Last night, I finished the second book on my reading list of long-overdue literary classics with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. So many variations of this story have graced our culture. Aside from numerous adaptations of the novella itself, we have also seen Hyde in The Incredible Hulk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the TV show Heroes, and even cartoons like Tom and Jerry (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse”) and Veggie Tales (“Dr. Jiggle and Mr. Sly” – a personal favorite for its craftiness).
Stevenson struck a still-resounding nerve with the character of poor, unhappy Dr. Henry Jekyll and his inner struggle that turned violently outward. Readers and scholars have interpreted him as a Freudian allegory, a sexual morality fable, a picture of the closeted homosexual, and dozens of other plausible applications. I personally marvel at how poignantly Stevenson was able to tap into one of the great human mysteries, for which neither he nor any of us to date has found a satisfactory solution: the struggle with the duality of human nature.
It sounds fancy when I say it that way, but this old, old battle is very plain to all of us who have ever asked ourselves, “Why did I do that?” It is the split personality we fear, the angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, the sin nature versus spirit. It is Paul’s lament of, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing! [Romans 7:19]” It is why we feel crazy half the time.
Greater philosophers than I have tackled the question of why we are this way, and I will let them keep that debate. (In my current walk, the question “why?” leads more often to discouragement and circular thinking than progress or productivity, anyway.) Rather, I am convicted by the progression of Dr. Jekyll’s transformation.
(Alert; unavoidable spoilers follow.)
Dr. Jekyll begins with an idea; he is seeking relief from guilt for his carnal desires and discovers a way to separate himself from them. The chilling part is that he never sought to eliminate that side of himself; instead, he found a way to indulge it with impunity, then hide (get it?) it away so no one – even himself – would have to connect that man with his respected public persona. Naturally, the thread of control wasted away over time and eventually he became Hyde against his own will. The spiritual battle then became physical as well, and a justified fear began to control the good doctor’s life.
I call this chilling because I see Jekyll and Hyde coming to life all around me (the Casey Anthony trial, the oh-so-unfortunately monickered Weiner scandal) and inside of me as well. Jekyll’s journey is shared by all of us in our vices. Do we not compartmentalize our behavior and our unseemly thoughts, isolating them to a circle of autonomy such as the internet or a diary or even a support group? These walls never endure, though, and all things come into the light eventually. The fantasies we ponder, the realms we energize do matter; unchecked, Hyde will always make himself known.
My movie-soaked brain found the culmination of this narrative to be startling in its stillness. Dr. Jekyll simply passed out of view completely and perished as Hyde, never to be seen again. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not a horror story because of gothic setting or driving action sequences. It’s scary because it is a parable, and it could happen to any one of us.