The problem with reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 21st century is that most of us probably already know what the story involves. Even without having read it or seen any of the film versions, everyone knows what is meant by a ‘Jekyll and Hyde personality’. And this completely takes away the suspense and air of mystery that the story relies on so heavily. I’m sure the original Victorian readership would have found the connection between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde much more shocking! So is there still any point in reading it? Yes, I thought there was, because although I knew what the ultimate revelation would be, I didn’t know all the details of the plot or how the conclusion would be reached.
We first see Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde through the eyes of Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, Mr Utterson, who becomes concerned when he discovers that Jekyll has made a new will leaving everything to Mr Hyde. All Mr Utterson knows about Hyde is that he’s a sinister and brutal man responsible for some cruel and unprovoked acts of violence. The first half of the book follows the lawyer’s attempts to learn more about Hyde and his relationship with Jekyll. It’s only as we approach the end of the story that we hear from Dr Jekyll himself, in the form of a letter addressed to Mr Utterson, and the truth is finally revealed.
The story is cleverly structured so that if you had no idea what was coming, you would be kept wondering, knowing only as much as Mr Utterson knows, and it’s disappointing that for most modern readers the surprise has been spoiled. The part of the story I found the most interesting was the final chapter, after the secret has been uncovered and Jekyll gives his own explanation of what happened and his views on the good and the evil aspects of human nature. We can really feel his desperation as his own dark side grows stronger and things begin to spiral out of his control.
The edition I read contained just the novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; other editions include a selection of other Stevenson short stories. Jekyll and Hyde on its own was only 88 pages long and if I’d realised how short it was I would have made time to read it earlier. This was one of my choices for RIP VII, and I would recommend it to other RIP participants who would like to read an important piece of classic Victorian fiction without committing to a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved it and it’s not something I would want to read again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once and can see why it has become a part of popular culture.