The Importance of Being Split: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Even the most ill-read person can identify that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person and it is taken as a fantasy moral allegory: Jekyll and Hyde are polar opposites and representative of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that is within each person. This basic idea is so engrained into the public psyche that it can taint the reading of the story. One critic was heavily patronizing and satirical of the story:

“If you weren’t careful, the evil in you would swallow up the good, as the wicked Hyde does Jekyll. And then you’d be lost. So be careful! Nearly as crude as that.” [Keith (Stevenson Today.) Queens Quarterly. Winter 1950-51. Issue: 456.]

However, this does not describe the short story as written by Robert Louis Stevenson. The basic story as known by the public is merely the final chapter in the story. There is a far different story within the pages: of Utterson’s conviction to find out what exactly is the connection between Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. Of the foggy confusion that is human nature. Of the differing Victorian values that are at odds in the story. The narrative arc is not a simple story; it is a fragmented consciousness of many view points, documents and a collection of connected events. Within this framework, one cannot help but ask which event is the most important. For me, it is the previously mentioned final chapter. It highlights underlying foreshadowing, key themes, important structure and stylistic changes that make it different from the rest of the book and shows how important that chapter in the resultant story.

One of the reasons why I think that Jekyll’s confession is the most important event in the narrative is that it ties up all the loose ends of the plot. Here, the genre is important. For the majority of the story, it reads like what we would term a murder mystery in which it is customary to find out “whodunit” at the end, so it would be natural in a normal murder mystery for there to be a major resolution to reveal at the end, of which ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ could be considered no different. However, according to Nabokov, this so-called genre that Dr ‘Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is placed, it is intolerable:

“Please completely forget; disremember, obliterate, unlearn, consign to oblivion any notion you may have that “Jekyll and Hyde” is some kind of a mystery story, a detective story or a movie.” [Nabokov, Vladimir, 1973: p 179]

This statement is a combination of historical nit-picking “ the “genres” Nabokov mentioned come into existence after ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ - and an attempt to stimulate the almost impossible task of reading the text a-generically. It has been shown that after the genre ‘master word’ has been applied to a text, it makes the reading a less enjoyable one as, subconsciously, the audience pick up clues from previous texts under the same genre and know the different procedures and innate rules of the genre. Additionally, there is a final science-fiction dynamic which begs for an explanation. However, it is widely regarded that as science-fiction, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a “limit case”. Suvin claims that despite the transformation happening under the influence of a chemical liquid, it is an unrepeatable feat because the concoction is relatively unknown and unexplained. This makes Suvin feel it is more of a science-fantasy than science-fiction. Regardless, it is still a real, scientific twist and the audience needs to find out how it is possible to be more than one person and - despite this explanation being vague - Jekyll’s confession fulfills this need and, therefore, is relatively important.

Another reason why I feel Jekyll’s confession is the most important event in the narrative is that it follows the unusual structure of the story. The narrative is fractured and does not adhere to the strict chronological order of the events of the story but to the events as they would have been experienced by the Utterson character; therefore displaying that, overall, Utterson is the focalize for the majority of the story. For example, Jekyll’s confession is the last chapter of the story but it covers what would be the first events of the story that would have occurred if the story was in chronological order: however this is the last part of the story as experienced by Utterson. Similarly, the first chapter of the story is set during the middle of the plot. It displays the universal paradox of time itself “ it is not a straight line but more of a ball of temporal events that happen within an individual time line. To an extent, this method of a “document” confession rather than a dramatic monologue or unveiling is important to Jekyll’s character. It is the first relatively big section actually dedicated to Jekyll. Previous to this, we have little evidence of the “goodness” and “charity” that Jekyll possesses and the opinions and habits that Lanyon described Jekyll to have were relatively minimal and cryptic “…too fanciful.” With Jekyll’s confession, the fact that it is a separate item from the rest of the narrative makes it feel more important and Nabokov suggests that this reflects how in society, Jekyll is often separate:

“...a square of ancient, handsome houses... to all sorts and conditions of men: map engravers, architects, shady lawyers and the agents of obscure enterprises. One house, however, second from the corner, was still occupied entire... wore a great air of wealth and comfort.” [Stevenson, 1886: p16]

This makes the final chapter a key event as this highlights this structure and it concludes the focalized timeline of Utterson.

Another reason why I think that Jekyll’s confession is the most important part of the narrative is that it follows the continuing theme of “stories within a story” and differing parallels. The “story within a story” theme is recurrent throughout the text “ particularly as text hotspots and as key turning points of the plot. For example is the first chapter with Mr Enfield’s story of the girl and the cheque helps to initiate the main plotline. Jekyll’s confession reads as another story: it gives how Hyde became to be and why Jekyll decided to alter his personality. This adds to the depth of Jekyll’s character and answers the remaining questions that the audience may have. There are parallels within the characterizations. On one hand, you have the subtle personality change of Utterson. He is described at first as being reserved and “cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse.” However, as the story progresses, Utterson becomes more fluid in conversation:

