Journey into the world of Jekyll and Hyde once again

11th November 2011 at 00:00
A lesson that approaches the 125-year-old story with fresh vigour is just what the doctor ordered, writes John Hodgart

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous stories of all time: Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, the Strange Case Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Over the past century it has become part of popular culture worldwide and it is one of the few "Scottish" stories widely studied furth of Scotland. Yet the story itself is perhaps not as well known in the land of its author's birth as it should be.

In many ways it is an ideal prose text for senior pupils, especially at Higher: a darkly mysterious and intensely dramatic thriller with an enigmatic central character, a thoroughly challenging but accessible text in terms of its language, style and themes.

Jekyll and Hyde may be part of the language, but not all students will know exactly what it means or where it came from. One starting point could be group discussions on different types of addiction and their character- changing effects or compiling a character profile or "wanted" poster gleaned from film versions etc, though a showing of one of these would be best kept till after a thorough study of the text. Students could also be asked to think of how people they know can behave in quite opposite or contradictory ways at times and then suggest or research some notorious real-life Jekyll and Hydes.

Despite familiarity with screen versions, introductory background and group research work would be invaluable - for example, into patterns of opposites or contradictions in Stevenson's Edinburgh background and Victorian society, especially its piety and prosperity compared with its darker side; the impact of Darwin's evolutionary theories and the development of theories about the human psyche.

There are several good editions of the text, in particular Penguin Classics, with its excellent introduction by Jenni Calder, as it also contains The Beach of Falesa and The Ebb-Tide. These darkly unromantic Samoan novellas offer interesting comparisons: devil figures in various guises; themes of moral ambiguity; duality in human nature; the search for escape or redemption from evil; unreliable narrative viewpoints and the absence of an un-ambivalent final authorial viewpoint.

In Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson uses elements of the detective story which will keep students hooked from the first to last page: a series of mysteries, puzzles or contradictions leading up to the enigmatic appearance of the mysterious Hyde.

We are kept literally and metaphorically in the dark as long as possible via a series of partial or unreliable narratives, incomplete or misleading evidence, false trails, and smokescreens, secret letters, notes and confessions, all of which leave much to be explained or new questions to be answered. Stevenson is in fact very modern in making us question the reliability of the narrator, something that should appeal to the class sleuths.

His main narrative viewpoint is that of the lawyer Utterson, who is continually proved wrong and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth, or as much of it as he can safely disclose. Thus the mystery keeps being deepened and an "explanation" postponed until we read the secret letters at the end, but even then we are left with many questions still unanswered and much still hidden away. This applies to every character in the story in one way or another.

It is very significant that Stevenson allows Jekyll to have the last word and does not return to any "objective" viewpoint on this enigmatic tale of human duplicity and duality. Yet even Jekyll's "confession" is ultimately contradictory, a fittingly ambiguous ending to a story about split personality and moral contradictions.

Another haunting aspect of the story is the way Stevenson uses darkness, weather and seasons to create an appropriate atmosphere for a story about evil, and setting to suggest hidden evil or dark secrets. All the action takes place at night and the fog even penetrates the houses.

Although the story has its roots in Stevenson's Edinburgh (the city of Deacon Brodie and Dr Knox), Victorian London possessed even darker labyrinths of poverty, crime and human degradation and it is depicted as a city of dreadful night, full of cold, lonely streets where people struggle to see where they are going or what is really going on around them.

Increasingly Stevenson narrows both the setting and the focus to suggest many different levels of concealment, as if he is stripping away layer after layer, to uncover the truth: the hideous and ugly face hidden below the dark mask of the great capital city, as well as the darkness of human behaviour. We can read Jekyll's duality as an allegory for the society as a whole, characterised by the same duality and contradictions as the "good" doctor himself.

Discussion and writing about the book's themes could lead students into some very interesting and challenging areas. Perhaps Stevenson was giving a warning to his society and to others: ignore the darker, uglier side of human behaviour and human society at your peril. It is as relevant today as it was then, as witnessed in the riots of 2011.


Study guides to Jekyll and Hyde by Ian Campbell (York Notes) and by John Hodgart (Association for Scottish Literary Studies)

Scotnote on Stevenson by Gerry Carruthers, (also ASLS, but more suitable at university level)

The RLS website not only gives access to excellent teaching material online but provides a comprehensive guide to every aspect of Stevenson's life and work.

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