Every year around Halloween, I try to read some classic scary novel or story. Having recently watched the BBC’s excellent miniseries Jekyll, I settled on reading the original story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Like Frankenstein, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not nearly as scary as the its various adaptations have made it. And also like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is more of a philosophical tale of man’s true nature.
Most of the story is told second (and third hand) by a lawyer named Gabriel Utterson. Utterson hears a disturbing story about a man who callously knocked down a child in the street, but then made amends to the family with a check for £400. Utterson manages to track this man down. The unpleasant, dwarfish Mr. Hyde is not at all what I expected from all the other incarnations I’ve seen on TV and in movies, at least physically. Utterson is repulsed by Hyde, but doesn’t worry overmuch about him until he learns that Hyde is the beneficiary of his good friend, Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll’s will also covers Hyde should the good doctor go missing. Utterson visits his friend to try and talk Jekyll out of leaving everything to Hyde, but Jekyll won’t budge.
Slowly, Utterson learns more about the tangled dealings of Jekyll and Hyde. But he doesn’t discover the astonishing truth until he discovers Jekyll’s papers late in the book. Jekyll finally reveals all about his potion and his transformations. What interested me was the reason Jekyll gave for inventing the potion in the first place. It seems that the good doctor was afflicted with more than the usual amount of guilt and remorse about the bad things he’s done in his life (which are nothing compared to what Hyde gets up to later on). He muses that man must have a dualistic nature, as he is capable of both good and bad. If one could get rid of the evil tendencies, one could be entirely good. The potion was apparently designed to strengthen Jekyll’s good side and minimize the evil.
I read Jekyll’s conflict in a more Freudian light. (Interestingly, Freud works very well for literary analysis, if not for psychological analysis.) I saw Jekyll as ego and superego, and Hyde as id. Jekyll expends an awful lot of effort keeping his more animalistic tendencies under wraps, but Hyde gets to express and pursue all of them without care. Unfortunately, the potion basically wipes out the ego and superego’s controlling influences. Eventually, Hyde comes out even without the potion. In this sense, the story is a great allegory for the struggle inside all of us, between what we want and what we’re bound to by society or manners.