Review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

Robert Louis Stevenson (writer).

Read in 2020.

If your master has fled or is dead, we may at least save his credit.

At the time of publication, Freud had at most an inkling of his pseudoscientific psychoanalytical theories. His method of non-physical intervention was greeted by believers as a kind of transcendental medicine beyond surgery, chemistry and other physical interventions. The term “transcendental medicine” appears in reference to chemistry in this, a seminal work of science fiction on human morality. Stevenson prefigures Freud but also resonates with earlier and later psychology. The explicit interpretation of the titular strange case, by Jekyll himself, rests on duality, indeed polarity: A false notion of human nature as the lamination of opposing forces, “commingled out of good and evil”. Completing the analogy with chemistry, then a fast-moving and suggestive field, Jekyll purifies evil, precipitating Hyde.

Moral dualism is naïve and the execution—part criminal investigation, part epistolary novel—is a little laboured, but it is a powerful treatment of flawed fundamental ideas as science fiction. The remaining resonance with modern psychology helps save it. Notice especially how Jekyll admits to enjoying Hyde’s actions vicariously, whereas Utterson and Enfield, two morally good men in the first chapter, seem to find no enjoyment in one another’s sober company:

It was reported by those who encountered them in their Sunday walks, that they said nothing, looked singularly dull and would hail with obvious relief the appearance of a friend. For all that, the two men put the greatest store by these excursions, counted them the chief jewel of each week, and not only set aside occasions of pleasure, but even resisted the calls of business, that they might enjoy them uninterrupted.

This is not a positive goodness but a state of anhedonia: An emotionally mature, unproductive and joyless routine that is socially acceptable—in a Freudian sense of internalized pressure—but seems to have lost all purpose. Even “inorganic” Hyde loses his sense of pleasure: When threatened, “nothing lived in him but fear and hatred”, writes Jekyll. Throughout the narrative, evil is concrete as in a supervillain, while both moral good and good feelings (pleasures) are fleeting, as in the Protestant imagination.

References here: “The Schizoid Man” (1989).

fiction text