t. Adaptations often bring a class element into Lanyon’s personality, in that he thinks that gentlemen are good, working men corruptible, and criminals hopelessly debased.
However, Lanyon harbors a secret taste for curiosity – an unwillingness to let things remain unseen – and this is what Hyde uses to lure him into witnessing the transformation. What breaks Lanyon’s mind and body isn’t the shock of what Jekyll has hidden from him, but the implications of what is hidden within himself. Having seen (thus validating it with his senses) the virtually seamless transition of the debased villain Hyde into the unsuspected socialite Jekyll, Lanyon is wasted by the realization that there is more to heaven and earth than can be measured by the senses – that he is not in control of his own soul, that he cannot fully comprehend the world around him, and that he cannot firmly define his own identity. Lanyon’s death – symbolic of what Stevenson predicted to be the inevitable demise of rigid Victorian manhood with its jingoistic machismo and puritanical morality – is due to a loss of control, both of his understanding of the universe at large, and of himself as a complex (rather than black and white) “polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.”
Sir Danvers Carew, MP
A beautiful white-haired gentleman with “pretty manners” who is beaten to death after accosting Hyde. Often recast as a potential father-in-law (thanks again to the Sullivan stageplay plot), Sir Danvers is hardly as fleshed out as the disapproving father figure whose death is an Oedipal triumph for Hyde. In fact, Carew may actually be much less of a moral tower and more of a Jekyll himself. What we do know of him suggests something may be off: he is wandering alone at night – very late – without identifying papers, carrying a letter for Utterson, and prettily approaching Hyde. Even in his confession, Jekyll never discusses the conversation (which many have interpreted as asking for directions), leading me – and Leonard Wolf, Gwen Hyman, and Francesco Billari, among others – to suspect that Carew was either soliciting Hyde as homosexual hookup, or asking directions to a neighborhood where such things happened. Wolf in particular suggests that Carew’s death may have been literal gay-bashing summoned from the homophobic “fear and rage” that constitute Hyde. There has been some suggestion that maybe Hyde was even blackmailing Carew (he had visited the maid’s master before – why? Perhaps he has run into these men on his nightly maneuvers and uses the information to blackmail them) and became suspicious that he was on his way to confess to Utterson (hence the letter) and expose Hyde. In any case, the upstanding knight and member of Parliament seems to have secret appetites like Jekyll, and has paid for them with his life.
Like Carew, Enfield appears to be a man with secrets. He also takes strolls late at night in neighborhoods where gentlemen aren’t given to walking at late hours. Returning home from “some place at the end of the world” – often interpreted as a brothel, a drag burlesque, or some kind of decadent gentlemen’s club – Enfield encounters Hyde after he has trampled a little girl, and leads the lynch mob that bullies him into blackmail at the risk of his life. Enfield, a confirmed “man about town,” is even more clearly given to his vices than Carew, but has little pretense (unlike Carew and Jekyll) of being a reputable man. He is well known for his tastes, and he and Utterson respect of code of tolerance and silence whereby they understand one another’s differences – the dry, dusty lawyer and the wild, punchy playboy – something which Jekyll and Hyde are unable to do for one another. His disgust towards Hyde is suggestive because of his wanton ways: had a prim and proper Victorian patriarch felt similarly towards the man, we would hardly be surprised, but when a tolerant, laissez-faire, man-about-town like Enfield must stifle the instinctive urge to kill him… well, that is certainly meaningful.
So much of Jekyll and Hyde is a social commentary on class and society, and Poole, like Lanyon, represents a relic of a fading age. A sturdy, loyal manservant of the Jeeves cast (and caste), Poole is brave and unflinching, personally moral, but willing to turn a blind eye to his master’s sins as a courtesy of his class. Eventually, however, it is Poole’s hand at the axe which breaks its way into Jekyll’s secret. It is as if Stevenson is warning Victorian Britain that a hypocritical society can lord itself over the lower classes for only so long before they will have to take moral ownership of their civilization – and at that point it might be too late for the corrupt decadents they had so long suffered to rule them.
POPULAR CRITICAL INTERPRETATIONS:
EIGHT LITERARY ANALYSES.
