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Can anyone bring a fresh eye to this novella that has achieved fable status to readers of this genre? Any inspiration from a work that has been so raped and plundered seems futile. So, why read it? We all know it's about man's antipodal nature, or, more specifically, getting addicted to his anti-social—aka, anti-Victorian—behavior. And, its moldy central plot gimmick is Science Fiction—old, rocket-in-the-moon's-eye science fiction—and not the use of spells and hexes from Fantasy's more believable credence in shapeshifting.
Well, one reason could certainly lie in RLS's prose:
Sure, it's outdated, but with gobs of wonderful, dangling phrases bloating up the sentences with erudition. The structure is also somewhat daunting, as it is a bounce in 3rd person with a fondness for a Mr. Utterson—a friend, an attorney, but, most avidly, a representative of the restrictive parameters of Victorian culture—for two-thirds of its length, then switches to epistolary from a little-known character for its astonishing, revelatory climax, then wraps with a 1st-person confession a la post mortem by Dr. Jekyll. This narrative devise enhances mystery by talking around the action—investigating it, if you will—then shocking the reader with an in-the-room view of its conclusion, and finally releasing—with even more alarming intimacy—the vaulting motivations and explanations from its woeful subject, or should I say, victim. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is deceptively simple-looking regarding its plot. But, just as its formation seems unnecessarily convoluted, there is thematic meaning to its massage, in that its contemporary society covets etiquette, enshrines procedure, and esteems reputation over any sordid truths or debasing facts of an orderly belief system. As a result, Hyde's crimes are related to us through secondary experiences, or, in the case of the murder, descriptively avoided altogether(1). It is the dualities that matter: the rational verses the irrational; morality verses immorality. But, more damning, it is sacrificing honesty for deception, truth for delusion, and accommodation over denial. You see, things are a lot more complex than they first appear.
For contemporary eyes, the presentation of the terrors in a hostile, urban landscape is quite theatrical yet stirring. Hyde is a creature of the night, and the “shifting, insubstantial mists”(Heron Books UK, ISBN 0862250048, no c., p.26) menacing about London's labyrinthine architecture is perfect for this fiend “without bowels of mercy”(p.28) to accomplish his nefarious deeds. Physically, he's described as dwarfish, hairy, “hardly human”, “troglodytic”, and bearing “Satan's signature upon his face”(p.30). Everybody has the same reaction in meeting him, as would a modern city dweller faced with a hooded, gangster-reeking thug in a darkened alley. The Victorians had a fascination with physiognomy, or, that a miscreant could be identified by physical form—or malformed—alone. Here's more dualities: citizens verses outlaws; birth certificates verses green cards; the haves verses the have-nots. Today it's called “profiling”, but that same prejudice hides under the banner of racism.
And so it goes—the duality of man's nature. Blah, blah, blah. I'm going to forestall kicking that dead javelina anymore and spew about something else, something Dr. Jekyll identifies as the self-mixed compound that engendered his metamorphosis into Mr. Hyde, something he calls “transcendental medicine”(p.60).
Yep, kiddies. Drugs.
But not for medication, not for recreation. No. This is getting bonked for a higher, scientific purpose. Since Jekyll postulates only two states of being—good and evil—which are battling each other “in the agonized womb of consciousness”, he figures to separate off the wicked, banish it, then continue “on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure.” But, like anybody bumming on a bad acid trip, he discovers it ain't so, Joe, and the “doom and burthen”(p.62) lies solely within humanity's acumen. Furthermore, once licentiousness takes over in the form of Hyde, he finds that it “braced and delighted me like wine”(p.63). Jumping from Victorian shoulders, RLS lands on today's firmament with his disregard of spiritual immortality, his realization that all things are not so absolute as black and white, and that sensuality is pretty cool. Sadly, he also had to sell books to the 19th century mainstream(2), so he whittled back his sticking points—consciously or not—and turned, on the surface at least, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into 1936's Refer Madness, or Signal 30, that driver's education AV aid of gruesome, Technicolor car wrecks looping in 1950s high school wide eyes seemingly forever.
So there you have it—the modern duality and justification to read this novella: stoned verses straight; illegal verses legal; embrace verses repression. And, oh yeah, you might find it an astonishingly-tight and engaging read as well. As a back-handed reasoning of Victorian culture through the fantasist bias of externalizing incorporeal thingies, put it on the shelf next to Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray(3) of 1890, and Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau(4) from 1896, Stoker's Dracula from 1897. And, don't forget Mary Shelley's earlier contribution from 1818 using this time-honored, primitive conceit of soul-stealing, identity-thieving doppelgangers.
2) RLS was not a hypocrite or motivated capitalist, 'cause—remember?—he moved out of the British Isles to eventually land in the South Seas, where he was revered by the natives until his death at 44 years of age.
3) After Jekyll I tried reading Dorian, but it kept stuttering out as "Doris", since now there's a century more of so-called gay affectations, which makes it hard to spit out the stereotypes to chew into the characters. Besides, Oscar's cleverness gets in the way; it's like reading an email of witty phrases or memorable quotes. However, a fascinating historical fact is that Wilde was the first wooer of Florence Balcombe, a notorious beauty who maintained this status by refusing to be photographed or painted after she reached the age of 40. She became Bram Stoker's wife in 1878. See a pic of this stunner here.