Shades of Good and Evil in Jekyll and Hyde

I picked up The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson because of Jeopardy!  I often get the books and literature categories mostly correctly, and when I missed one about this novella, I decided that I must read it.  My missing that question was an obvious gap in my education.  However, I must admit that I was not impressed.  The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either.  Here’s what I mean.

It is written in a frame narrative, and the narrator just tells the story.  There’s no real tension or denouement of action.  We never get a true sense of mystery or suspense in finding out the truth.  Pieces are mechanically put together and then all of a sudden the title character of the book just explains everything, rather than the action playing out before our eyes.  Stevenson could have used that old writing adage, “Show, don’t tell.”  My assumption as to the poor writing is that Stevenson had a fantastic story idea in which he wanted to moralize about dual character and doing what’s right even when nobody is watching, but the execution of this moralizing did not turn out well.

The story is told through the eyes of Mr. Utterson, whose good friend Dr. Jekyll has been acting strange.  He suspects some sort of deception, but thinks it only has to do with Dr. Jekyll covering up for a rude, violent, and uncontrollable Mr. Hyde.  Utterson investigates and witnesses strange events, which all lead up to Dr. Jekyll being locked in his laboratory with his servants frightened and claiming that he’s wearing a mask or gone insane.  The truth is finally revealed through some strange exchanging of letters and witnesses, who realize that Dr. Jekyll has created some sort of drug or potion that changes him into Mr. Hyde.  Under the cover of Hyde, Jekyll acts out and even kills somebody because he feels the freedom of anonymity.

That “freedom” to do evil is something frequently talked about with reference to the Internet.  Many people attribute bad manners and unwarranted insults on blogs, discussion boards, and news sites to anonymity.  However, studies have shown that this has little or nothing to do with the reason people behave badly online.  I can’t remember what the reasons are, however.  I know.  That’s really insightful of me!

As I read, I also couldn’t help but remember the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde.  I have not seen it, but I sat through plenty of community talent shows and beauty pageants in which contestants would sing a rendition of one of the musical’s songs.  The music is beautiful, but given the poor plot line and lack of actual storytelling in the novel, I wondered how the creators of the musical turned it into a more compelling story.  Perhaps I will have to see it now, if it’s still playing somewhere.

As to the moralizing, Stevenson does a lot of that.  He raises some interesting issues.  Let’s explore those.

“He was wild when he was young; a long while ago, to be sure; but in the law of God there is no statute of limitations. Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace” (25).

I’m not sure that I agree with Stevenson here.  I mean, we all do stupid things when we are young (and old), but that doesn’t mean that our characters are permanently affected.  And if he wants to bring God into it, well, there’s always repentance.  I guess the point of the quote is that there’s likely an unrepented of sin, but I still believe that people can change.  They don’t very often, but they can.

“She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent” (32).

I just loved this line.  I don’t have anything profound to say about it, though.

“I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, and unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul” (72).

This passage reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (LINK).  Here, Jekyll is explaining the way he felt when he transformed himself into Hyde.  It’s the same freedom Dorian felt upon realizing that his picture, not his soul, would be tarnished with his evil deeds.  Both of these stories present that freedom of breaking the laws (both moral and civil) but show the consequences of doing that.  The result is never freedom, but instead great bondage and ultimately death.  Both Dorian and Jekyll realize they cannot hide who they really are.  And neither can any of us.

“[A]ll human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil” (73).

This is something I am just now coming to terms with.  I think as a young child, I often saw situations and people in black or white.  Oh, that person ran a red light!  They must be bad.  Look!  That person just littered!  They are naughty.  But, the older I get, the more I understand how complicated everything is, including human nature.  I think of myself as a “good” person, but I do bad things all the time, despite my efforts not to.  We are all a little bit good and a little bit bad and the battle each day is to come out more good than evil at the end.  I am constantly losing this battle, but I do want to be better.  However, I’m fighting urges to be impatient, unkind, hateful, uncharitable, and selfish.  I’m fighting the instinct to be a natural “man” rather than a more celestial being.  I think that’s the best I can do.

There are some definite moral warnings in this little story.  Don’t do drugs.  Don’t be two-faced.  Mental illness is scary.  No man can serve two masters.  Take your pick.  Overall, Stevenson’s ideas are compelling and thought-provoking, but the execution needed some work.

20 thoughts on “Shades of Good and Evil in Jekyll and Hyde

Add yours

  1. I read this years ago, in high school, and your post reminded me that it’s one of those one-time-is-enough books. Some classics are like that–more about the story than the telling.

  2. Nice synopsis and I enjoyed your comments. I think the book that persuaded me about the dual nature of humans was Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” This is one of the truly great novels of all time and Conrad ranks among my top five authors. But that novel makes the case that we all have a heart of darkness, which I have come to accept as true.

    1. How true. We all have dark parts. I haven’t read Heart of Darkness in years. I have to admit that I hated it at the time. It was an undergraduate reading assignment. I would probably like it now. Have you read Ama Ata Aido’s Our Sister Killjoy? It is an African version of Heart of Darkness that reveals Europe as the dark place, not Africa. It’s an interesting twist on othering.

  3. I haven’t read the book, but I did see the musical on Broadway years ago. I remember it being slightly corny but, overall, entertaining and the themes were well suited to the stage. Set anything to music and its enjoyment factor usually goes up a few points (but maybe that’s just me–I really like musicals). Thanks for the insightful review, Emily!

    1. You have made me want to see the musical even more! You’re right that music changes everything! I guess I am also curious about how they staged the story (or lack of one) and made it more true to a traditional plot line.

  4. Sounds like the book was split character in nature – good on content, bad on exposition etc! Thanks for the review, and I also admired that lovely line about hypocrisy smoothing out her evil face. Wonderful!

  5. I have never read this book, and thanks to this post, I feel like I don’t need to (and don’t particularly want to). It also explains what people mean when they say someone is being “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Thank you for this, and very nicely done!

    1. You should still read it. It’s short. It won’t take long, and then you can cross it off or your list and develop your own opinion. You could even come back and argue with me!

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