Like Frankenstein and Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde has been plucked apart by thousands of critics since it appeared on the scene. Critics use a particular pattern of study to derive a cohesion vision of the meaning of a text, or the way that it could be read. Throughout the text I will elaborate on my own personal interpretation in the notes (for the record, I identify heavily with Freudian, Jungian/Mythic, New Historical, and Marxist schools), but I would like to briefly disccuss some of the most popular interpretations of this book. There are many other lenses (Postcolonial, New Historical, Postmodern, Deconstructive, Formalist, and Poststructural are just a few that I don’t include here), but below are those that I consider the most notable.
FREUDIAN / PSYCHOANALYSIS.
Freudian readings of Jekyll and Hyde are some of the most popular. They interpret Jekyll as the Ego of his personality – the executive center – his conscience as the Freudian Super-Ego (the internalized parent), and Hyde as the Id – animal lusts, impulses, and hatred (what Stevenson boils down to “fear and hate”). Jekyll tries to suppress his powerful, shame-causing Super-Ego (implanted by society and – it would seem – his father), and thus releases his Id, Hyde. As the Id, Hyde reacts impulsively, rages causelessly, and is consumed by paranoia and self-love. Hyde is dwarflike from decades of repression, and could be interpreted as being roughly 17 years old in appearance.
Freudians would interpret this as warning of the dangers of repression and latency, and see Jekyll’s self-destruction as a parable against the mismanagement of the Unconscious forces that drive the Ego. Jekyll’s house (like those of Usher and Norman Bates) also presents a near-perfect metaphor for the Unconscious, wherein the Super-Ego guards the public front, the Ego dwells in the top, and the Id is released through the private backway. Sexuality, of course, is often read into the text (see: Queer Theory), and although Carew is not Jekyll’s future father-in-law, most films cast him as a conservative mainstay of paternal Victorianism, making his murder an Oedipal response from the sexually frustrated Jekyll who resents this father-figure as the sole obstacle to sexual fulfilment (brilliantly depicted in the 1931 film).
JUNGIAN / ARCHETYPE THEORY / MYTHIC.
Jungian psychoanalytical treatments look at the novel both for a model of Jung’s Subconscious, and for the mythic archetypes that Carl G. Jung saw populating the Collective Conscious of mankind. Jekyll himself makes the very Jungian claim that mankind is not one, nor even two, but a bustling city of personalities. Jungians will see Hyde as an expression of Jekyll’s Shadow (the Jungian Id – the dark side of human desire and passion), and will view Jekyll’s metaphorical psychosis as the result of an unintegrated Shadow: Jung believed that neuroses developed when the disparate parts of the human psyche were not properly socialized with one another: the macho who represses his feminine side (anima) becomes fixated on masculinity and chronically overcompensates.
Likewise Jekyll tries to divide his good and bad side when in reality he should reconcile them (like Yin and Yang, which are distinct but related and carry the capacity of the other within themselves), ideally through analytical therapy. Myth theorists will be drawn to the story as an archetype, tracing it through the folklore of werewolves (otherwise good citizens who secretly harbor an asocial nature), and will locate the archetypes that Stevenson enlists: The Questing Hero (Utterson), The Martyr (Carew), The Threshold (the closet), The Tower (the lab with its overlooking windows), The Crossroads (the no-going-back moment), The Tempter (Hyde-to-Lanyon), The Dreamer (pre-Hyde Jekyll), Battle-of-Good-and-Evil, Death and Rebirth, Initiation, and “These are things man was not meant to know,” among others.
Structrualism is a branch of linguistics, and while it typically is focused on language, it also attempts to take apart the structural mechanics of a story – the way the characters and settings interact with one another like pieces in an engine. They would be most interested by the duality of Jekyll-to-Hyde, Utterson-to-Lanyon, Poole-to-the landlady, the front door –to- the backdoor, the trampled girl (starts the story) –to- the slapped matchseller/prostitute (ends the story), and the general momentum of the plot – exposition, problem developments, quest, peaks and troughs, climax, and denouement. A structuralist would be particularly intriqued by the circularity of the plot (it begins and ends with similar motifs), and the dichotomies that link so many of the characters. This critical approach is more interested in plot mechanics than social commentary and is related to Formalism (i.e., discussing the science of good writing).
