Philippa Hardy, director of learning for English at Maria Fidelis School in London, writes:
Teach Jekyll and Hyde? "I'm about as emotional as a bagpipe". That simile is taken from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, potentially the new Of Mice And Men in terms of GCSE texts. This sums up the effect teaching the text has on most English teachers. Dense, impenetrable and inaccessible, it is the antithesis of the text it could usurp as the GCSE text of choice in schools.
The author fails to engage the reader through the opaque and prolix prose style which will result in teachers spending the majority of their teaching time paraphrasing. Ironically this "dumbing down" will only build up rather than tear down the barriers between teenagers and the enjoyment of pre-1914 texts.
The proliferation of characters results in confusion and the general structure of the novella ensures students themselves become Hyde-like in their frustration at comprehending the overall text. Surely the curriculum should provide students with texts which will entice them to become life-long readers? I would suggest that this will have the opposite effect and send students in their droves back to the illiterate brevities of social media.
Of Mice And Men encouraged empathy in students, engaged them and in many cases ensured they read independently. Friendship, dreams and loss are all concepts guaranteed to resonate with teenagers. The clarity of the prose and the well-developed characterisation reassures students that literature is for and about people like them.
By the end of the story, students generally fail to realise that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are two sides of the same character. Jekyll and Hyde purports to portray a Manichean battle between good and evil located in the soul of one man, yet this is executed far more skilfully and subtly by Steinbeck through the character of George in Of Mice and Men. The “profound duplicity of life” that torments Dr Jekyll is too simplistic and repressive for a modern audience to understand without Victorian moral sensibilities.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores the nature of creation and evil in the more developed characterisation of Victor Frankenstein. Jekyll’s high-handed self-absolution – “it was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty” – are the ramblings of a psychopathic narcissist in a novel that excludes female characters altogether. By contrast, Frankenstein accepts moral responsibility for his actions and Shelley complicates the idea of moral binaries of good and evil.
The Plain English Campaign has fought against gobbledygook and jargon in government for over three decades. The campaign boasts wide political support from prime ministers to business leaders. It is a shame, therefore, that exam boards have decided to introduce into the core GCSE English curriculum a novella that is redolent with archaisms, tangled syntax and pompous verbosity. Peering through this dense literary fug, will students be drawn into literature? Or will it seem indistinguishable from the sound and the fury, signifying nothing, of a political discourse allergic to clarity?