Monday, May 28, 2012

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Duality of Human Nature

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.


  1. Think back to Lovecraft's style - not a lot of the action takes place in front of the reader in his work either. Probably just the style of writing at the time.
    Might have to reread both, although I almost never do that either.

  2. I read J and H about two years ago. It was part of a classic horror collection I picked up at a library sale. It has all the usuals in it...Frankenstein, The Raven, Dracula...but the RLS story was my favorite.

    You're right we don't see much of the action, in any of those stories really, but RLS's voice and style are so vibrant that it still captivates. And I think psychologically it resonates because of that whole "devil inside" thing. And let's face it, a lot of that interior tension comes from religiously induced repression and guilt which, in a strict environment, encourages secretive outlets. Probably scared the crap out of his wife, worried about what everyone would think.

  3. I've read more than one place that it's thought that Stevenson was bipolar.

    Maybe that's why his wife reacted so badly to the book- maybe it was a little too close to her reality?

    Just a thought (from someone who knows what it is like to really be bipolar and live in a mixed state. It ain't easy.)


  4. "Dracula" is the same way in that all the narration is recounted from various people's journals or diaries so you don't really "see" the action in an immediate way. In "Frankenstein" there was a bit of distance to because it was mostly a guy writing to his sister and telling her about conversations with Dr. Frankenstein. So I think that was just the style of early horror novels.

  5. Excellent essay. I don't really have anything that I can add. I found it a great read. And long enough that I decided to read it, rather than skip it because it's too short. {TSDR} being my new thing.

    Do you suppose that if Jekyll did get published today that afterwards RLS would make a sequel in which Jekyll went from fascinating character to the protagonist and it would heavily emphasize the gore rather than the psychological, and in the end lose the magic of the original?

    Like "Hannibal"?

  6. Andrew, did you by any chance get to watch the SyFy's adaptation of Treasure Island in a mini-series? I really enjoyed it, and Eddie Izzard played Long John Silver. That's quite a different role for one of the most famous transvestites in the world.

  7. I actually don't agree. I think Jekyll and Hyde is timeless. You might be right that the writing style wouldn't be published today - but then very few people write that way any more (whether that style was better or worse than modern writing styles is certainly up for debate). But the story itself - the examination of the duality of human nature - THAT would appeal to a contemporary society. In some ways that's why I prefer to think of myself as someone who tells stories rather than a writer. Because for me, the mark of a good novel is the story. Obviously I have very strong feelings about the beauty of language and written structure as well, but ultimately the story behind it is the most important. And I genuinely believe that if one of today's authors wrote Jekyll and Hyde in a modern style, people (and publishers) would really respond to it.

  8. Alex: You know, I've never read any Lovecraft. I need to, but I just haven't gotten to him, yet.

    L.G.: Well, it scared her enough that he burned the first version, so, yeah, it must have freaked her out pretty badly.

    bru: I'm not convinced that RLS was bipolar. I don't really think the evidence supports it. He was sickly, but the things about his life don't strike me that way. Not like, say, Van Gogh. But I'm sure you'd be better at recognizing the signs than me.

    Grumpy: It's been a long time since I read either of those, and, while I do remember some detachment, there is also direct action, or, at least, characters talking about things that actually happened to them.

    Briane: Well, if RLS had a contract for another book, then, yeah, he'd get stuck writing something crappy to fulfill his contract with the publisher. Like Lucas with American Graffiti 2.

    Michael: No, I haven't watched that, yet, but I do have it on my list.

    S.L.: I don't mean that story wouldn't be published; I mean it wouldn't be published the way RLS wrote it. It would be something that no one would even look at today if written in that style. To be published today, it would have to be written in a more active style and would lose the psychological edge it has to it. The creepiness that it holds because Utterson is trying to figure out what's going on. It would, in essence, have to become a horror novel rather than a psychological thriller, which would completely change what RLS wrote.

  9. Haven't read it :( Hangs head down in shame and slinks away)

  10. Hmm. May need to go ready J & H. I actually don't think I've read it.

    I remember feeling the way you described about Silver. I remember feeling conflicted for liking him even though I knew he was completely out for himself. That's some amazing character development. And it's interesting because it's more how people are in real life, with the duality. I mean, few people are straight-out evil.

  11. Sam: Well! Go fix that!

    Callie: I know; it's kind of horrible. He's so bad all of the time, but he's so hard to just discount as just being "bad." I suppose that's why, at the end, Jim hopes he went off somewhere and retired to a peaceful life.

  12. I need to go back and read J&H again.

    Iago, I can speak to. He's an amazing character, so empty, even he doesn't have a reason for why he does what he does. An incredible study of evil.

  13. Elizabeth: He is a great character, but the thing that makes him so interesting is not himself but his relationship with Othello. Iago makes you want to just slap Othello. It's a great dynamic.