Feminist critics are concerned with the ways that literature demonstrates the way that gender, sexuality, and power interplay, either as a means of oppressing the disenfranchised or as means for the powerless to subvert and undermine the networks of power (the earliest feminist critics were focused on female subjects, but today they are more interested in power dynamics of all kinds, including racial, sexual, and religious minorities, overlapping with the Marxist, Postcolonial, and Queer schools). Feminist critics might interpret Jekyll and Hyde as a critique of the patriarchal society that has repressed Jekyll, tempting him to draw out his violent tendencies. A feminist reading of the novel would consider Hyde’s rampages to be the expression of suppressed passions which are twisted and distorted by the demands of the upper-class, white, male patriarchy. They may also view that moral domination (refusing Jekyll the ability to indulge in harmless but undignified indulgences) as a ploy to regulate subversive behavior and ideas as a means of maintaining power over social minorities.
GENDER THEORY / QUEER THEORY.
Gender theorists and queer theorists explore the ways that characters in a text handle issues of gender (socialized sexuality) and sex (physical sexuality). Queer Theory specifically focuses on Otherness in sexuality – not limited to but including homosexuality, fetishes, polygamy, and sexual deviancy. Jekyll and Hyde is almost always shown in film as a metaphor for the repressed temptations of heterosexual lust (rape – never mentioned by Stevenson – is almost ubiquitous with Hyde), but if any sexual appetite lurks in the text, it is the “love that dare not speak its name”: Victorian homosexuality.
All of the main characters are middle-aged, never-been-married, homosocial male bachelors who spend most of their time either roaming the streets or drinking together. Utterson has visions of Hyde lingering over Jekyll’s sleeping form without a servant present. He also wonders if seeing Hyde’s face might explain Jekyll’s inability to kick his habit (perhaps, he wonders, he might be remarkably beautiful), and suggests to Poole that Jekyll may have caught syphilis. Sir Danvers Carew, also, is not a father-in-law slain in an Oedipal rage (as the movies almost universally depict), but a lovely man with queer mannerisms who Hyde slays after being accosted. Jekyll never describes their conversation other than to call it “pathetic,” leading some to speculate that Carew was soliciting Hyde and that his death is an example of gay bashing.
Queer theorists have often seen Jekyll’s harmless-but-undignified desires (and his wish to explore them while keeping them a secret) as suggesting the mental dissonance of a closeted man. Stevenson described Jekyll’s sins as “sexual” in letters (though going into no further detail), and Gender theorists have long been fascinated by what many interpret to be a novel that depicts the struggles of single Victorian men to pass as straight while still indulging their sexually deviant appetites – homosexual or otherwise.
Beginning with the economic criticism of Karl Marx, Marxist theorists study the ways that social classes struggle over financial, social, and political power. Marxists would likely be drawn to Jekyll’s wealth and that of his peers as a corrupting influence. Jekyll leaves his posh house to live as Hyde in working class Soho, enjoying the social freedoms of the poor while clinging to the financial power of the rich. Marxists would critique Victorian society for hoarding power from the poor and condemning them for their morals while secretly envying them. By sharing his wealth instead of clinging to high society, Jekyll would have been less conflicted by his desire to enjoy lower class social morals and his desire to hold onto his public esteem. Marxists would also find interest in Poole, the working class servant who must ultimately subvert his master’s orders, breaking into his aristocratic secrets through force – a revolutionary act of agency.
Unsurprisingly considering Stevenson’s background, it is easy to read Jekyll and Hyde as a Christian allegory for the struggle between good and evil, and – regardless of specific religious affiliation – this continues to be the popular interpretation of the novel. Hyde can be viewed as either Satan or personal temptation. By trying to subvert the will of God – not unlike his literary kinsman, Victor Frankenstein – Henry Jekyll relies on his own power to resist temptation, inviting sin into his life. Rather than attempting to reconcile the good with the bad, he attempts to separate them – tantamount to Satan’s great sin of trying to be like God. Like Eve, Jekyll is enamored with the idea of truly knowing what it is to be good and to be evil, and this is his downfall.
