After all the talk, recently, of how I so rarely re-read books, I just re-read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it wasn't really my fault! Honest! Okay, it was a little my fault. Here's what happened:
First, there was the whole issue of Treasure Island and my son reading it which you can read about here. Then, while unpacking from moving last fall, I came across a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson stories that contained Jekyll and Hyde, and I suggested to my son that he read that, too. There was no argument, this time, and he went on to read the whole book. The issue there was that meant he'd now read a bunch of RLS that I hadn't read, because I'd never read any of the other short works in that book. And, just by the way, he loved J & H and all of the other stories except one (which he couldn't understand because it's written in heavy dialect (and I haven't gotten to that one, yet, so I haven't been able to help him with it)). Then, I did that A to Z post about J & H, and, by that point, I'd had too much, and I sat down to re-read Jekyll and the rest of that book that I had never read.
I was almost immediately struck by two things, one of them being a truck. No, I'm just kidding. I do like to walk and read, but I'm pretty good about watching where I'm going.
The first thing I was struck by is how Jekyll and Hyde would never, not ever, get published today. Have you read it? You should go read it. Really, it's not that long, and it's worth your time. Wait, why am I saying it wouldn't get published? Because the audience never gets to "see" the action. We only ever get to hear about things second hand and the details are often left out because the person telling the story can't bear to repeat them. Heck, the protagonist (Jekyll's lawyer, Utterson) only ever meets Hyde once and what we come away with from that is that he gave Utterson the an uneasy feeling. Hyde made Utterson's skin crawl. We, the audience, never witness a transformation, never experience any of Hyde's evil, and, really, barely get to meet Jekyll.
And, yet... and, yet... the whole experience is creepy and unsettling and terrifically laid out as a psychological thriller. A psychological thriller that would never get published today without becoming more active and more in the middle of the action and end up losing all the things that make it so... well... horrifying. Not that it's scary, because it's not. But the concept is pretty horrific.
It does make me wonder, though, what it was that Stevenson's wife reacted so violently to that caused him to burn his first draft. And did that thing stay in the fire or was it carried into the story we have today?
Which brings us to the second thing: Stevenson really was just fascinated with the duality of human nature. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, his most obvious expression of that. It's the story wherein he rips a man in two and explores how we, as people, subjugate and hide (see the pun there?) our "inferior" selves. Try to deny that there is anything beyond what we show the public. And, really, it's a fascinating story, and just try to tell me you wouldn't do what Jekyll did if you had the means.
But re-reading J & H made me think about some of Stevenson's other characters. Well, it made me think about one, anyway, but I also discovered some others in these other short stories.
There's one, "A Lodging for the Night," about a poet who's a thief, which makes me wonder if that's where Bono got that line from.
And the protagonists in "Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts" (from "The Suicide Club") are these guys that like to go out in disguise so that they can do things they normally couldn't, specifically, have adventures (which sounds very much like RLS). And Scuddamore, from "Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk" (also from "The Suicide Club"), is completely double-minded and vacillates so often he may as well be a metronome.
But the big one, the character that most embodies this duality of nature, is the only other character he created that rivals Hyde for popularity: Long John Silver. And, in truth, I find Silver the scarier of the two. As portrayed in the book, Treasure Island, Silver is so smooth, I mean sooo smooth, that even once Jim and the others know he's a villain, he's still able to smooth talk his way out of trouble and connive and scheme. He's so good that, at times, I think even the reader has to doubt whether he's really a bad guy. He's completely deferential, conciliatory, and just plain nice that it makes it startling every time he's ready to slit someone's throat. You can't put the two pieces together in a way that makes sense.
But, really, haven't we all known people like that? I have. Several, in fact. Maybe they wouldn't really pull out a knife and slit someone's throat, but they'd certainly do it metaphorically. And, who knows, maybe some of them would do it for real if they had the chance. If they had a potion that would release the evil into the world in a different guise. I suppose we're lucky that that kind of thing isn't possible, because it's probably the only thing holding some people back.
Thinking about it, I'm not sure that anyone else has ever written this kind of dual character better except, maybe, Shakespeare with Iago. And Long John Silver may have the edge there, because we, the audience, always know that Iago is bad, it's just Othello that doesn't know. With Silver, we're never quite sure.