17 September 2009

Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and other tales of terror by Robert Louis Stevenson

R.I.P. IV Challenge #1

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde The lawyer Mr Utterson is worried about the will of one of his clients, which specifies that in the case of his death - or disappearance - everything is to go to a man of whom Utterson knows nothing. His concern grows when his cousin relates a tale of witnessing the callous behaviour of the beneficiary, plus evidence to suggest that the despicable Edward Hyde has some kind of hold over the respectable Dr Henry Jekyll. Utterson, fearing blackmail or worse, begins to make enquiries and finds himself investigating murder, disappearance, and a man who has apparently died of horror....

Based on the illicit activities of Burke and Hare, “The Body Snatcher” tells of a young man’s entanglement in the world of resurrection-men and murder. Already on the wrong side of law due to his own part in the corpse trade, Fettes has no choice but to overlook any doubts as to the provenance of the merchandise delivered to the anatomy rooms. But even when you’re used to handling criminals, corpses, and killers, there are some things that can still terrify you.

And in “Olalla” a wounded English soldier travels deep into the Spanish mountains to recover his health. His strange new landlady has extracted an agreement that he will keep to himself and let the family do the same, but curiosity about the residencia’s peculiar inhabitants overcomes prudence. Especially when he sees Olalla, who seems to be the only sane member of a family that’s long since gone mad.

It’s ironic that the passing of the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” into the vernacular, to describe any person with a double life or two sides to their personality, has both ensured the story’s continued fame and wrecked the suspense. There’s no mystery, no shock on discovering that Jekyll and Hyde are one; the only thing in question is how it will end. (And how it is that, at times, Jekyll’s mind manages to function in Hyde’s body.) What I found most interesting was the psychological aspect - the need to balance those facets of one’s personality which contradict each other, and the consequences of letting either one take over; and whether evil can ever truly be suppressed.

“The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” carries the stamp of the nineteenth century as clearly as the face of Edward Hyde does the taint of evil. The instinctive revulsion people feel for him just by looking at him reminded me of the long-dead theory that one could identify a crook from appearance alone; that criminality would betray itself in the face. (Which in turn reminds me of the anecdote I once read of a scientist who created numerous composite photographs of jailbirds in the hope identifying the distinguishing characteristics of the criminal face. Unfortunately for him, the closer to the mathematical average a face is, the more attractive it is perceived to be; hence he was constantly frustrated by the fact that the “average” criminal was far too good-looking!) The description of Hyde as“ape-like” and his degradation as something primitive - the suggestion that evil is incompatible with true civilisation - dates it. It’s also an unflattering portrait of Victorian morality. By his own admission, the darker side of Jekyll’s nature never led him to do anything bad, merely “undignified.” It was his own too-close adherence to the prudery of the day which led him to create Hyde and precipitate all which followed.

“The Body Snatcher” made me briefly nostalgic for the ghost stories I devoured fifteen or so years ago; the beginning and the end particularly were just as conventional as those of the tales I read as a child. But the story of Fettes’s long-ago encounter with the unearthly has a good eeriness to it; and I have to confess to a morbid fascination with the history of the resurrectionists. Wave the words “Burke and Hare” under my nose and I’ll jump to read what’s on offer. And I liked this, even if Burke and Hare didn’t appear, their customer Dr Knox was only mentioned in passing, and my interest was chiefly historical.

There’s an abundance of Gothic strangeness in “Olalla” - a crumbling fortress-style house in a remote part of a foreign country, a once-great family fallen into ruin, madness, locked doors, strange noises, even the obligatory dark and stormy night. To the doctor’s generalised account of the family’s oddity, concrete facts are added one by one as the narrator meets his hosts and explores the residencia and grounds as much as he dares. This story also deals with the concepts of being able to tell evil by its face, and an evil nature being a throwback to some long-past generation. Olalla’s vision of herself was more unnerving than the plot; and it’s not something I’ll soon forget.

Rating: B-


  1. I've read Jekyll and Hyde but not the other two. I'm interested in both stories though and will try and find them. I enjoyed this review!

  2. I haven't heard of his other stories before, but I must say that they do sound enticing. I'm definitely adding this to my TBR list.

  3. what an amazing review. I never thought about reading this before (I was content with Frankenstein, something of a similar vein), but now I'm going to pick it up. It sounds bone-chilling!

  4. It's indeed a pity that common knowledge has killed the mystery of Jekyll and Hyde, but I still enjoy the book, especially the final part - Jekyll's own narrative, in which he describes his gradual downfall.

    I can't see why Hyde couldn't be ugly - after all, he wasn't a real human being at all, but an artificially created entity, and created by scientific laws unknown to us (who knows what exactly Jekyll brewed in his laboratory). I just hope this fantasy never comes true.


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776