Rather than relying on the gift of God’s grace, Jekyll tries to become fully good, but in a twist that draws heavily from Calvinist theology, Jekyll finds that his evil side is naturally stronger and we never even meet his good side. Still the most prevalent reading of the story (although usually without references to a Christian God), this interpretation essentially views the novel as a study in good versus evil, the power of evil to overwhelm good (when given enough freedom), the hubris of mankind, the dangers of moral laxity (and of giving in to temptations – even to a slight degree), and the fundamental dichotomy of mankind (and the universe) as consisting of two warring parts: Good and Evil, God and Satan, spirit and flesh.
As anyone who has read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde will know, there are times when the language used effortlessly suggests the struggle of addiction. Jekyll uses his potion to give vent to repressed passions inside of him, and attempts to keep this socially unacceptable side of his personality roped off from his friends and colleagues – his hope is that he can have his proverbial cake and eat it, too. But as the Alcoholics Anonymous adage goes, “first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Like a person addicted to alcohol, narcotics, or pain killers, Jekyll’s indulgence begins as a means to express a dark part of his soul, but that shadow rapidly begins to overtake his personality.
Like an addict, he hides his addiction from friends, he increases his use overtime (from experimental to regular usage), he finds that he must continually increase the dosage, that he was mistaken in the common belief that he was in control of his addiction (that he could “stop whenever [he] wants to”), and that at some point he goes from trying to give voice to a small part of himself to desperately trying to keep that once small part from dominating the whole. Also like most addicts, Jekyll experiences depression, avoids friends, lets his social and professional life suffer, and experiences a huge shift in personality. For Stevenson who used cocaine and alcohol to soothe stomach pains and insomnia, the language of addiction came quite authentically.
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE IN FILM:
THE MOST NOTABLE CINEMATIC DOPPELGÄNGERS
One of the best versions of the story – perhaps only trumped by March – the silent John Barrymore adaptation is notable for several ways that it influenced the future of Jekyll & Hyde productions. In a coincidental way it began a trend of cranking out adaptations roughly every ten years (the first American version was done in 1912, this in 1920, and notable adaptations followed in 1931, 1941, 1951, 1971, 1981, 1990, 2002, and 2013). In a more serious manner, Barrymore’s version cemented what would become the popular understanding of the Jekyll myth by enlisting the plot of the 1887 stage play adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan and elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The resultant plot will be familiar: Utterson is the name of a minor character and is otherwise erased; Jekyll is a young and dashing romantic and a confirmed heterosexual; he is engaged to a society lady – the archetypal virgin; he is attracted to a loose woman – the archetypal whore with a heart of gold; Carew becomes his fiancée’s disapproving, conservative father (making the murder highly Oedipal).
In this adaptation, Carew (who also doubles as the Lanyon and Enfield figures) is a cynical macho who actually tempts Jekyll by mocking his goodness (“no man could be as good as he looks”) and chiding him for wasting his youth when he could be sowing his wild oats (“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”), making the film a rather progressive critique of upper-class cynicism. After adapting the persona of Hyde as an experiment in oat-sowing, Jekyll becomes estranged from his fiancée, shacking up with a dance hall wench and spending his nights engrossed in opium, gin, and brothels. In the climax, Carew witnesses the transformation and is murdered shortly thereafter, and Jekyll commits suicide just in time to prevent Hyde from raping his distraught fiancée. The film is an absolute masterwork – acted splendidly, photographed lushly, directed bravely. The transformation and makeup are perhaps the most accurate ever done, and the acting and direction are far ahead of their time, tremendously compelling, and artistic in every sense of the word.
In many ways, Frederic March’s Academy Award-winning 1931 film is the unquestionable masterpiece of the Jekyll & Hyde tradition. A pre-code movie, it wriggles with daring sexuality, grey ethics, and moral authenticity. The four greatest features of this expressionist tour de force are its lush, chiaroscuro photography, its brilliant, cutting-edge direction by Rouben Mamoulian (including a mesmerizing opening sequence shot from Jekyll’s P.O.V.), March’s emotionally grueling Academy Award winning acting, and make-up that rivals the stunning work of Jack Pierce (Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man). The film certainly has a maturity about it – emotionally and artistically – that most versions lack, and few ever come close to.