“...Something troglodytic, shall we say? Or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that transpires through and transfigures its clay continent? The last, I think; for my O my old Harry Jekyll, if I ever read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.” [Stevenson, 1886: p16]

The syntax of this and the sheer number of different types of imagery does not suggest that of a “dry lawyer”. Another possible parallel that Rogers describes is the ‘doubles’ of the story. Naturally, there is Jekyll and Hyde but there is also Utterson and Poole. It is not a dry cut double, more latent and a “completion” (i.e. the separation of the British “upstairs/downstairs”) as well as similar motives in the text: they are the lifeblood of the text; talking, acting and moving far more than much of the other characters. This is relevant to the final chapter is the parallel to Poole’s confession and Jekyll’s confession. The media of the two differ: Poole’s is spoken and Jekyll’s is written and these reflect the characters. Neither confession would have as much impact in another medium. It also follows the themes that are prevalent throughout the text.

Of course, it is necessary to further examine not only why this is the most important part but how Stevenson shows this. I believe that in the basic qualities of the chapter such as length, style and point of view that it is markedly different to the rest of the novel. Most importantly is the realization of the relationship of Jekyll and Hyde to be an intrapersonal one and the consequences of this realization on the rest of the story.

The very length of the final chapter indicates importance: it is the longest chapter in the book and constitutes for roughly a quarter of the story. It is also the longest sample of first person in the text “ showing that Jekyll’s narrative is due for importance. The fact that the last chapter is a letter is of importance. Norquay felt that this was:

“...Highly representative of the tense relationship that has developed between writers and readers.” [Norquay, Glenda. Robert Louis Stevenson and Theories of Reading. Manchester University Press, 2007.]

For in essence, it is a reading of a reading: The writer is writing someone reading something a character has written and we are reading him doing just that. There can be a feeling of satisfaction drawn from this that Utterson has completed his narrative arc by reading what are the complications and resolutions in Jekyll’s narrative arc. Jekyll’s ‘complication’ is the potion itself and the resolution is isolation. Here we have a problem: the portrayal of ‘liquids’ in the Victorian era. For Reed, this potion was symbolic of the Victorian’s attitude to alcohol and how it ruined a man, which the use of metaphors such as “shipwreck”, “slavery” and the “down-going men” that Utterson was often in the company of. He brought to attention the fact that tea was waiting for Utterson in the final chapters: with tea as regarded as a “good drink” (hence the phrase ‘tee-totaller’). However, for Nabokov, this was a more delicate definition. There is a contrasting double act between the potion that Jekyll has created and the wine that Utterson is fond of. Within the text, the two drinks become associated with certain types of scenes; wine with warm, internal scenes during the evening such as the first discussion between Utterson and Jekyll and the potion with foggy, cold exteriors during the late hours of the night such as when Hyde murders Carew. These two ideas from Reed and Nabokov are seen in the final chapter:

“This, then, is the last time, short of a miracle, that Henry Jekyll can think his own thoughts or see his own face (now how sadly altered!) in the glass.” [Stevenson, 1886: p77]

With the mention of the glass, we can see how this potion has ravaged him but Jekyll refuses to give it up: preferring to give up his ‘Jekyll’ personality instead.

The main issue within the final chapter is the final conclusion of Jekyll that Hyde should survive and he should not. It raises many questions that have often been swept aside when the text has been looked at: the very nature of Jekyll and Hyde for it is often thought that Jekyll is somewhat separate from Hyde but they are the same. Until the final chapter, the transformation has never been complete: Hyde still wanted to turn back into Jekyll:

“Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by this friends and cherishing honest hopes...” [Stevenson, 1886: p70]

This shows that the two exist as one unit “ which one could not exist without the other within the text. Supposing if Jekyll and Hyde were two different people, it would naturally be an entirely different story. If one of the two were taken away, the other could easily survive. In the final chapter, Jekyll decides to submit to Hyde and dies soon thereafter. This is important to the story as a whole as it shows that personality is a unit: to destroy or to enhance one area of it and it will upset a balance. It is obvious that Jekyll is not an entirely good man “ the ambition to separate such a large part of the psyche could not be considered entirely wholesome.

In conclusion, the most important event in the narrative is Jekyll’s confession. It demonstrates the several key themes that are used throughout the text: “documents”, “stories within stories”, liquid, parallels and metamorphoses. It displays a variety of genre and completes the narrative arc of Utterson whilst writing the majority of Jekyll’s. In essence, it shows the morality of the story: not a simple allegory that can be found in fairy tales but that of shades of grey “ it was Hyde who maimed and murdered but it was Jekyll who created him. It is plain to see how much impact this chapter of Jekyll and Hyde had on modern culture. In psychological terms, the creativity of Stevenson has been downplayed as the idea of a stark split personality is so plain to see in the world. It has inspired and been referenced in many different media: from its own transformation to stage and screen to odder influences such as The Lazarus Experiment in Doctor Who. It is within the chapter that the (in) famous transformation happens and has been entirely swallowed up by popular culture and makes this story memorable.

Posted on August 4th, 2009 at 07:31am

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