Sunday, October 05, 2008

Review - The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories (Collector's Library)As I'm going to see the play Jekyll & Hyde this weekend, I felt compelled to reread the book. The first thing I was struck by was the size of the novel. I remembered it being short, but I didn't realize just how short it is. The edition I'm reading has less than a hundred pages for Jekyll & Hyde and then takes another hundred pages to present 3 of Stevenson's short stories and a brief editorial note.

Despite its short size, the writing is dense in portions. Steeped in heavy Victorian style, Stevenson's writing is thick with vivid descriptions often with fifty-cent (or more) words to stir the literary mind. The writing is also very clearly a "Gothic" novel in genre. It came during the Victorian revival of the Gothic at the end of the 19th century rather than during the heyday of the late 18th century. Core gothic writing often involved aggrandized locations in creepy disrepair such as crumbling castles or manors. There was often the idea of the supernatural either in terms of ghosts and spirits or the taboo of the occult, witchcraft and even the presence of the devil himself.

Stevenson is using a lot of the themes from the Gothic tradition while also keeping things at a high enough level to allow the "terror" to exist primarily within the reader both while reading and, perhaps worse still, after reading as the reader explore his or her own mind.

In our modern day, it's hard to approach Jekyll & Hyde without some knowledge of the tale. As such, a large sense of the suspense and mystery is likely lost on modern day readers. I'll try not to put any explicit spoilers here in case a truly fresh reader is out there, but let's just say that the ending wasn't a terrific surprise to me. And yet, the novel was fulfilling in terms of what it set out to accomplish.

The pacing of the novel was slow and sometimes tedious. Rather than following closely alongside Dr. Jekyll and/or Mr. Hyde, the reader is aligned with Jekyll's lawyer, Mr. Utterson. Utterson is dismayed at some of the choices and behaviors of his friend, the good doctor, and so he plays "Mr. Seek" to try and uncover the mystery surrounding "Mr. Hyde."

The revelations as they come are well presented and have some shock value even with all the cultural weight already surrounding the book. One element I had forgotten which was especially striking when compared with versions of Jekyll/Hyde I've seen that Mr. Hyde is actually smaller than Dr. Jekyll.

That concept is a small nuance that points this book out as a creation not only for enjoyment of a suspenseful and creepy story...but also as a platform for exploring the duality of human nature and our propensity to feel guilty for the evil within us while at the same time being intrigued by it. My interpretation of Hyde's small size was different from that in the book in that I viewed him as a sort of cowering and ashamed person. While potentially accurate, in hindsight it's not entirely true since he is portrayed as pure evil and hence he wouldn't likely be shrunken and cowered since his own bravado and pride cause him to be built up by the evil within him. Jekyll's explanation for his size (due to repressed evil) seems more likely, but still left something to be desired.

An interesting note I thought of and that was further explored in the editor's note, is that while Hyde is portrayed as wholly evil, Jekyll is not in fact 'wholly good.' Jekyll has the propensity for evil within him. In fact, it's that desire to do evil that causes him to undergo the experiments in the first place. So this isn't entirely a 'good versus evil' debate, but rather more of a debate that 'everyone contains evil within, it's just a matter of whether we let it out or not.'

A thought provoking read with fun themes and excellent Victorian writing. If you're looking for a great horror novel or an intense thriller, you'll likely be unsatisfied. But if you look to this book for what it is and what it was in its time, you'll likely enjoy it.

3.5 stars

No comments: