Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: B+

From the back cover:
Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece of the duality of good and evil in man’s nature sprang from the darkest recesses of his own unconscious—during a nightmare from which his wife awakened him, alerted by his screams. More than a hundred years later, this tale of the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll and the drug that unleashes his evil, inner persona—the loathsome, twisted Mr. Hyde—has lost none of its ability to shock. Its realistic police-style narrative chillingly relates Jekyll’s desperation as Hyde gains control of his soul—and gives voice to our own fears of the violence and evil within us. Written before Freud’s naming of the ego and the id, Stevenson’s enduring classic demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the personality’s inner conflicts—and remains the irresistibly terrifying stuff of our worst nightmares.

In his lecture on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is used as the introduction to this edition, Vladimir Nabokov urges readers to “consign to oblivion” (what a great phrase) their assumptions about the work. Thanks to myriad adaptations, the image of milquetoast Dr. Jekyll gulping a potion that turns him into a huge, monstrous creature is pretty much ingrained in our brains. In actuality, the original book is quite different.

The tale is told from the perspective of Gabriel Utterson, a friend of Henry Jekyll who also serves as his lawyer. Utterson is troubled because of a recent amendment to Jekyll’s will, which stipulates that in the event of his death or disappearance, his money should go to a man named Edward Hyde. The more Utterson learns about Hyde—his cousin, the “unimpressionable” Enfield, relates a story in which (pale and dwarfish) Hyde trampled a little girl and inspired in one a feeling of immediate hatred—the less he likes this arrangement. Thinking Jekyll is somehow being blackmailed by Hyde for “the ghost of some old sin,” he earnestly attempts to help extricate his friend, but Jekyll is curiously unwilling to accept aid.

There’s a fun feeling of fog-filled suspense as Hyde becomes a murderer and fugitive—and as Jekyll first becomes more sociable then a total recluse—until Utterson is eventually summoned by a servant to break into Jekyll’s office where they find not the doctor but Hyde. The truth comes out in a series of sealed confessions, which, though they contain the truth about the transformation, are actually rather anticlimactic. I bet reading this completely unspoiled was quite fun, though it’s virtually impossible for anyone to have that experience now.

Although I feel like the story is too short and doesn’t come to a very satisfying conclusion, I nonetheless enjoyed the read and was particularly impressed by Stevenson’s powers of description. In just a few lines, he describes Utterson so well that I found it easy to visualize him completely.

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. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.

I think the part I love best is “scanty and embarrassed in discourse.” Here’s another great example, describing Dr. Lanyon, another friend and a respected scientist.

This was a hearty, healthy, dapper, red-faced gentleman, with a shock of hair prematurely white, and a boisterous and decided manner. At sight of Mr. Utterson, he sprang up from his chair and welcomed him with both hands. The geniality, as was the way of the man, was somewhat theatrical to the eye; but it reposed on genuine feeling.

Economy and clarity will always be qualities I admire, I think. It makes the writing feel fresh, despite its age. (And to achieve this when “written in bed, at Bournemouth on the English Channel, in 1885 in between hemorrhages from the lungs,” as the intro informs us! If I was suffering hemorrhages the last thing I’d be capable of is penning a classic!)

Though it be short and, to us, predictable, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains a worthwhile read.

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