I’ve read once more The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as I’ll start teaching it again tomorrow –actually, the second time this semester as my UOC students have already gone through it– and I marvel at how powerful Stevenson’s writing is. I also puzzle about how to explain to the students that this is a deeply Scottish text in its depiction of evil. I do not mean villainy but, rather, the very tangible presence of something truly frightening, yet comprehensible, in the human mind. I find English fiction much tamer in this. Not even the Americans, for all their serial killers, can really compete with the Scots. I have the impression that Hyde would scare even Hannibal Lecter (or maybe eat him!). Perhaps only the Irish, with LeFanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Count Dracula, can truly match the Scots.
Anyone interested in Scottish Literature knows that the figure of the double is quite strong in it, beginning with James Hogg’s masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), nearly 60 years older than Stevenson’s dark tale. Other literatures have attractive Gothic tales built around that figure but there is something singular in the way the Scots deal with the doppelgänger. Many critics have dealt with the issue, seeing in the nation’s oppressive Calvinist background the main source for this basic acknowledgement that human beings are tainted and, thus, condemned to put up with their evil versions. It seems, somehow, hard for Scottish Literature to believe in unambiguous good though not so hard to believe in pure evil. Read Ian Rankin’s splendid series of 17 novels on Detective Inspector John Rebus and you’ll see how the hero falls gradually under the spell of his dark half, the self-assured, sardonic gangster Big Ger Cafferty. So will you.
On close consideration, what scares me in Stevenson’s story is not really Hyde but Jekyll. His own account of the disastrous experiment that brings about his personality split and, eventually, his death is quite chilly, as Jekyll frankly acknowledges his addiction to Hyde’s extreme freedom. Like many readers, I first approached the text thinking this was the story of a good man who wanted to help mankind get rid of its evil side, and, after all these years, I’m still reeling from the shock of realising this is not true at all. Jekyll never thinks of good, only of how to free himself from all moral restraints to enjoy his darkest pleasures without the burden of a conscience (or the loss of his social position). Hyde is pure evil, but Jekyll is much worse as he makes the decision to release Hyde. Just think: although he is in Hyde’s shape, it is actually Dr. Jekyll who kills poor Dr. Lanyon, formerly his best friend, by showing him how the appalling transformation works. It is important to see that Lanyon dies of the shock produced by seeing Jekyll emerge from Hyde’s body –not the other way round– as I very much suspect the ‘good’ doctor wanted all along.
As the story progresses, Jekyll loses control over Hyde because Hyde grows stronger –not a word is said about how Jekyll’s good side grows weaker. It’s tempting to think of an alternative version in which Jekyll distils the essence of good mixed in his personality to become not an evil sinner but a holy saint. It sounds like the kind of fiction only American Christian fundamentalists or Opus Dei members might enjoy –unless it was made as a comedy. It might be fun! The point is that none, as far as I know, has written this. All we have is the dark progeny of Stevenson’s tale.
I just wonder why Stevenson, a Scot, was the first to muster the courage necessary to say that evil is not the Other but us and why we still blindly insist in finding Hyde scarier than Jekyll.