Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
It’s the book everybody thinks they know, but may never have actually read, the iconic Scottish story. One man downs his own slightly unconvincing chemical experiment and becomes two: the good guy and the bad guy. As the bad guy, he wallows in vices and kills; as the good guy, he feels queasy and, having disturbed the Balance of Nature, both guys execute themselves. So now we can all talk about Jekyll and Hyde personalities and mention the long-running Scots theme of the divided self (if not the long-running theme that drinking makes us weird). Plus, we get to see intellectual pride punished and have our morality boiled down into a reassuring Bushworld black and white. God’s in His heaven, right next to Calvin and all’s viciously Right in the world, yes?
Well, no, because The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is much lovelier, more subtly written and complicated than that. Remember that Mrs Stevenson was so determined that hubby should stay a much-loved kiddies’ author that she got him to burn the first draft. Remember the story came to him as a nightmare, the fevered vision of a deeply intelligent, passionately moral and complex man. So in Jekyll’s foggy, apparently proper Edinburgh – disguised as foggy, apparently proper London – nothing is emptier than a church, the polite facades of enterprising commerce conceal doors into hell and mere chemical interference can unhinge the soul.
Jekyll (RL would have pronounced that ‘Jee-kill’) is a hypocrite, an outwardly conventional, prosperous man who indulges himself as far as cowardice permits. When he drinks his potion, it will render him absolute; he could become an angel but, lukewarm and weak, he submits to the thrill of evil, the massive energy of unopposed wrong. So Hyde will eventually triumph over Jekyll, as ingenious wrong must, over pretended good.
This is a dark fable from an author who understood physical and moral restraint, temptation and release; whose morality was radical, whose understanding of human frailty was deep and who ended his life as an activist denouncing and opposing the filthy reality behind the cant and pageantry of empire. Read it as a rattling yarn, an atmospheric adventure, but never forget the outrage burning through it, the accusation it quietly levels at a way of life and the question it asks every reader: are you really as good as you think?
Further reading: Kidnapped (1886) is RLS’ first great critical success, about Jacobite Alan Breck Stewart and lowlander David Balfour’s friendship; Weir of Hermiston (1896) is the intriguing unfinished tale of a bitterly volatile father-son relationship.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.