Monday, May 12, 2014

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

My History with This Book/ Why I Read This Book
            I read a children’s classic version (a version abridged and rewritten for young readers) of this story as a child. 
            Now, as an adult, it is my ambition to officially read through the real versions of many of the classic books I have some childhood - familiarity - with.
            I had been avoiding Robert Louis Stevenson’s work for years because I had found him difficult as a child.  But having returned to Treasure Island recently, and having discovered that as an adult I can now read him quite painlessly, I thought I’d knock another of his classic books off of my reading list.

The Review
          As I grabbed this book off the shelves of the bookstore, the first thing that struck me was how short it was.  The version I bought (Collins Classics paperback edition 2010) was only 88 pages.  Almost really more of a long short-story than a novel.  I finished the whole thing from cover to cover in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, and seldom have I gotten through a classic book so easily.

            Stevenson’s prose, which had caused me so much trouble as a child, now reads effortlessly and painlessly, and I enjoyed his storytelling.
            As for the story itself, in my particular case I still remember well the version of this book I had read as a child.  (Funny how some stuff sticks so well in your memory, when other stuff doesn’t.)  So the mystery of the book was ruined by the fact that I already knew the story.
            But actually, this is probably true for just about everyone these days, right?  The characters of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have so thoroughly permeated the culture that everyone already knows that the identity of the mysterious Mr Hyde is actually really…..
            [Or should I err on the side of caution here and not say the obvious, on the off chance that someone out there might genuinely not yet know that….
            But from here on out, consider yourself warned ****SPOILER ALERT*****]

            But in the original book, the exact nature of the relationship between these characters is the central mystery on which the plot revolves.  Which makes it somewhat unfortunate for modern readers, who will know before even opening the book what is supposed to be the big reveal in the second to the last chapter.
            The book is, in short, a victim of its own success.  This isn’t Stevenson’s fault, but it does lessen the reading experience.
            On the other hand, for a slender volume that is so easily devoured in a few short hours, there’s little to complain of.  So what if you already know that Mr Hyde is really Dr. Jekyll?  It only takes 65 pages until the reveal is made, and the characters know everything that you know.  It’s still a quick, fun read.

            [For the very first readers of this book, how many of them do you think were completely surprised by the ending, and how many of them kind of guessed it all along?  Or that is to say, how obvious do you think the mystery of the book is?  I have to admit it seemed kind of obvious to me, but then of course it would seem obvious in retrospect.   Because I knew the ending, I couldn’t fully put myself in the mind of a reader who didn’t.]

          Much is often made about the themes of this book.  The publisher’s introduction to my edition writes, “Stevenson’s quintessential novella of the Victorian era epitomizes the conflict between psychology, science, and religious morality, but is fundamentally a triumphant study of the duality of human nature.”
            Examination of this book’s themes can be found in other places as well.  Wikipedia (W), for example, also talks up the psychological themes of the book.

            Personally, I wonder if they’re over-analyzing the novel somewhat.  As fun as it was to read, I didn’t think it was all that deep thematically. To me, the primary purpose of the novel seemed to simply be a gothic mystery/suspense story,  The duality of human nature is definitely present in the book—no doubt about that—but I see it more as a simple plot device than “a triumphant study”.
            First of all, in the whole book there are only a handful of paragraphs near the end which directly give Dr Jekyll’s theories on the duality of human nature.
            Secondly, I’m not sure how much credit Stevenson gets for his theories.  Isn’t the duality of human nature a very old idea?  Isn’t it even a clichéd idea?

            But since I’m not a particularly deep thinker, and notorious for missing out on the deeper themes of many of the books I read, I’m always nervous about making these kinds of pronouncements.  I’ll leave it to people smarter than me to discuss.
            Similarly, I’m not qualified to talk about how original or unoriginal Stevenson’s ideas were.  My publisher’s introduction implies that the idea has become clichéd because so many people borrowed it from Stevenson.  Is this true, or were other people writing about it before him?  Anyone who knows more than me, feel free to comment.

            However, regardless of how much space these ideas take up in the novel, and regardless of whether they are original to Stevenson or not, they are nonetheless interesting to ponder.

            Dr Jekyll believes that all humans are made up of two natures.  (Possibly more, but he has only discovered two.)  There is our moral and responsible nature, and our immoral and irresponsible nature.
            These two natures are forever in conflict, which is the result of much of our frustration as human beings.  Our good side is unable to do all the good it wants to do, because it is constantly being foiled by our bad side.  And our bad side is unable to enjoy all freedom it wants, because it is constantly being constrained by our good side.  Thus, caught in the middle of this conflict, we are constantly tormented.
            The torment comes from these two natures being housed in the same body.  If only we could separate these two natures, then the bad side of us could go off in freedom to do everything it wanted, and the good side of us would finally have the ability to achieve everything it wanted.
            Or in Dr. Jekyll’s words: “I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.  If each, I told myself, could but 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, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.  It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated? (p. 69)

            Is this an accurate view of human nature?  Are we really a composite of a good and evil side?  I don’t know.  But at the very least, it certainly feels like it’s true, doesn’t it?  Don’t we all feel like our nobler aspirations are constantly being foiled by our baser instincts? 
            And if it feels true, is that enough to make it true, at least on some level?

            And yet, it’s a view of human nature which isn’t easily accounted for by scientific materialism or traditional Christianity. 
            If our brains are made up of nothing more than electronic impulses and instincts determined by years of evolution, then how to account for this constant inner conflict between what we want to do, and what we should do?

            Christianity, by positing a world of angelic forces and demonic forces is somewhat more able to account for this.  But my understanding of Christianity is that the angelic and demonic forces are all externally located.  That is, it’s a philosophy in which we are tempted by the devil to do evil, but not in which we have an evil half which is a separate entity from our good half. 

            (Somewhere out there, there’s a sophomore philosophy student laughing at my pitifully underdeveloped thoughts.  So I’ll just leave off here before I embarrass myself further.  These are just some thoughts I had rambling around my head as I read the book—take them for whatever they may or may not be worth.)

Other Thoughts

* One of my English Teaching colleagues here in Cambodia is currently reading the Graded Reader  version of this book with his class of Young Learners.  They are several chapters into the book right now, and so far his students have no idea that Mr Hyde has really been Dr Jekyll all along.
            So I need to modify what I said early.  In at least some corners of the world, there are still readers who don’t yet know how this story will end.

* I mentioned above that as a child I had read many of the classics in an abridged and simplified form.  I suspect this experience is not unique.  Most of us first encounter the classics when we read simplified versions as children, right?
            I had a 9th grade English teacher who used to go on and on about how terrible simplified versions of the classics were, and how we were ruining the experience of reading the original classics by spoiling the stories for ourselves.  His warnings caught me too late, however, because by the time I had gotten to 9th grade, the damage had long ago been done.  (I had read all those children’s versions of classic books way back in elementary school.) And since once the books had been read, they could not be unread, there was little I could do about it.
            But I’ll throw the question out to the blogosphere: What do you guys think?  Does reading simplified versions of the classics as a child spoil these books for us later in life?  Or are these books meant to be re-read every twenty years or so anyways, and the initial encounter with the story is of less importance than the continuing encounters?  
I’m perhaps becoming inclined towards the latter view.
At the same time, I have to admit there are any number of classic books that I have not yet read for the precise reason that, after having read simplified versions of them as a child, I now feel little urgency to read the real thing.  (Frankenstein, War of the Worlds, Time Machine, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Swiss Family Robinson, Arabian Nights, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Pinocchio and many others.

And until just now, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was on this list as well.)

Link of the Day 
Chomsky on the Trans Pacific Partnership

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