Vladimir Nabokov begins his lecture on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with a brief outline of the plot and then urges us to
ignore the fact that ham actors under the direction of pork packers have acted in a parody of the book, which parody was then photographed on a film and showed in places called theaters; it seems to me that to call a movie house a theater is the same as to call an undertaker a mortician.
I’ve got to read more Nabokov, I find him very funny. He continues
Please completely forget, dosremember, obliterate, unlearn, consign to oblivion and notion you may have had that “Jekyll and Hyde” is some kind of mystery story, a detective story, or movie.
The introduction to my edition of Jekyll and Hyde is collected in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, a book I sadly do not own but now want to very badly. Anyway, what we think is the Jekyll and Hyde story has become so much a part of culture that it is pretty hard to forget as requested. Throughout the entire book I’d catch myself thinking, “wow this is not what I expected.” But that is not bad. It is good because the story turned out to be better than I expected.
The story is mostly told by Utterson, a lawyer who seems a bit stiff and prickly but whom everybody likes because he passes no judgments on the activities of his friends and clients. We hear about Hyde early on. Utterson is out taking a stroll with a cousin, Enfield, when they pass by a dirty, neglected and unsavory door. Enfield then proceeds to tell him about a certain Hyde whom he had had the displeasure of meeting not long ago when Hyde ran down a girl in the street. Utterson takes great interest because he knows the unsavory door leads to the laboratory of his good friend Jekyll and he has a will he is keeping for Jekyll in which Jekyll leaves everything to Hyde should Jekyll die or disappear for more than three months. Utterson confronts Jekyll about the will, asking if he has been blackmailed or is otherwise under the power of Hyde. Utterson fears that Hyde is going to bump off Jekyll in order to gain the inheritance. Jekyll reassures his friend, telling him that Hyde can be got rid of at any time. Of course it isn’t that easy. We do not learn what the connection between Jekyll and Hyde is until the very end in a written confession by Jekyll.
Jekyll began experimenting because he always felt there was a side of himself that in order to be respectable he had to suppress. He had desires and yearnings he longed to fulfill and when he discovered the potion that turned him into Hyde–Hyde who is the embodiment of all his suppressed desire–he thought things couldn’t be better. By day he was everything a gentleman should be. By night, or sometimes days at a time, he was changed to Hyde and could fulfill every desire and whim and no one was any the wiser. What these dark desires are we are never told, only that they were bad and even evil by Victorian assessment standards.
It all eventually backfires when Hyde becomes like a drug addiction for Jekyll. Hyde’s strength increases and it becomes more and more difficult for Jekyll to change back. Jekyll tries to quit Hyde, but the more he tries to deny his dark side, the more he wants to indulge it until finally he gives in and as Hyde, he kills someone. He then thinks he has found the strength to remain only Jekyll, but Hyde is so strong now he doesn’t need the potion in order to come to the fore. Eventually, the upright Jekyll becomes the one suppressed, never to show himself again. However, it is interesting to note, as Nabokov points out, that Hyde also peeps out from Jekyll’s eyes as much as Jekyll peeps out from Hyde’s. Neither is entirely good or entirely evil. Jekyll cannot spilt himself in two so neatly; the one always knows and remembers what the other did.
Robert Louis Stevenson is brilliant. He wrote a story full of ambiguity and yet not so vague that we don’t know what’s going on. He created a story with just enough detail to fire our imaginations. Which also means that Jekyll and Hyde is open to numerous interpretations. A psychological/philosophical reading seems to me the most interesting. Jekyll and Hyde says much about dualities, good and evil, reason and sensation, civilized and primitive (Hyde is often described as ape-like). It is also tempting to look at it as a sort of morality tale. But the moral I draw from it is not “don’t give in to your dark side Luke,” but rather, the necessity of being an integrated person and finding a way to accept all parts of the self instead of splitting it off, much to the detriment of the whole.
Hyde reminded me a lot of Dorian Gray’s portrait. Except where Gray’s portrait hung hidden in a locked room, Jekyll walked the city hiding in the form of Hyde. And when Jekyll walked the streets he carried Hyde within him.
Jekyll and Hyde has turned out to be a delightful little book. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it to everyone. But if and when you read it, try to forget all you think you know about it, or at the very least, be open to the “true” story being very different to the one you think you know.
This was my third RIP Challenge book. Woo! I might actually complete a challenge!