The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Before reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I could have sworn I’ve read it already. It’s one of those tales most of us are so familiar with that it’s easy to understand why I thought so. It’s always interesting when we then finally read one of these books, to see how much of what we thought we knew corresponds to what the book is really about. In this case, funny enough, hardly anything. Yes, there’s a doctor, Dr Jekyll, who experiments with a substance that turns him into his evil alter ego, Dr Hyde, but that’s it. The finer details were completely different and so was the structure. I’d expected a first person narrative, from beginning to end, a bit like some of Edgar Alan Poe’s tales, but what I found is a rather diverse structure. At first some acquaintance of Dr. Jekyll tells the tale or rather, how he meets Mr Hyde and how revolting he finds him. Then there are other people’s stories and finally letters from Dr. Jekyll.

The most interesting bit however is the psychological dimension of the story. I had thought that it was a bit of a black and white tale. Good Dr Jekyll turns into evil Mr Hyde, which isn’t entirely the case. Dr Jekyll is far from a good person and at first, he relishes Hyde’s evil deeds. It’s a lot as if his repressed urges surface and he can finally do what he always wanted. Initially what he does is merely shocking, but then he becomes truly murderous.

I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

I’m not going to say much more, I’ve already revealed a lot.

I liked reading this very much. Not because of the story as such and definitely not because of the structure which I felt didn’t work so well, but because of the atmosphere and the writing. The descriptions of foggy London at night are eerie and atmospheric. Although, one might question, if its really London Robert Louis Stevenson had in mind. My foreword tells me that the descriptions match Edinburgh far better than London.

The writing is not only excellent when Stevenson describes the city but also when he characterises someone like here:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. . . . He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theater, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. . . . [I]t was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.

While I liked large parts of this novella for the descriptions and the psychological and philosophical aspects, I think that for us, today, it’s also a problematic tale because of the description of Hyde. Hyde is evil and that’s easily detected by people who see him because he’s ugly and deformed.

Here’s one of the quotes that describe him:

He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

Nowadays, in speculative fiction, nobody would get away with describing an evil person in the way Hyde is described. It’s not only that he’s ugly and deformed but it’s said that one could easily sense that he was evil because of the way he looked.

The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic of Victorian literature and now that I’ve finally read it, I can see why. What it says about the duality of human nature is interesting and still valid.

If you’d like to read another review of the novella, here’s a review on Brian’s blog.

I know that there are several film versions of this story, but I’ve never watched any. Which one would you suggest?

26 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

  1. It’s funny how there are some books we’d swear we’ve read – I’ve been like that too! But I *have* read this one, pre-blog, and I loved the atmosphere like you. Although elements are dated, I really like RLS’s writing – and I think he’s definitely conjuring Edinburgh there and not London! 🙂

  2. Hi, Caroline. Though I’ve never seen more than 10-15 min. of a film that I recall of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” as with “Frankenstein” I read the Classics Illustrated version when I was young, long before I actually picked up the real book, and I can say that venues like that are responsible for some of the over-simplification of the narrative lines and voices that you note. And then, of course, when the early films were made, they tended to oversimplify the narrative as well, because they had to go with the tale told by the camera. I do believe there’s either an old silent film of this, as well as some early talkie of the 20’s or 30’s. I don’t know where you would see them now, but for atmosphere, the one I can vaguely remember catching about 10 minutes of was lovely for atmosphere, and yes, I’d say it was Edinburgh, possibly.

    • Hi Victoria, nice to see you.
      I hadn’t thought of those shortened versions, but you’re right. It might be I read a kid’s version, although my parents weren’t big on those. They never bought them.
      Movies always oversimplify. I’ll have to look into those early film versions. Edinburgh is such a stunning city with a spooky atmosphere. I can really imagine how great tat would be as a setting.

    • Ha! See. I’m not the only one. It’s a quick read – if you’ve got it on your piles somewhere. I suppose the movie hailed it more like some kind of shapeshifter thing, like a werewolf.

  3. Thanks for the mention Caroline.

    Great review as always. You raise a really good point about how physical ugliness was portrayed as being connected with evil. Thankfully times have changed. I am reading Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers. In that book several characters are mocked for being overweight. The works “fat” is used many times. This book also could not be published in this day and age.

    • You’re welcome 🙂 I realised, btw that my comments on your blog got lost. I mentioned on your Treasure Island post that I was reading this.
      Since I’m watching Jen campbell’s YouTube channel I’m very aware of these descriptions. Since she herself has what she calls a deformity – I can’t remember the name of the illness she has – she’s very sensitive and with good reason.
      Dickens does that a lot. In Europe we don’t mind the word “Fat” per se as much but implying that fat means lazy or mean or ugly, that yes.

  4. I had to read this novel as an undergraduate. It was a set text in the exploration of the horror genre. I guess it was probably startling for readers in the 19th century, but I remember feeling quite disappointed that it was so tame. I liked the writing and it was atmospheric, as you say.

    I don’t think I’ve seen any movie adaptations, but I did see a BBC series called Jekyll, starring James Nesbitt, that was pretty good. This is a weird YouTube clip sending it up. Don’t watch if you might be triggered by the sight of blood and gore!

    • Thanks for the link. I’m not too squeamish unless animals are involved.
      I remember Brian was quite shocked by the murder scene but it didn’t shock me much.
      I’d like to watch that series.
      The descriptions in the book make me think it might be great as a film.

    • Thanks so much for the links, Fence.
      It was completely different from what expected but in this case it was a good thing. I hope I can watch at least one of the films.

  5. My son has to read and analyse this one for GCSE English and he really enjoyed it. It also led to him reading other books of the period about monsters such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Picture of Dorian Grey. The structure is quite different from what we are led to believe if we just read the summary of it, you are absolutely right. At the moment, my son is struggling with the structure of Dracula – the boring middle bit back in England.

  6. I reread this a few years ago, after a hospital visit, and remember enjoying both the atmosphere and the prose even though I was more than a little distracted at the time. I think I must have enjoyed the structure more than you did, though; its messiness made it feel more modern/complex and less stodgy/”traditional” storytelling-wise than I’d remembered. I hope to reread Stevenson’s Kidnapped, one of my favorite novels as a kid, sometime soon.

    • You’re right, the structure gives it a modern feel but I felt it was too uneven. That said, I thought it was way better and more interesting than I would have expected. I haven’t read Kidnapped, maybe I should look into it.

  7. Do you know, I really cannot recall whether I’ve ever read this book or whether the ‘story’ (or a certain impression of it) has seeped into my cultural consciousness by way of the various TV/film adaptations. It’s the same with The Hound of Baskervilles (which I actually read for the first time last year). As for the film adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde, I believe the 1931 version directed by Rouben Mamoulian is considered to be the best, more atmospheric than some of the others.

    • There are books like that, they are just part of our cultural consciousness, as you say, and the images, the premise are so strong, once we hear about it, we might think we’ve read it. I read The Hounds if the Baskerville ages ago but if I hadn’t, it would be o e of those too. It sounds like the early movie version and the TV series are the most captivating.

  8. I had a similar experience reading this a few years back. I thought I already had! I agree, the Hyde depiction is not one that would be written now. But the dual nature I think is really compelling, and why it’s endured.

    • It’s anazing how many among us had this experience with this particular book. The dual nature is compelling. I think a lot of 19th Century villains were said to be ugly.

  9. One of my favourite novels of all time and still has the power to chill me. The only movie adaptation that i have seen of it is Mary Reilly which i rather liked.

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