Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Edition: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Norton Critical Editions)
Although Jekyll and Hyde has since won critical attention for its literary merits, its original publication as a shilling paperback led to audiences questioning the work's merit and morality, linking it to the sensationalistic, "low" fiction that tended to be published in the same format. Indeed, Jekyll and Hyde appeared in January of 1886, just a year after Stevenson's story called "Markheim" was published, a sensational Christmas "crawler" which critics have linked to Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson's own account as far as the writing of Jekyll goes is that a nightmare gave him the primary idea for his plot.

The account opens with a character sketch of the lawyer, Mr. Utterson, who isn't particularly warm or interesting but "somehow lovable." He had a "catholicity of good-nature" which made him the welcome companion of many, including his kinsman, Richard Enfield, briefly described as "the well-known man about town." On a walk one day in the evening, Enfield and Utterson approach an abandoned house, and Enfield tells a story in connection with that house (The geography of where they are in London is unspecific). One night, Enfield witnessed a strange man trampling over a young girl child. Needless to say, this caused a ruckus, and Enfield collared the man, demanding reparations from him. The man's name is "Hyde" and he takes out a key, goes into the abandoned house, and returns with a check in someone else's name. Enfield doesn't reveal whose name the check is in, because it is a respectable one--Utterson says, however, that he knows what name Enfield refers to because of some prior information that he had.

Back at home that evening, Utterson re-reads a will he has drawn up for his childhood friend, Dr. Jekyll, which bequeaths all of his money and estate to this same "Hyde" which Enfield has mentioned. Disturbed, Utterson thinks that he should find out more about Hyde. Utterson manages to make Hyde's acquaintance, and is struck by his aversion to Hyde even though he can't quite pin down what is wrong with him. Before confronting Jekyll about this unsavory character, Utterson visits Dr. Lanyon, a close mutual friend. Lanyon talks about how he doesn't know what has been going on with Jekyll in recent years; only that the two friends had been estranged for some time. When Utterson ventures out to Jekyll's house, he sees Hyde going into Jekyll's laboratory through a back door. Jekyll isn't home, and this disturbs Utterson. When Utterson finally gets to confront Jekyll about Hyde, Jekyll assures Utterson that it isn't a case of blackmail, saying that he might be rid of Hyde whenever he might choose to be rid of him. Jekyll enjoins Utterson to promise that he will carry out his wishes as far as his will went.

Approximately one year elapses, and the illustrious M.P. Thomas Carew is brutally beaten to death in the street. Carew had in his possession a letter for Utterson. It turns out that a maid has seen Hyde beat Carew to death with a club which belonged to Jekyll. Utterson again visits Jekyll, who shows him a letter from Hyde that informs Jekyll he has escaped and will not return. Mr. Guest, a clerk, compares this letter to a letter of invitation which Utterson receives from Jekyll and suggests that the handwritings are similar. Utterson suspects Jekyll of forging a letter to cover up for Hyde. For a time after Hyde's disappearance, Jekyll seems to have recovered his former spirits, entertaining friends and even reconciling, it seems, with Lanyon. Suddenly though, Jekyll is out of sorts, and refuses to see his friends. Utterson is further disturbed when Lanyon falls ill and dies. Before his death, Lanyon had left Utterson with two letters: one in his own hand to be opened only by Utterson, and the other specifying that it should only be opened upon Henry Jekyll's disappearance or death.

