Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories

Another book from the Barnes & Noble Classics series came my way last Christmas entitled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories. (One of my sweet little nieces gave it to me and she helped me unwrap the present.) I had read Dracula and Frankenstein before getting this book, and I looked forward to understanding what Mr. Hyde was all about. Frankly, I did not know much about the story, except that cartoon characters from Looney Tunes spoofed the two characters and that all it took for Dr. Jekyll to change into Mr. Hyde was some chemical potion. What was Dr. Jekyll’s purpose for concocting a formula with horrible side effects anyway? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” people say. The other stories alongside the novella in this edition include “A Lodging for the Night,” “The Suicide Club,” “Thrawn Janet,” “The Body-Snatcher,” and “Markheim.” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote all of these works between 1877 and 1886. Jenny Davidson provided the introduction and the notes to this edition.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells of an attorney whose friend gets caught up with a ruffian. Mr. Utterson keeps a circle of friends that includes cousins, doctors, and other well regarded persons of society. Although rough-looking on the outside, he does enjoy the company of his friends. Mr. Utterson does not understand why Dr. Jekyll, one of his dearest friends, insists that he draft a last will giving his belongings to a scoundrel like Mr. Hyde, especially when a clause in the will allows him to inherit everything if Dr. Jekyll becomes missing for more than three months. Dr. Jekyll’s interest in Mr. Hyde provokes Mr. Utterson to search out the creepy menace. He figures Mr. Hyde is placing Dr. Jekyll under some sort of duress in order to profit from him. Mr. Utterson investigates until he learns the truth, and he learns it after gathering some disturbing testimonies of witnesses.

The significant thing about this story is the premise that a person is a dual being, not a single individual. Dr. Jekyll writes in his confession “that man is not truly one, but truly two” (62). It compares to the Cherokee legend of the two wolves that lie within each person, one evil and one good, and the one that wins is the one the person feeds more. What brings this dichotomy to the forefront is Dr. Jekyll’s research using chemicals to search out and hopefully destroy the evil side of human nature. The research backfires and the evil side takes strength from the medicine, thus overwhelming the good side of Dr. Jekyll. A modern interpretation of this story, as shared by Jenny Davidson and other critics she refers to, can apply to drug addiction and its effects. I often hear or read of addicts becoming people they do not want to be when taking illegal drugs or abusing prescription painkillers. The subtle deformities Mr. Hyde suffers through remind me of facial discoloration and changes meth addicts have. It is psychologically terrifying to imagine having an addiction that changes the features of one’s personality and body, and not having the power to stop it or reverse it.

“A Lodging for the Night” tells of a fifteenth century crook and literary student in France. Francis Villon finds himself penniless and associating with the dregs of society. It is the middle of a cold winter. He does not feel the cold remorse for his petty crimes, but he does feel hot contempt for a hypocritical do-gooder named Enguerrand de la FeuillĂ©e. In the second half of the story, a retired knight offers Villon a place to stay for the remainder of the night and some food. An argument ensues about how might makes right. The knight, powerful and closed-minded, cannot compete with the insights of a ragged and intelligent rogue. (This story describes well the “transvaluation of all values” as postulated by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.) The knight is intelligently weak and oppresses the strong rogue that scratches out a life day by day. I write this because the knight does not consider the injustice of “a good many ploughmen swinging on trees […] because they could not scrape together enough crowns to satisfy the men-at-arms” as being worse than Villon’s taking a coin from a dead body of a prostitute he finds on the street (97).

“The Suicide Club” is actually three short stories in succession. Their titles are “The Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts,” “Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk,” and “The Adventure of the Hansom Cab.” Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his right-hand man, Colonel Geraldine, hit the town in disguise and randomly come upon adventures in London. Implicitly, Prince Florizel gets bored with his royal duties, and Colonel Geraldine, who is a knack at imitating personages and accents, facilitates the prince in getting into places that are normally hidden from decent folk. They infiltrate a club that helps suicidal people take the last step that they cannot do for themselves. The club provides a service by assigning another member of the club to do the deed for the one picked as the next person to die. A simple card game chooses who dies and who kills. Florizel and Geraldine, horrified by the practice, take it upon themselves to bring the president of the club to justice. In the second and third short stories, we read about the struggle to bring the president to justice, and more people get killed. In the process, both the prince and the colonel pay a high cost for their mischievous diversion.

