There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

A double-goer: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

  The court was very cool and a little damp, and full of premature twilight, although the sky, high up overhead, was still bright with sunset. The middle one of the three windows was half-way open; and sitting close beside it, taking the air with an infinite sadness of mien, like some disconsolate prisoner, Utterson saw Dr. Jekyll.

     "What! Jekyll!" he cried. "I trust you are better."

     "I am very low, Utterson," replied the doctor drearily, "very low. It will not last long, thank God."

     "You stay too much indoors," said the lawyer. "You should be out, whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me. (This is my cousin—Mr. Enfield—Dr. Jekyll.) Come now; get your hat and take a quick turn with us."

     "You are very good," sighed the other. "I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not. But indeed, Utterson, I am very glad to see you; this is really a great pleasure; I would ask you and Mr. Enfield up, but the place is really not fit."

     "Why, then," said the lawyer, good-naturedly, "the best thing we can do is to stay down here and speak with you from where we are."

     "That is just what I was about to venture to propose," returned the doctor with a smile. But the words were hardly uttered, before the smile was struck out of his face and succeeded by an expression of such abject terror and despair, as froze the very blood of the two gentlemen below. They saw it but for a glimpse for the window was instantly thrust down; but that glimpse had been sufficient, and they turned and left the court without a word. In silence, too, they traversed the by-street; and it was not until they had come into a neighbouring thoroughfare, where even upon a Sunday there were still some stirrings of life, that Mr. Utterson at last turned and looked at his companion. They were both pale; and there was an answering horror in their eyes.

     "God forgive us, God forgive us," said Mr. Utterson.

     But Mr. Enfield only nodded his head very seriously, and walked on once more in silence….

*   *   *

Machen must have read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to tatters. Its confidence, buoyancy, and protean economy produce effects that foreshadow Machen's own.

At the beginning of Stevenson's tale, Enfield is reporting a crowd's reaction (and his own) to the sight and proximity of Mr. Hyde after Hyde has assaulted a girl.

....He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the girl's own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom she had been sent put in his appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones; and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child's family, which was only natural. But the doctor's case was what struck me. He was the usual cut and dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best. We told the man we could and would make such a scandal out of this as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other....

Dyson has a similar moment in "The Inmost Light."

....after walking about for some time I thought I should like to sit down on a bank and have a smoke. While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in one hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time which seemed long, but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable,* but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world — looked through the window of a commonplace, brand-new house, and seen hell open before me. When the first shock was over, I thought once or twice that I should have fainted; my face streamed with a cold sweat, and my breath came and went in sobs, as if I had been half drowned. I managed to get up at last, and walked round to the street, and there I saw the name Dr Black on the post by the front gate....

Later in "The Inmost Light" the alien character of Mrs. Black is underscored:

    ' "My dear sir," I said, "you surprise me extremely. You say that it was not the brain of a human being. What was it, then?"

     ' "The brain of a devil." He spoke quite coolly, and never moved a muscle. "The brain of a devil," he repeated, "and I have no doubt that Black put a pillow over her mouth and kept it there for a few minutes. I don't blame him if he did. Whatever Mrs Black was, she was not fit to stay in this world. Will you have anything more? No? Good-night..."

Selby reports his own emotional harrowing to Dyson in "The Red Hand."

     'Your conclusions are admirable,' said Mr Selby. 'I may tell you that I had my stroll down Oxford Street the night Sir Thomas Vivian died. And I think that is all I have to say.'

     'Scarcely,' said Dyson. 'How about the treasure?'

     'I had rather we did not speak of that,' said Mr Selby, with a whitening of the skin about the temples.

     'Oh, nonsense, sir, we are not blackmailers. Besides, you know you are in our power.'

     'Then, as you put it like that, Mr Dyson, I must tell you I returned to the place. I went on a little farther than before.'

     The man stopped short; his mouth began to twitch, his lips moved apart, and he drew in quick breaths, sobbing.

     'Well, well,' said Dyson, 'I dare say you have done comfortably.'

     'Comfortably,' Selby went on, constraining himself with an effort, 'yes, so comfortably that hell burns hot within me for ever. I only brought one thing away from that awful house within the hills; it was lying just beyond the spot where I found the flint knife.'