Ripe with sexuality, Jekyll’s downfall is explained as that of one who “loved not too wisely but too well”: repressing his romantic passions for his fiancée, Jekyll is enflamed by the sexually available whore Ivy Pearson (in a bawdy role that will shock those unused to pre-code cinema), and the egotistical Hyde essentially keeps her as a sex slave. She runs to Jekyll (for whom she developed a licentious attraction) for help, but when he transforms into Hyde (and each time the makeup devolves a little more, until his last, most troglodytic transformation – a dripping, goony chimp) he reveals the truth to Ivy before strangling her. Jekyll’s transformation is thoroughly believable, and what’s more – unlike many adaptations – it is rich with pathos. His desires are innocent enough, his ambition understandable, and his suffering relatable. We don’t relish Hyde’s defeat – like the weeping Poole, we despair in Jekyll’s loss.
Much like the equally ingenious Picture of Dorian Gray, March’s version is a masterpiece of American expressionism, pregnant with atmosphere, blessed with ingenious acting, and dominated by a steady directorial vision and photography and effects that secure it legacy as a classic.
After Barrymore and March, few adaptations made a splash with critics, though several were notable. The Spencer Tracy version (1941) is a disaster, but left a legacy that merits discussion. Miscast, mis-shot, and mis-acted, we have the lantern jawed American Tracy failing to convince us that he is a British aristocrat. Brutish, heavy-limbed, and big-boned, with his Midwestern accent and mannersism, he is the last person who should have been selected as Jekyll. Ingrid Bergman is equally bizarre as a Cockney barmaid (not, I repeat, not a prostitute – thank you, Code), and only Donald Crisp – in one of the best performances of Carew – stands out as perfectly suited to his role as the sneering, British father-in-law. Hyde’s makeup was decidedly minimalist (thicker hair, some eye makeup, and a hint at a widows peak are about it), and visitors to the set often joked “who is he now, Jekyll or Hyde?”
The fantasy sequence during the transformation is hatefully bizarre: the fiancée and mistress are ridden like horses, and at one point Bergman’s head is drawn out of a champagne bottle like a cork. But this is also the version that changed Jekyll’s pronunciation from JEE-kull to JZEH-kull (a literary annoyance nearly as keen as Karloff’s inadvertent christening Frankenstein’s Creature with his patronymic), and it also transformed Barrymore and March’s nuanced performances into a moral melodrama. Incidentally, Paramount destroyed almost every copy of March’s film in a bid to prevent competition with their new movie, and the film was barely saved from destruction, and after its disastrous reviews, March thanked his friend Tracy – tongue in cheek of course – for “the biggest boost to his career.”
In 1971 – after a string of lackluster, made-for-TV-movies and campy spin-offs, Christopher Lee revived the story in I, Monster, a revisionist film which recast Jekyll as a Freudian psychoanalyst and is notable for reintroducing Utterson, played deftly by Peter Cushing. Lee’s acting is the salvation of this film, which would otherwise have been another formulaic sex-and-blood Hammer production. Unlike Tracy, Lee exudes aristocratic atmosphere, and (also unlike Tracy) can convincingly transform into his depraved alter-ego with only a few dabs of makeup, conveying the rest – with a Barrymore-esque flair – through posture, expression, and carriage. The film is lush with Freudian symbolism, suggestion, and sexuality – implying much while showing little (one transformation is shown in silhouette – sheer discipline on the director’s part). Cushing and Lee play off one another beautifully, and the revisionist direction leaves us with a stark, psychologically smart rendition that harkens to the power of March’s portrayal and Mamoulian’s dreary vision.
Following a few notable if tawdry adaptations – Michael Caine as a disgusting Elephant Man who rapes his sister-in-law (1990), Anthony Perkins as a thoroughly psychotic Hyde / Jack the Ripper (1989), and David Hemmings as a shaggy Neanderthal (1981) – John Malkovich took up the cape and top-hat in Mary Reilly. The 1996 film was an adaptation of the revisionist novel by Valerie Martin and starred an awkward Julia Roberts as the eponymous main character, Jekyll’s Irish maidservant. In spite of a lack of genuine chemistry, the odd choice of Roberts (presumably based on the strength of her similar role in Pretty Woman), and the hideous box office reports and lackluster critical response, the film is actually rather well done. Malkovich plays Jekyll authentically as a middle aged man – weak, timid, and deeply repressed – while the sexually potent Hyde is slick, seductive, and powerful. The dreary setting, stark photography, and character studies make it a compelling and impossible to miss submission to the growing catalog of Jekyll & Hyde films.
