Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Stevenson

I finally got around to reading the original story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I became interested in it when someone on a blog I visit commented that the story is badly written.  Personally I would not say it is badly written, but the author's goal is quite different from the goal (for example) of the many film adaptations.  Stevenson wanted to conceal as long as possible the knowledge that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person.  So the story is told from the point of view of various characters who see Hyde coming and going from Jekyll's house, but they don't know who he is and they're afraid to ask.  It's not until the very end that we read Jekyll's explanation of what was going on.  (Hyde never gets to speak for himself at all.)

Many years ago I read someone's theory that the theme of Jekyll and Hyde was homosexuality.  Either Hyde and Jekyll were lovers, or Hyde represented Jekyll's closeted gay side; I don't remember which.  But I didn't see either of those in the story.  It's true that when one of Jekyll's friends tries to tactfully find out what the bond is between Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll says "it isn't what you fancy; it is not so bad as that" - which might suggest homosexuality.  But the major reason why Jekyll and Hyde cannot be lovers is that they can never spend any time together.  In the real world, everyone knew that Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas were inseparable companions.  Many people knew that Edward Carpenter and George Merrill were life partners - you could visit their house and see them together.  But Jekyll and Hyde are forever separated.

As for Jekyll's sexuality - he admits freely that he wanted to liberate his "evil" self. To many of us that suggests sexual indulgence.  Naturally he provides no details about his exploits.  He writes, "The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term."  Does "undignified" mean "sexual?"  I don't know.  More importantly, we see Hyde performing two or three acts of violence.  We don't see him in any situation that directly implies a sexual encounter.  (Although of course you can read sex into anything.  Quite possibly Jekyll/Hyde were sadomasochists.)

To me the tragedy of Jekyll and Hyde is one of isolation.  No one was intimate enough with Jekyll to be able to figure out what was going on.  His friends didn't really want to know.  (When one of them discovers the secret, the shock of it kills him.)  Jekyll has a houseful of servants, but even they can't put two and two together.  We're told that everyone found Hyde repulsive; no one wanted to get to know him.  But in the final analysis no one wanted to know Jekyll either.  This is why Stevenson structured the story in such a seemingly-awkward way:  we always see Jekyll and Hyde from a distance.

There is no homoeroticism in Jekyll and Hyde.  There is no eroticism of any kind, because there is no human connection.  Stevenson was actually capable of writing about sex (within Victorian constraints) but he didn't do it in this story.  I do recommend his short stories.  They cover a wide range - funny, scary, happy endings, sad endings - but almost always with a touch of the macabre.  Isolation is also a major theme.  Interestingly, his liveliest and most confident character is Prince Florizel of Bohemia, who benefits from the devoted service of a trusty sidekick, Colonel Geraldine.  (Geraldine, you ask?  He is a man, and a brave one, although in one story he is described as effeminate.)  They have each other to rely on; they are not isolated. But their favorite pastime is to disguise themselves as ordinary people and wander the streets of London or Paris.  They don't want anyone to know who they are.

The one interesting thing about the original story of Jekyll and Hyde is that Jekyll points out that his goal was to separate the "good" and "evil" sides of a person. In theory, he could have liberated his good side instead of his evil side.  Mr. Angel instead of Mr. Hyde?  That would make an unusual story.

Recommended reading:  the works of Robert Louis Stevenson on Project Gutenberg, especially the stories about Prince Florizel of Bohemia, which are collected in The New Arabian Nights.

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