     'Why did you not bring more?'

     The whole bodily frame of the wretched man visibly shrank and wasted; his face grew yellow as tallow, and the sweat dropped from his brows. The spectacle was both revolting and terrible, and when the voice came, it sounded like the hissing of a snake.

     'Because the keepers are still there, and I saw them, and because of this,' and he pulled out a small piece of curious gold-work and held it up.

     'There,' he said, 'that is the Pain of the Goat.'

     Phillipps and Dyson cried out together in horror at the revolting obscenity of the thing.

     'Put it away, man; hide it, for Heaven's sake, hide it!'

     'I brought that with me; that is all,' he said. 'You do not wonder that I did not stay long in a place where those who live are a little higher than the beasts, and where what you have seen is surpassed a thousandfold?'

     'Take this,' said Dyson, 'I brought it with me in case it might be useful'; and he drew out the black tablet, and handed it to the shaking, horrible man....

A "Machenist" reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would probably present the conclusion that Hyde is an example of an everyday evil, not the Evil Ambrose describes to Cotgrave in "The White People":

     'Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the "sin" of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin.'

     'And what is sin?' said Cotgrave.

     'I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?

Writers as diverse as Conan Doyle, Vladimir Nabokov, Frank O'Connor, and Jorge Luis Borges have praised Stevenson's revolutionary role as a writer, and the role of his novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) Lovecraft gives Stevenson no such acknowledgement (for overall contribution to the weird tale in particular or the short story in general). He does suggest, however:

Robert Louis Stevenson—the latter of whom, despite an atrocious tendency toward jaunty mannerisms, created permanent classics in "Markheim", "The Body-Snatcher", and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, we may say that this school still survives; for to it clearly belong such of our contemporary horror-tales as specialise in events rather than atmospheric details, address the intellect rather than the impressionistic imagination, cultivate a luminous glamour rather than a malign tensity or psychological verisimilitude, and take a definite stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare. 

I would be hard-pressed to find a "stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare" in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Utterson, Lanyon, and Poole try to do right by Jekyll, but their sympathies in the end have little weight. The effort boomerangs: Lanyon dies of shock and Utterson and Poole find they have arrived too late for their attempted rescue.

S. T. Joshi, in his comprehensive Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012), pulls no punches on Stevenson and his novella:

     Kipling never incorporated the supernatural in a novel, but two authors who did do so produced imperishable classics within five years of each other—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). But both The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lippincott's, July 1890; book publication 1891) are seriously flawed, although in almost opposite directions. Both, of course, are classic tales of doppelgängers, and both would appear to have derived some benefit from previous instances of this theme, notably Poe's "William Wilson."

     To write about both these novels now, given how familiar their plots are and how little of a surprise their purportedly cataclysmic revelations engender, is a difficult proposition; but there is every reason to believe that the initial readers of both works found both their fundamental themes titillatingly appalling and their "surprise" endings strikingly effective. Accordingly, our judgment of these works should not be affected by our familiarity with their conclusions, although Stevenson comes close to giving the game away at several points, especially when a document presumably by Hyde is found to be written in a handwriting identical to Jekyll's.

     As it is, Stevenson himself lets the cat out of the bag about two-thirds the way through the novella, presenting a lengthy statement by Jekyll that constitutes the final segment of the text. It is here that whatever moral or aesthetic value exists in the work resides; for up to this point we have been merely reading a cleverly executed suspense narrative in which the apparently separate individuals Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde are becoming increasingly fused. Hyde's nefarious actions—we are introduced to him at the very beginning of the narrative as stepping heedlessly on a child who has gotten in his way, and later he flies into a rage and kills with a cane an elderly man who proves to be no less a figure than the M.P. Sir Danvers Carew—may seem a trifle tame in our day of serial killers and worse, but Stevenson has accomplished his overall mission in portraying the fundamental moral divergence of Jekyll and Hyde.