Roger Ebert – who was nonetheless underwhelmed by the overall product – accurately identified the movie’s power: “[It] is in some ways more faithful to the spirit of Robert Lewis Stevenson's original story than any of the earlier films based on it, because it's true to the underlying horror. This film is not about makeup or special effects, or Hyde turning into the Wolf Man. It's about a powerless young woman who feels sympathy for one side of a man's nature, and horror of the other… [It] is a dark, sad, frightening, gloomy story… ” Sexually electric, psychologically brooding, emotionally tolling, it is certainly weak, like its Jekyll, but unquestionably compelling, like its Hyde.
In 2002 John Hannah – whose Edinburgh brogue and Stevenson lookalike features match the source convincingly – offered one of the most psychologically tortured renditions in a dreary and gore-splashed TV movie. Realism is the theme of this adaptation, which offers only subtle hints at science fiction or the supernatural. Hannah (I can’t overstate how much he looks and sounds like Stevenson must have) is experimenting with what appears to be opium, and Hyde – who is only differentiated by his pimp coat, March-esque claw footed cane, and a tall beaver hat – is brought about by a combination of narcotics, drug-induced psychosis, and fugue states. This Jekyll isn’t transformed – he is high, and as cheap as this might sound, the effect is refreshingly believable.
This adaptation is shocking and compelling, being equal parts Dorian Gray, Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd (a blackmailing servant boy is modelled on Todd’s lad, Toby), The Prince and the Pauper, Mary Reilly (in the form of Jekyll’s fawning, compliant, Catholic maidservant), and Fight Club, this adaptation is highly ambitious, but ultimately suffers from an unnecessarily grim plot (which oddly enough seems founded in Catholic theology) wherein Hyde butchers his lackey, sadistically date rapes Jekyll’s fiancée (twice), bludgeons the social reformer, Carew, and needlessly slays the single redemptive figure in the film. Gore flows like summer rain. One fascinating element here is the choice to make the contrite Carew father to both the posh fiancée (whose vicious date rape early in the film essentially silences her) and the Mary Reilly character who is born to Carew’s favorite prostitute. The two sisters offer the theme of duplicity another level of depth, making a very vocal social argument (much like the socially conscious, repentant Carew, a reforming progressive). Utterson is also notably present, though an unimportant character used only as a framing device.
Hannah’s performance is psychologically brutal, sometimes difficult to watch, and drenched in pathos. Although it is at times too ambitious, relies on too much gore, has too many subplots, and is afflicted with a needlessly dreary ending, the film remains one of my favorite adaptations if only for its earnestness, social message, and psychological realism.
The final adaptation that we will consider was a British miniseries produced by the BBC and written by Steven Moffat. Fans of Sherlock will recognize Moffat’s Moriarty in the impish, black humored Hyde (right down to the Ulster accent), so splendidly played by James Nesbitt. Like Moriarty, Hyde is a villain that we love to hate, but with an emphasis on love. This Hyde is animalistic but also instinctively protective of those he cares for (yes, cares for). Something of a paranormal/psychological thriller in the vein of The X-Files, Jekyll follows the world-weary every man, Tom Jackman, the balding descendent of Dr Henry Jekyll (depicted as a Scot, his name pronounced JEE-kull), who has inherited Hyde in his genes. Like Hannah and Lee, Nesbitt’s Hyde is tremendously minimalistic (sporting thicker, blacker hair and black contact lenses, but otherwise relying on brilliant facial acting), and his potency is infectious.
Set in modern London, we are sucked into the drama as soon as we meet Jackman restrained in a dingy basement where he appears to be possessed by the psychopathic Hyde. Ultimately, this adaptation traces the motives of the historical Jekyll (here Mary Reilly once again proves the power of its influence – yes, there is a gold-hearted-maid subplot), while Jackman battles covert government programs, tries to protect his beautiful wife and little boy, and learns about the mysterious, primal emotions which motivate his alter-ego. The series – six episodes long – is not quite an adaptation (though we do meet the good Doctor Jekyll), but invests the story with a fresh perspective, lush visuals, and outstanding acting. Other than Gina Bellman’s miscast role as Jackman’s wife (she doesn’t seem to know where she is or why, and is a tad too model-like to be believable in this role), and a sluggish third act, the series is a brilliant revision.
