You wouldn’t like me when I’m mad
Classic horror has always been a favourite of mine, don’t get me wrong I love modern horror as well, but there’s something special about classic horror, something timeless and bone-chilling. Writer’s voices have a certain something to them that we seem to have lost over the years, a tone shift perhaps, or a way of speaking to your readers.
One of my all-time favourites is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.
Gabriel and his cousin Richard are out on their weekly walk, Richard telling a story about how he is currently blackmailing Mr Hyde, but that the cheque he received was signed by a Mr Jekyll. Gabriel is shocked as he knows Jekyll and is aware he recently changed his Will, leaving everything to a Mr Hyde. He has concerns that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll.
Naturally, Gabriel tries to talk to Jekyll about this, but Jekyll freaks out a bit and demands that they leave Mr Hyde alone.
Another night Hyde is witnessed assaulting another of Gabriel’s clients, sadly the victim dies. The police are involved and Gabriel takes them to Mr Hyde’s apartment, Hyde is long gone, leaving behind a cane belonging to Jekyll. Gabriel once again talks to Jekyll who can produce a note from Hyde saying how sorry he is. Gabriel thinks the note is a forgery as the handwriting is very similar to Jekyll’s.
Things are quiet for a couple of months before Jekyll suddenly becomes reclusive. Dr Lanyon dies after finding out something about Jekyll, but not before giving Gabriel a letter that is only to be opened if something happens to Jekyll. A while after this Jekyll’s butler visits Gabriel and tells him Jekyll has locked himself in his laboratory and he’s clearly worried. So Gabriel and the butler break into the laboratory, finding Hyde, dead and wearing Jekyll’s clothing with a letter to Gabriel from Jekyll.
Gabriel reads both the letter from Dr Lanyon, who admits seeing the Hyde/Jekyll transformation, and from Jekyll who admits the ability to transform. Jekyll explains that it was all so he could indulge in his vices without the social scorn and that it was controlled by a serum. But he suddenly started transforming while asleep without the serum or his own control. He tried to give it all up but gave in one night and took the serum. Hyde was violent, uncontrollable and committed murder. Jekyll resolved not to do it again but continued to lose control of the transformations and started transforming while awake. He asked Dr Lanyon for aid and transformed in front of him. But he continued to lose control with increasing frequency and reversing the transformation became more difficult, so Jekyll ended his own life (and Hyde’s, obviously).
There is a lot of discussion about the themes of this novel out there, ranging from the social discussion, political discussion, discussion regarding the fatal nature of addiction and even spiritual discussion on the nature of man, so I’ll try not to rehash old ideas. But I cannot mention this book without talking about the nature of the private and public face.
We all have a face, or a persona, that we portray to the public, the face we wear at work, the face we wear with friends and even a face when we are with family. Rarely, are we ever 100% our true selves. We play various roles through our lives and restrict ourselves to these roles, fitting in with what’s demanded and expected of us.
Jekyll was stifled by the expectations placed on him as a Victorian man of means, the expectations of society, of his family and of his friends. So, he created Mr Hyde, a literal embodiment of everything Jekyll was but couldn’t express without committing social suicide.
It puts me in mind of internet trolls, people who lash out with violent, cruel and horrendous words only but in the ‘real world’ would never say half (if any) of the things they say online. The internet is their Mr Hyde, their way of letting out that part of themselves without facing the repercussions.
Sadly, for Jekyll, once he had a taste of that freedom, he couldn’t give it up, until even without the conscious decision to indulge he was indulging. He needed to be Mr Hyde but also hated him, he needed to express that part of himself but ultimately was ashamed of it and in the end, ended his own life to prevent Mr Hyde from continuing unchecked.
So, this makes us think, clearly the story does not portray Mr Hyde as something to aspire to, but at the same time caging him completely caused a terrible and uncontrolled outburst.
We all need to wear masks in order to survive, society would crumble if we all became 100% self-indulgent. But at the same time restricting ourselves completely will only lead us to depression and self-destruction (hence Hyde killing after he’d been cooped up too long). Ultimately there needs to be a balance, we need to know when we can indulge and when we should not. Finding that balance is key, though sadly for Jekyll he failed in this.
I’d love to know our thoughts on this, the themes explored by the book, the characters and their flaws, and the society in which it is set.
2 thoughts on “Classic Horror Reviews: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”
I remember reading it as part of a class on Victorian monsters in college, and we discussed notions of identity and the duality (as well as the notion of identity being tied to possessions).
Jekyll and Hyde definitely gives us that split between good and evil. It was theorized in an episode of a show called Lost Worlds that Stevenson saw that duality within his hometown of Edinburgh in its old and new districts and the trade in body snatching, which inspired the story (saying also he only set it in London for monetary reasons).
I first read this one at school as well, I didn’t really get it when i was younger but when I reread it for pleasure while at university it made a lot more sense to me. It pleases me particularly that there are always things that can be related to it regardless of time (hence it being somewhat timeless I think). When i reread it at uni there was a lot of discussion regarding internet and how you can be who you choose to be online without fear of reprisal and how some people use it to indulge in cruelty, as I said it pleased me that something penned so long ago could have modern day comparisons. That’s one of the benefits of a timeless theme I suppose.