The Strange case of
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Steven's classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perhaps as popular now as when he wrote it nearly 140 years ago.
This story has been adapted into multiple film versions, more comically for the movie The Nutty Professor. But what is the story really about? What was the inspiration behind it? And, what meaning does it have with us in our day?
So, prepare yourself to walk in the shadowy streets of London to learn more.
A strange tale to tell
It is the 1880s.
A man named Gabriel John Utterson hears tell of a sinister-looking man. This man first bumps into a girl then tramples her under his feet in a fit of ill-temper. When confronted, this man – who goes under the name of Edward Hyde – agrees to pay £ 100 damages. The person telling the story is appalled by Mr. Hyde's appearances – more animal than man.
What also disturbs Gabriel is that Mr. Hyde signed the check, used to pay the damages, in the name of his good friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll is a well-respected doctor, considered to be a good man and a friend to Gabriel. When Gabriel learns that his friend had changed his will to make this Mr. Hyde his beneficiary, he is understandably concerned for his friend.
Later a servant witnesses Mr. Hyde meeting a man, who then savagely beats him to death with his cane. Time passes without this mysterious Mr. Hyde being seen again; all appears normal.
The doctor also withdraws from all contact, completely isolating himself from everyone. Concerned, Jekyll's butler contacts Gabriel and together they break into the laboratory to find Mr. Hyde, dead.
A letter then explains all.
The doctor had developed a serum that transformed himself. The reason? It seemed that the good doctor was tired of always being the good, respectable person. Thus transformed, he could act out his wild side without inhibition.
He got what he wanted, but far more than he bargained for. What he became was a creature that was completely free to act out his animistic impulses without a conscience.
But canning the man to death was a wake-up call for Dr. Jekyll; his spree of remorseless vice had gone way too far. He put the serum away, and a repentant doctor vowed never to do this again.
But Mr. Hyde was now awaken – and didn't want to be put back on the shelf.
Without the use of the serum, Mr. Hyde kept coming back on his own. Frantically, Dr. Jekyll kept making up more serum and kept using it to keep his monster at bay. He runs out of ingredients and gets desperate for more. To his horror, his new batch has no effect – apparently, an impurity accidentally got into his first ingredients and helped produce the result.
Try as he might, he couldn't get another batch of serum to work.
In the end, he kills himself, taking both him and the monster he created with him.
A real monster
The author of this story is Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped. As I understand it, the inspiration for the story might have been a story from his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Stevenson attended the trial of a man named Eugene Chantrelle.
Eugene was a teacher of great respectability and honor. Yet it came out that he had murdered his wife and, perhaps, several other people. The contrast between a man who could be at once both appear very good, and at the same time, do such evil struck Stevenson.
This inspired Mr. Stevenson and, despite it being a hard book to write, he went at it with vigor. According to a friend, the first draft of the book only took three days to write.
The moral to the story
I've read several interpretations of the story, the good vs. evil in us all, the private vs. public lives of people of that time, even the relationship between Scotland and Great Britain. I don't wish to downplay any of these themes, but when I read the story, what struck me was a powerful lesson/warning on the dangers of addiction.
Consider how it progressed with him and compare it to addiction:
In the beginning, Dr. Jekyll changes into Mr. Hyde for some “harmless fun.” Bringing out the animal in him was exciting.
At one point, his habit starts bringing on undesirable results that he did not anticipate.
Shocked by what is happening, he puts away the habit. But now, the genie does not want to go quietly away. The monster he created begins taking over the scene.
He ends up spending his whole life trying to serve, or get rid of, his beast.
This, to me, is a perfect analogy of what happens when our addicting habits take over. Fortunately for most people, this downward spiral need not end as tragically as it did for the doctor.
But the lesson is there, provided most powerfully.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
There have been several film adaptations. Among them the following:
A 1920 version with John Barrymore as the doctor. The transformation scene is impressive as what made the transformation scene believable was Mr. Barrymore's facial expressions. (Check out a video clip.)
A 1931 version with Fredric March. The special effects of the transformation are most impressive – especially without modern technology – as his skin grows dark as the serum takes effect. (Again, a video clip is here.)
A 1941 with Spencer Tracy. Here the doctor's original motives were softened a bit. Now Dr. Jekyll is performing a groundbreaking scientific experiment that simply got out of control.
On the web
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (ala Planetbooks)
An online version of the book, viewable as a pdf file.
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