DR JEKYLL’S CONTINUED ATTRACTION
I would like to end this exploration of Stevenson’s horror masterpiece with a few thoughts on its consistent durability. From literary circles to the stage to the screen to the vernacular, Dr Jekyll and his menacing double have become just as impossible to avoid as Frankenstein’s Creature and Count Dracula. The concept of the duplicitous scientist has made its way into cartoons (Bugs Bunny, for instance), comedies (The Nutty Professor, et al), children’s movies (The Pagemaster), PBS programming (Wishbone), and the understandably welcoming arms of camp (Victor/Victoria). The reason, I suppose, that the story continues to fascinate is because – as much as we want to be third-party viewers and as much as we want to judge and condemn Jekyll – we identify with the good doctor’s desire to give vent to his “undignified” appetites. There is something tremendously human and relatable about wishing that we could express our indiscreet impulses without hurting those we love or losing the esteem of our friends. For some that is the obvious metaphor, sexual liberation, but for others it falls more along Jekyll’s description: the odd tastes, strange interests, bizarre habits, and unspoken wishes that we lock away from our friends and family in order to preserve their good will.
Some of those impulses are malignant – like gambling addictions, alcoholism, or pornography – but others (perhaps like Jekyll’s) are less “wicked”: a hobby that your coworkers would ridicule (LARPing, perhaps, reenacting, collecting cookie jars, or DJing on weekends), a passion for a career that your family disapproves of, a fanatic taste for burlesque theater or karaoke, or – particularly germane to our society today – closeted homosexuality or transsexuality. The desire to be authentic without being rejected, to taste happiness without feeling disapproval, to have integrity without having to sacrifice the respect, admiration, or love of family, friends, and coworkers. We all harbor secret wishes or tastes that are sometimes awkward to reveal – sometimes excruciating. Yet Jekyll attempts to have it both ways without experiencing the pang of social rejection: as he puts it, others “have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures.” And this is the so-often overlooked tragedy of Jekyll – one exacerbated by unfair and inaccurate cinematic interpretations: Jekyll didn’t create Hyde to get away with rape and murder, he created Hyde to slip away – if momentarily – from the scrutiny of society (if you will excuse the sappy expression, to dance like no one is watching). He wanted to be himself for once, but his bid for liberation only led to a greater captivity than ever, and herein is the lesson that Stevenson wants to impart: not to give it up, all those hidden dreams and secret passions, but to live authentically. Utterson and Enfield represent the form of non-judgmental integrity that could have saved Jekyll, had he opted to live humbly, self-deprecatingly, and without concern for others’ opinions.
In today’s society the need to deeply feel and understand Jekyll’s dilemma is greater than ever. Social media has made the façade that weighed Jekyll down even larger and heavier. We all host carefully manicured Jekylls on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. Jekylls desperate to be seen, to be approved, to be condoned. And yet the Hyde rages against this social fakery. In the year that I write this, several people committed suicide after an adultery website called Ashley Madison was hacked and information released. These poor victims of a duplicitous society reminded me of Carew – a good man with a secret vice, who were punished far more cruelly by a vicious stranger than their own families ever would. Technology has made it easier than ever to cultivate Hydes even as we polish and position our Jekylls. On Facebook we are happy – vacationing obscenely, hugging constantly, cuddling with our perfect babies – while at night we are discontent, hyper-comparative, annoyed with the disparity in image and feeling. We hemorrhage money to maintain an image, obsessively document every moment in order to invite commentary and acknowledgement, and then get out of bed in the middle of the night, creep downstairs, and live a different life from the one we are so desperate to have approved and acknowledged.
In today’s society, more than ever, there is a desperate need to understand Jekyll’s downfall and Stevenson’s message: stop caring about the demands of your social circle and simply live a happy life. Do the things you enjoy and do them fully, involve your family and friends in your passions, be open about your interests, be genuine in all parts of your life. If you don’t want to go, stay in. If you do want to go, speak up. A life lived between duty and desire is one torn in opposite directions. A life lived in existential compromise – the life of a wine-loving, gin-drinking Utterson – is one which can tend to the tastes of the heart but preserve the fabric of our family.
You can find our annotated and illustrated edition of Jekyll and Hyde HERE!