     What Jekyll states, both in elucidation and, implicitly, in exculpation of his actions, is that, having come to realise "the profound duplicity of life" (56)—that is, that every human being "is not truly one, but two"—he wonders whether these elements or facets of one's personality could be separated by science, specifically by drugs. Jekyll's ostensible purpose in doing so is altruistic: if the "evil" side of a person could somehow be suppressed or eliminated, only the "good" would remain.

     There are a number of problems with this formulation, chief of which is the naïveté of thinking that it is so easy to distinguish what is "good" and what is "evil" in man, especially when it is by no means clear whether moral "good" and "evil" have any genuine meaning aside from what is or is not socially acceptable to a given society at a given moment of its history. But Stevenson does not wrestle with moral conundrums of this kind; indeed, it could be said that his philosophically shallow presentation of human morality is a large part of the reason why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has enjoyed such popularity over the years, since it corresponds exactly with the philosophically shallow views of the average individual.

     There are also problems with Stevenson's execution of the plot. Jekyll manages to manufacture the drug—the chief component of which he refers to as "a particular salt which I knew, from my experiments, to be the last ingredient required" (58)—remarkably easily. If he had come up with this formula with such effortlessness, why had it not been discovered decades or centuries before? Only much later does Jekyll provide a lame qualification, stating that it was the "impurity" (71) of the salt in the first batch of his potion that caused his transformation into Hyde.

     It should be noted that Stevenson, to his credit, is not maintaining that Jekyll is all "good" and Hyde all "evil." The latter may be the case, but the former is not. Indeed, in the earlier part of the narrative we are told that Jekyll had "sinned" (21) in youth; evidently, this is a reference (as Jekyll confesses) to a "certain gaiety of disposition" (56) that conflicted with the scholarly seriousness he wished to present to the world. All this seems to us harmless enough, but to Jekyll it is clearly a matter of concern: "I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in touch with a doctor, Hastie Lanyon, and asks him to bring a fresh supply of drugs to change himself back again. If Hyde, who has been consistently portrayed as entirely "evil," is dominant in the man's personality at this moment, why would he wish to change back to Jekyll? Is it merely to evade the authorities for the murder of the M.P., since a number of individuals had identified Hyde as the murderer and forced him to go into hiding? Whatever the case, the new potion does not work, leading Jekyll/Hyde to come up with the contrived "impurity" argument.

     The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, in truth, a novella that should have been a novel. Stevenson has a potentially rich and complex idea at his disposal, but he has expressed it in a disappointingly conventional and morally unadventurous manner, and the work is so compressed that the full ramifications of the concept fail to appear. Possibly Stevenson—who, quite frankly, occupies no higher than the second rank of literary greatness, his work in general aesthetically crippled by a jaunty glibness of style, an evil facility in plot construction, and a general absence of profundity—was incapable of giving the idea more detailed treatment; and even though the idea is now in the public domain, it is not clear that anyone else has done so either....

Stephen King, in his 1980 book Danse Macabre, is more direct in his outright praise of the Jekyll/Hyde trope, and of Stevenson as stylist:

….Stevenson's brief and cautionary tale is like the quick, mortal stab of an icepick.  

     Like a police-court trial (to which the critic G. K. Chesterton compared it), we get the narrative through a series of different voices, and it is through the testimony of those involved that Dr. Jekyll's unhappy tale unfolds....

....Hyde, Enfield admits to Utterson, "carried it off like Satan." When Enfield demands compensation in the name of the little girl, Hyde disappears through the door under discussion and returns a short time later with a hundred pounds, ten in gold and a check for the balance. Although Enfield won't tell, we find out in due course that the signature on the check was that of Henry Jekyll.

     Enfield closes his account with one of the most telling descriptions of the Werewolf in all of horror fiction. Although it describes very little in the way we usually think of description, it says a great deal—we all know what Stevenson means, and he knew we would, because he knew, apparently, that all of us are old hands at watching for the mutant:

     He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarcely know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn't specify the point. He's an extraordinary looking man, and yet I can really name nothing out of the way. . . . And it's not for want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

     It was Rudyard Kipling, years later and in another tale, who named what was bothering Enfield about Mr. Hyde. Wolfsbane and potions aside (and Stevenson himself dismissed the device of the smoking potion as "so much hugger-mugger"), it is very simple: somewhere upon Mr. Hyde, Enfield sensed what Kipling called the Mark of the Beast....

