Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Brief Madness

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Read by Ralph Cosham, Commuters Library, 2002

When most people think of the character of Edward Hyde, the dark counterpart to the benign Henry Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel, their minds tend toward the immense, stooped almost to the point of hunchbacked, thick and hairy knuckled with powerfully monstrous features, a kind of caveman giant. In short, any college bar bouncer.

In truth, Stevenson depicts the physical aspects of his monster as being singularly repellent, but of no great stature, often commenting on how shrunken he looks in Jekyll’s clothing and referring to him as short more than once. “Particularly small and particularly wicked-looking” is one of the first descriptions we get. He is shown in the memory of Mr. Enfield trampling a small girl, then being forced to make restitution, which he does in the name of Henry Jekyll. At no point does anyone cringe from him in fright, but more feel strangely compelled to lunge at him and throttle him.

The question this brings immediately to my mind is this: which of these two depictions of Mr. Hyde is more appropriate? Popular culture has turned Stevenson’s allegory for the darker side of human nature into something bigger, more fearful, and ultimately more powerful than the angels of our better nature. While Stevenson’s Jekyll ultimately wins a kind of Pyrrhic victory, his evil half is seen as being the lesser part of him.

Which is to say, is Stevenson’s portrait merely that of a single man and is the book restricted to his case and his alone, or did Stevenson see the book as a comment on humanity? Asking further, does the fact that Hyde is smaller than Jekyll mean that Stevenson considered humanity essentially good, and does the popular misapprehension of Hyde suggest that the bulk of humanity thinks otherwise?

I tend to think the answer to the last two questions are quite obviously yes. It’d be hard to survey the data on this, but my suspicion tends toward believing that at the time of publication, most of the educated classes would have agreed with Stevenson, while most of the working classes would have agreed with our own day. Today, I imagine that the bulk of all classes believe mankind’s bad side outweighs its good side. (Of course, I may just be in a bad mood currently.)

It is also rather easy to argue, quite correctly, I think that the book can be seen as a Victorian attempt to come to terms with the kinds of notions Sigmund Freud was publishing, namely that under our veneer of respectability we are lusty creatures. Stevenson alludes in a few places in the novel that what Jekyll enjoys doing as Hyde is enjoying unspeakable nightly forays. One’s mind easily suggests the most likely avenue these forays would take.

Turning to the novel itself, though, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Stevenson's legendary tale is just how brief it is, how straight to the jugular the author goes. It is the faintest wisp of a story, but it touches upon one of humanity's most primal conflicts. And like many novels of the time, it is a series of shorter tales told within the framework of a larger story. Jekyll's friends Enfield and Utterson take turns telling stories, Dr. Hastie Lanyon writes a letter explaining much, and we are also treated to a lengthy document written by Henry Jekyll. Indeed, just about the only major character not to get his time upon the soapbox is the one whose story might prove the most fascinating — Edward Hyde.

As the story goes, Stevenson apparently wrote the novel’s first draft in three days, possibly burnt the manuscript after some editorial commentary by his wife, then supposedly rewrote the entire novel from scratch again in three days. While the book is brief, that alone, if true, is a remarkable feat of inspiration and endurance (even if some authors have suggested that, Kerouac-like, Stevenson’s stamina was chemically enhanced).

Allegorically, the book most closely resembles Plato’s parable of the Ring of Gyges. In it, Plato argues that given a ring that would turn you invisible, you would inevitably turn toward injustice, robbery, murder, seduction, what-have-you, the temptation of power without the consequence of punishment too strong to resist. Evidently Stevenson agreed, Hyde merely becoming the cloak that hid Jekyll from view.

What makes Stevenson’s book so charged with interpretive multiplicity is its simplicity. An unadorned tale of duality and metamorphosis, one could argue for reading it as exposing sexual undercurrents in even upstanding citizenry; as discussing the class strata of Victorian England and the brutal line separating them; as Hyde’s darker, coarser complexion suggests, it reads as a commentary on the British Empire’s views toward its colonial subjects; as the struggle between the id and the superego, the shattered body of the dead Jekyll at the end a warning against keeping the two so separate in their private magisteria; viewing it as an allegorical treatise on chemical dependency, we can see how even the good and the just can be laid low by the growing clamor that is an addict’s existence. And so on and so forth.

The novel can be read in a single sitting, and one reads with the breathless haste in which the novel was written. Stevenson has always been a master of economy, perhaps owing to his frequent illnesses, and this book is perhaps the ideal example. All too frequently it, like its relatives Dracula and Frankenstein, gets lumped in as a children’s book, and its brevity seems to confirm this reading. As you dash from one scene to the next, it is possible to overlook the layers of interpretation to which the book opens itself. Stevenson’s novel is too good to be overlooked like that.

Reader Ralph Cosham, who seems to have carved out a niche for himself in the “classics of horror” category, here reads with his lovely British accent and his warm, rich tones. It’s a fine performance, though not one prone to fleshing out the characterization with much acting.

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