A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…
Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.
Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.
A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.
Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…
I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!
Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…
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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