[Jekyll] has created Hyde to escape the strictures of propriety, but has discovered that evil has its own strictures.... 

[My emphasis - Jay]

....The difference between Utterson and Jekyll is that Jekyll would only drink gin to mortify a taste for vintages in public. In the privacy of his own library he's the sort of man who might well drink an entire bottle of good port (and probably congratulate himself on not having to share it, or any of his fine Jamaican cigars, either). Perhaps he would not want to be caught dead attending a risqué play in the West End, but he is more than happy to go as Hyde. Jekyll does not want to mortify any of his tastes. He only wants to gratify them in secret.

....A bit of a swerve off the main road here. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published a good three decades before the ideas of Sigmund Freud would begin to surface, but in the first two sections of Stevenson's novella the author gives us a startlingly apt metaphor for Freud's idea of the conscious and subconscious minds—or, to be more specific, the contrast between superego and id. Here is one large block of buildings. On Jekyll's side, the side presented to the public eye, it seems a lovely, graceful building, inhabited by one of London's most respected physicians. On the other side—but still a part of the same building—we find rubbish and squalor, people abroad on questionable errands at three in the morning, and that "blistered and distained door" set in "a blind forehead of discoloured wall." On Jekyll's side, all things are in order and life goes its steady Apollonian round. On the other side, Dionysus prances unfettered. Enter Jekyll here, exit Hyde there. Even if you're an anti-Freudian and won't grant Stevenson's insight into the human psyche, you'll perhaps grant that the building serves as a nice symbol for the duality of human nature.

....Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a masterpiece of concision—the verdict of Henry James, not myself. In that indispensable little handbook by Wilfred Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, the thirteenth rule for good composition reads simply: "Omit needless words." Along with Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Douglas Fairbairn's Shoot, Stevenson's economy-sized horror story could serve as a textbook example for young writers on how Strunk's Rule 13—the three most important words in all of the textbooks ever written on the technique of composition—is best applied. Characterizations are quick but precise; Stevenson's people are sketched but never caricatured. Mood is implied rather than belabored. The narrative is as chopped and lowered as a kid's hot rod....

Utterson eventually traces Hyde to his Soho bolt-hole. 

The lawyer stood awhile when Mr. Hyde had left him, the picture of disquietude. Then he began slowly to mount the street, pausing every step or two and putting his hand to his brow like a man in mental perplexity. The problem he was thus debating as he walked, was one of a class that is rarely solved. Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him.1 "There must be something else," said the perplexed gentleman. "There is something more, if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr. Fell?k or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last, I think; for, O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend."


....tonight there was a shudder in his blood; the face of Hyde sat heavy on his memory; he felt (what was rare with him) a nausea and distaste of life; and in the gloom of his spirits, he seemed to read a menace in the flickering of the firelight on the polished cabinets and the uneasy starting of the shadow on the roof....

     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 while 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, l years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault." And the lawyer, scared by the thought, brooded awhile on his own past, groping in all the corners of memory, lest by chance some Jack-in-the-Box of an old iniquity should leap to light there. His past was fairly blameless; few men could read the rolls of their life with less apprehension; yet he was humbled to the dust by the many ill things he had done, and raised up again into a sober and fearful gratitude by the many he had come so near to doing, yet avoided....

The phrase "Jack-in-the-Box of an old iniquity" is pregnant indeed, and not only with the handful of strange stories Stevenson lived to write. "We are the real monsters; and our own deadly enemies" was a central aesthetic (if not also philosophical) insight of the Yellow Nineties, and echoed for a century among practitioners of the horror mode.

The peripeteia of Stevenson's life gave readers dozens of romance and strange-story masterpieces. Having just read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the first time, I gratefully acknowledge its place as first among equals. Jekyll is a very modern character, and not merely for his modern professional trappings. He is the middle class civic saint ultimately undone by an arrogance that permits him to think he could have his cake and eat it, too.

Moral: travel cautiously - if at all - if your fellow traveler (and secret sharer) is a Mr. Hyde.


27 February 2021


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