An element that I note right away is the apocryphal authorship of “The Suicide Club.” “What?” you say, “It’s written by Stevenson, right?” Yes, of course, and you are right. When I say apocryphal authorship, I mean the similarity the short stories have with Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The narrator of Don Quixote mentions that the true author of the elderly knight’s adventures is Cide Hamete Benengeli, a fictional Moorish author or translator. During the time of Cervantes, the Moors were looked upon with disdain and suspicion. So when a Spaniard during this time period reads the book supposedly “written” by a Moor, it makes the story more incredible and ridiculous. It magnifies the absurdity of Quixote’s madness. The reader then wonders if the narrator is trustworthy in his telling of the story. Stevenson publishes the short stories of “The Suicide Club” in The London Magazine “as part of a series called ‘Latter-Day Arabian Nights’” (see Jenny Davidson’s footnote on page 136). At the end of each story, the narrator gives credit to and quotes his “Arabian Author” (136, 163, and 184). For me, this gives homage to Cervantes’s formula of taking the story to an apocryphal level. Or for a different interpretation, the function provides a postcolonial fascination with Eastern culture. During the nineteenth century, the stories of The Arabian Night are becoming very popular to the European public. Exoticism is all the rage at this time. It does not come as a surprise that a new set of stories generate from European authors mimicking the formula used for The Arabian Nights. In any case, the Westerner sees the Arab world as distinct, foreign or other-worldly novelty. (By the way, I am in the process of reading The Arabian Nights. When I finish, a review will be forthcoming.)

“Thrawn Janet” is my favorite short story of the collection, although Stevenson writes it in a Scottish dialect. (I had to read it four times to understand it.) Jenny Davidson states this on page xliv: “The reader who has difficulty following the details of the story may consult Mairi Robinson, ed., The Concise Scots Dictionary (Aberdeen University Press, 1985) or Douglas Kynoch’s more recent Scottish (Doric)-English, English-Scottish (Doric) Concise Dictionary (Hippocrene Books, 1998).” She is not joking, folks. There is a more recent, digitized version of Robinson’s dictionary on Google Books, but not all pages can be viewed. The effort pays off though. I suggest reading this story out loud and carefully. You may find that you will start speaking with a Scottish accent, although in my case I sound more like an Irishman. But I digress. The story involves a minister of a village in the Scottish moorlands. He marries a wife that has a bad reputation of being a prostitute and a witch. An altercation happens between the wife and the women of the village, and before the wives make her drown in a pool to test if she is a witch, the minister steps in, resolves the conflict, and makes her wife swear to forsake the evil one henceforth and forever. She swears the oath, but terrible and scary things happen after that. This story has become my favorite ghost story of all time. I give kudos to anyone who can pull off telling this ghost story around the campfire. I give even more praise if anyone can do it memorized and with a Scottish accent. Does anyone accept the challenge?

“The Body-Snatcher” is a grisly tale of a series of murders to supply cadavers for dissection at a local medical school. (Stevenson based this story on real events that happened in Edinburgh when Burke and Hare murdered more than a dozen people for this very purpose.) The main characters in the short story are fictitious, however. The story follows a guy by the name of Fettes, a drunkard who confronts an old acquaintance from his medical school days. The brief encounter raises questions in the minds of Fettes’s friend. The narrator, one of Fettes’s friends, successfully gets Fettes to tell the full story over time. The story Fettes relates becomes a sobering apologue for those who deal in shady business.

“Markheim,” the last short story of the collection, tells of a man who murders a pawnbroker on Christmas Day. He sees an apparition that tempts him to steal money from the pawnbroker’s residence. Markheim carries a philosophical dialogue with this apparition which claims it is there to help him succeed in his endeavor. Markheim, after having killed a person, asserts that he still quakes before evil. The apparition believes otherwise. To prove that he killed the pawnbroker by his own will and choice, and not under some influence or persuasion of some demoniac spirit, he takes responsibility for what he has done by turning himself in. This story gives a great example of personal accountability and responsibility for one’s own actions. Although committing a despicable and horrible crime, he does not blame anyone or anything else for his actions. How many of us actually take responsibility for our own actions, rather than blame it on someone else?

Out of all these stories, I believe “The Suicide Club” and “Thrawn Janet” are the best in terms of composition. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems overrated. There are times in these stories when I come across a word that I do not understand, and when I look up the definition of the word, it does not fit the context in which it is found. I then question if Stevenson really knows what the word means, and I say this after consulting dictionaries used in his time. I find it strange to come across such a difficulty from an author of short stories. I conclude Robert Louis Stevenson is not my favorite author. On the other hand, “Thrawn Janet” really brings out the author’s creativity and voice, and I think it is because Stevenson is from Scotland. Maybe he should have kept to writing stories in Scots. I cannot wait to share this story with my friends and family. The next time I go camping, I am going to read “Thrawn Janet” and see if I can get a good scare out of someone.


1 comment:

  1. I've read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, vaguely remember The Suicide Club and I'd love to take on Thrawn Janet.


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