One night, Poole, the Butler at Jekyll's house, calls on Utterson, fearing that something has gone wrong--specifically, that Hyde has murdered Jekyll and taken over his place. Banding together, Poole and Utterson break into Jekyll's lab, and find the dead body of Edward Hyde, apparently having commited suicide by ingesting cyanide. Near the body is Jekyll's will, altered to leave all of his money to Utterson. Utterson also finds a letter from Jekyll addressed to him which directs him to read Lanyon's account because he has "disappeared, under what circumstances I have not the penetration to foresee." Back in his study, Utterson reads Lanyon's account, which tells of how he was called upon to do a favor for Jekyll via a letter: he was to break into Jekyll's lab and to retrieve some items from a drawer and to deliver them to someone who would come for them at midnight. That "someone" is Hyde, who mixes the contents of the drawer (some powder, and red liquid) and drinks it. Upon drinking this concoction, Hyde is transformed into Jekyll. Lanyon says that the sight of this transformation has shaken him to the core such that he will die soon. The final document that is revealed is Henry Jekyll's own account, which fully reveals how Jekyll tried to divide the "good" and the "evil" sides of his humanity through a potion. At first, his transformation into "Hyde," his evil counterpart, offered him the liberty to live a sordid, underground life of vice in London without repercussions to Dr. Jekyll's good name and character. Soon, however, Dr. Jekyll would find himself spontaneously and involuntarily turning into Hyde--his purely evil self was getting stronger and stronger. At one point, he locked himself out of his lab, and so needed Dr. Lanyon's help to retrieve his potion. In the end, Hyde proved too strong for Jekyll, and he ran out of potion (he was unable to replicate the potion because the first batch contained an unknown impurity which turned out to be effective for the transformation). Jekyll has written this letter while on the last draughts of the old potion, and he ends saying that he will not know what will happen when he becomes Hyde permanently: "Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? Or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment?"

Understandably, much of the critical work on Jekyll and Hyde has focused its energies on the titular figures: is Hyde a kind of racial "other" of Jekyll? A doppelganger whose enjoyment of freedom, and liberty comments on the limits Victorian social roles have on Jekyll? A lower figure on the evolutionary scale than Jekyll (especially as Utterson described Hyde as "tryglodytic" or ape-like)? Or simply, the evil part of man's nature because of being tempted by Satan during the fall?

I want to turn my focus, then, on some of the other characters and how they function in the narrative. In other famous late Victorian stories like Stoker's Dracula, upstanding members of society assemble documents together for the purpose of successfully discovering and then defeating the monster. Stevenson's group of respectable "professional men"--Utterson, Lanyon, Guest, and also Poole might be included as one who occupies a specific professional role, though not middle-class as the rest--fail, however, to discover anything at all and in the end, the monster destroys himself. Yet the narrative's inclusion of documents in the form of Jekyll's will, his letters, and chapter headings and subject matter that like official accounts like newspaper articles or court testimony ("The Carew Murder Case," "Incident of the Letter," "Remarkable Incident of Dr. Lanyon") reminds us of works like Dracula, sensation fiction novels like Collins's Woman in White, or detective fiction. These official or official-like accounts, however, are impotent as far as solving the mystery goes. The mystery is controlled to the very end by the possessor of the secret: Jekyll (and then Lanyon, in Jekyll's service) compels Utterson not to open the letters which reveal the full truth to him until after everything has been fully-played out. The reason given for Utterson's following these directions is the bond of friendship, of male camaraderie of early years. This camaraderie and close bonds of male friendship, however, prove to  ensure Jekyll's final isolation. He is alone from beginning to end.

The impotence, then, both of the documents/testimony and of male friendship (and furthermore, the complete absence of female characters in the novella) might comment on the limits of middle-class bachelors living respectable, professional lives. Before the great struggles of human import (good versus evil), these men are rather useless: Lanyon broke off ties with his supposedly close friend Jekyll because Jekyll was thinking about ideas beyond the scope of what was acceptable for the polite scientific community, and Utterson's rather bland inclination to follow the rules of male homosociality prevents him from getting to the truth sooner so that he might help his friend. Perhaps, actually, the very first lines that sketch out Utterson's character are the most damning: he is fond of saying, "I incline to Cain's heresy," in that he would "let [his] brother go to the devil in his own way." This, exactly, is the whole problem with men like Utterson: he is well-liked because he has a "catholicity of good-nature" but as far as connecting with others on any level more than a superficial and tolerant friendliness (which polite society expects from him), he is fearfully inept.

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