Tag Archives: Robert Louis Stevenson

“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Exposing the Hidden

JekyllHyde

We are all familiar with the story, even if we have not read it. The image of Dr. Jekyll drinking a potion and transforming into the hideous Hyde has become part of our collective psyches. I confess that this was the first time I had actually read Stevenson’s novella, and even though I was familiar with the general story, I found the text itself to be enlightening.

While I noticed quite a lot of interesting symbolism in the text, I figured I would focus on the one that really stood out for me: the hidden part of the human psyche. This is symbolized by Hyde. I do not think it is a coincidence that Hyde is pronounced “Hide.” He represents that part of our consciousness that we want to hide from others, and which we would also like to hide from ourselves. He is the primal part of our being that drives our urges. Try as we may to suppress that part of ourselves, it is always there, just below the surface, waiting for its chance to surge upwards and wrest control.

Early in the story, Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, senses that there is something that Jekyll is hiding something.

And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. “Poor Harry Jekyll,” he thought, “my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long time ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, PEDE CLAUDO, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.”

(p. 19)

In our youth, we have less control over our primal instincts. We are more likely to succumb to our urges and desires, whereas in our later years, most of us have learned how to control that part of our consciousness.

After Hyde commits murder, Utterson confronts Jekyll and asks whether he is concealing Hyde.

“One word,” said the lawyer. “Carew was my client, but so are you, and I want to know what I am doing. You have not been mad enough to hide this fellow?”

(p. 31)

I love this passage because it is essentially a triple entendre. There is the obvious meaning of hide as concealment. Then there is the homonym connection between hide and Hyde. Finally, there is the alternate definition of hide as skin. Jekyll’s skin, or hide, conceals the darker aspects of his consciousness as embodied in Hyde. Considering all the interpretations, it’s a brilliant metaphor.

The transformative potion which Jekyll drinks is referred to as “transcendental medicine.” As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking that this was some form of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drug. Hallucinogens are believed to unlock the hidden parts of our consciousness, or as Blake would have said, open the doors of perception. I suspect that Jekyll’s potion was intended to represent a mind-altering drug that allows the hidden aspects of our consciousness to rise to the forefront.

“It is well,” replied my visitor. “Lanyon, you remember your vows: what follows is under the seal of your profession. And now, you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors—behold!”

(p. 68)

As the dualistic aspects of human consciousness are explored, the assertion seems to be that the primal subconscious is essentially evil and should be subjugated by reason.

…all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

(p. 75)

The following passage incorporates two of my favorite symbols: the crossroads and the doors. Here, the crossroads represent the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious mind, as well as the intersection between good and evil, the two contradictions that are embodied within us. The doors represent the passageway to that hidden part of our psyches, where the darker regions of our consciousness exist.

That night I had come to the fatal cross-roads. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition, and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.

(pp. 75 – 76)

I think the scariest thing about this story is it forces us to recognize that the potential for evil exists within all of us. We like to deny it is there and hide it away, but it is always waiting for the doors to open, to surge up from the depths of our psyches and overthrow our reason. Sanity is fragile, and once it cracks, the hidden crawls forth.

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“The Body-Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Science as Horror

BodySnatchersIn my quest for stuff to read and write about for my October horror blog series, I searched the free e-books available for download on the iPad and found The Body-Snatcher. I decided to give it a read.

The story works for me on several levels. First off, the writing is excellent and really draws you in to the story, which is about the cadaver trade in Edinburgh. Several years ago, while I was visiting Scotland, I toured the catacombs of Edinburgh where the body snatchers would hide the cadavers before bringing them to the university to sell them to the science department for dissection. It was fascinating and eerie at the same time. Anyway, this story vividly brought those memories back to me.

Next, there is a great surprise ending. It’s really good! I am not going to say anything else about it—just  read it.

Finally, I see this story as a parable about the horrors of science and how science, when void of compassion and humanity, becomes a dark art. This is the aspect of the story I want to explore in this post.

There is a scene in the story where one of the medical research assistants murders a person named Gray. To hide the evidence, the body is sold for medical experiments. The medical students are described as being indifferent and in one case happy about receiving the cadaver, which they proceed to cut apart.

Hours passed; the class began to arrive; the members of the unhappy Gray were dealt out to one and to another, and received without remark. Richardson was happy with the head; and before the hour of freedom rang Fettes trembled with exultation to perceive how far they had gone toward safety.

It was at this point in the story that I caught a strange coincidence. The person being dissected was named Gray, and that made me think of the classic book of anatomical science, Gray’s Anatomy. I made a mental note to check the dates and compare when Stevenson wrote this story and when Henry Gray wrote his famous work. As I suspected, they were very close: Gray’s Anatomy was first published in 1858 and The Body-Snatcher was published in 1884. I figured this could not be a coincidence and that Stevenson was actually criticizing Gray’s book and the scientific community as a whole, which was probably viewed as insensitive to the sanctity of human life and concerned only with the cold advancement of knowledge. In an ironic twist, it is Gray who is killed and tossed upon the slab of science, to be sliced apart by unfeeling students who were studying his own works.

Literally, I am gritting my teeth and forcing myself not to write about the ending, because it is so poignant and the twist is so great, it’s hard for me not to share my thoughts. But you all are thoughtful and intelligent readers. I am certain that when you come to the end of the story, you will reach the same conclusion that I did. So go ahead and read it. It’s short and you will love it. Cheers!!

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