Monday, March 24, 2014

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson (11 of of 159)

One Sentence Summary:
 1) The dignified Mr Utterson investigates the mysterious connection between his friend, the esteemed Dr. Jekyll and his new, grotesque paramour, Mr. Hyde.
2) The trader Wiltshire arrives at his new station to find the goings-on of the island being manipulated by the conniving Mr. Case.
3) Three ne'er-do-wells of varying morality set out to improve their fortunes and end up invariably worsening them. 

Quote (from the dedication):
It's ill to loose the bands that God decreed to bind;
Still will we be the children of the heather and the wind;
Far away from home, O it's still for you and me
That the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie.

The dedication feels like the correct thing to include because there is a reason that Stevenson chose to include that little verse. What follows are more or less morality tales which dabble in some seriously major questions: is there any such thing as absolute morality? Do we endanger ourselves by completely denying our inherent darkness? Is a person with no dimensions or conflicts of conscience even a person at all?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a great tale, just as I'd hoped, and definitely one that you think you know, but probably do not. There have been so many iterations of the story in pop culture that it has strayed from the root- this wonderful, lengthy short story. Stevenson has a great appreciation of tone and it is consistently his portrayal of a dank, mist-suffused London that give you the shivers. It is not difficult to imagine yourself alongside Utterson on a midnight amble to track down the deplorable Hyde. You can feel Stevenson's personal conflict surging beneath the surface of this story. I have to wonder how much of himself he saw in the fallible, mostly well-intentioned Jekyll and how much that writing this took out of him.

I wasn't terribly fond of the second story. Certain unlikeable characters can be survived for the sake of the story, but I didn't feel powerfully compelled enough by the plot to get over how obnoxious Wiltshire was. 

I was feeling a bit downtrodden by the time that I reached the third story, but it sucked me in- perhaps even more so than Jekyll and Hyde. My heart went out to Herrick, a hapless sort who has never applied himself enough to anything to amount to much. His moral compass is still in there, harkening to North, if weakly. Then there is Davis, pursued by his personal demons of failure and yet unwilling to adjust the habits and mentality that led him there in the first place. And, of course, Huish, the human leech. Setting the three together on their common course begins a game of the moral, immoral, and amoral that reaches its climax on the island of a dapper tyrant who is a dizzying combination of the three. The action moves along at a clip and it seems as if Stevenson found, in The Ebb-Tide, a way to combine his more exalted literary inclinations with his natural penchant for adventure tales. I wish it were a more famous work- it has the power to be a more fitting legacy.

Reading these three stories, so far from the clear-cut good and evil adventure tale of Treasure Island makes me wonder if Stevenson was feeling pigeon-holed in his career by his reputation for "ripping good reads". I think differently of him now, though, as a literary force in his own right, instead of merely a talented man with the imagination of a naughty boy.

"You must suffer me to go my own dark way."
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Note: I could not finish The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, which makes this eleven, instead of ten.

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