Saturday, April 09, 2005

14. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Can I just say that it took me forever to finish this book? I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about Victorian literature that, I don’t know, can take me forever to read. It’s not like I don’t enjoy reading it, because I always find myself itching to read the classics and, hey, I like Jane Austen and Jane Eyre is my second favorite book of all time, but sometimes I just don’t get it. I guess Robert Louis Stevenson falls into that latter category.

My copy of Jekyll and Hyde is a Barnes & Noble Classic containing several of the author’s lesser read short stories. I found the title story itself quite enjoyable and told from a point of view that I hadn’t expected. I always find it interesting to go back and read the original stories on which many of our pop culture references are based. It’s like finally reading Pride and Prejudice after being inundated with Bridget Jones, which I did and while I did enjoy Bridget, Elizabeth Bennett is a far more interesting character than Bridget could ever be, but that’s another debate for another time. Jekyll and Hyde is told mostly through the eyes of Dr. Jekyll’s friends Mr. Utterson, Mr. Enfield, and Dr. Lanyon. There are mysterious sightings of a thuggish man entering and exiting Jekyll’s residence, there are brutal murders committed by the supposed stranger, and there is the legal document in which Jekyll leaves everything to an unknown Mr. Edward Hyde. It’s only at the end of story, in a statement from Dr. Jekyll, that we learn of the potion releasing Jekyll’s uninhibited darker side. In the statement Jekyll also reveals, with great regret, that he’s built a tolerance to the potion’s antidote and that he is becoming Mr. Hyde more and more each day.

The story is an obvious allegory on the inherently human struggle between good and evil. Once Jekyll let Hyde take over just a little, he became more difficult to control. It was as Hyde that Jekyll had to end his life, unable to fully return to his previous self. Everyone’s familiar with the premise, having seen it rehashed innumerable times, but the original is far less grotesque and gory than I’d expected. It’s more a commentary on that inner struggle than it is a murder mystery or a horror story. I’ve found that’s the case with most things that have become pop culture staples. When a friend expressed her trepidation over reading Frankenstein, saying that she was prone to nightmares, I told her that the story was not at all scary, being a societal commentary more than anything else. The same is true here. But I like having read the original. I like knowing where those pop culture references come from.

The remaining stories in the book I found more difficult to comprehend. Perhaps that’s because I was already so familiar with the premise of Jekyll and Hyde that I didn’t have to slog through the language to be able to grasp the main concept. I liked “The Suicide Club,” which is a story about a group of men who are intent on the idea of ending their lives and belong to a club that, though an assignment of cards, chooses one man to die and one man to do the other in. It was bizarre and disturbing and was just suspenseful enough to keep me hooked. But I’d be lying if I said I really understood the remaining four stories. Especially “Thrawn Janet,” which is written almost entirely in dialect and, you know, I hate to be one of those people who doesn’t get dialect…but I don’t get dialect. I find it laborious to read and when I’m already having trouble understanding the proper language of the times…let’s just say I have no idea what happened in this story and I probably never will.

For me, Victorian literature is like exercise. It requires more effort than, say, sitting on the couch and watching TV, but it also feels good when I’ve done it. I know I’m better for having done it, in the end. I may not always understand it, but I’ll always return to these classics in the hopes of bettering my mind. It’s like…when I’m on the El and I have my book out and it’s something somewhat ridiculous, like Le Divorce, I want to say, wait! I’ve also read the Brontes! I mean, I can down a bowl of ice cream without hesitation, but you better believe I can do twenty push-ups, too.

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