This is the third post I write here on Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which shows that a masterpiece is that kind of text that delivers something new every time the reader approaches it. In preparation for my classes, I read Nancy Gish’s essay “Jekyll and Hyde: The Pathology of Dissociation” (International Journal of Scottish Literature, 2, 2007) and I’m sorry to say I totally disagree with her claim that “[Pierre] Janet’s theory of dissociated consciousness … provides the most compelling conceptual framework for understanding Stevenson’s representation of duality.” Multiple personality disorders started being described in clinical literature, according to Gish, in 1886 the very same year when Stevenson published his text. Interesting as this coincidence clearly is, this is not what Stevenson is addressing in his text (nor is sexual repression, as Gish convincingly argues).
Stevenson, I believe, disliked Dr. Jekyll for his hypocrisy, which mirrors that of the Victorian upper-middle class all-male professional circles to which our doctor belongs. Ironically, he has Jekyll write in his final statement that “Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” A common misreading, despite these words, is the belief that whenever the good doctor becomes Mr. Hyde he loses the awareness of what his worse half is doing, which is what happens in cases of multiple personalities or dissociation. Other versions, literary and filmic descendants, might be to blame for that: Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club is actually the perfect example of psychological dissociation that Gish describes. Jekyll, on the contrary, looks at himself in the mirror as Hyde and remarks: “This, too, was myself.”
To recap my argument, his case is peculiar in that whereas for common mortals the result of intoxication by drugs (alcohol included) is a change in behaviour accompanied by different degrees of disinhibition, Jekyll suffers besides a spectacular bodily transformation. Since he looks different and nobody can identify him as Jekyll his behaviour is wild, but he is all the time Jekyll, no matter whether he calls himself Hyde when in his other body. No dissociation at all, then. The problem is, of course, that once he’s murdered Sir Danvers Carew (as Hyde) he also starts losing control over his metamorphic body. Thus, when Jekyll fails definetively to shed his Hyde body, he locks himself up. When his best friend Utterson brings his door down, Jekyll has no option but to kill himself still looking like Hyde, terrified as he is of being hanged. Wrongly, Utterson concludes that Jekyll is missing, until he learns the truth (and we with him) through the final two letters by Dr. Lanyon (who’s witnessed a transformation) and by Jekyll himself.
In his statement, Jekyll writes that the progress of his line of research in the future will lead to the point when “man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens.” Somehow, this is pure common sense: we are no doubt a collection of different identities, depending on the situation (professional, familiar, sexual, leisure… you name it!). We don’t change bodies, but we do change the way our bodies look –surely, we don’t wear the same outfit to class and to a rock concert– and also the way we behave. And, sorry but, unlike what Stevenson imagined, the worst aspect of our Jekyll and Hydes (I’m thinking of child abusers) is how inconspicuous they are. Jack the Ripper got that right only two years after Stevenson published his masterpiece.
Jekyll suggests that the drug is neutral and that instead of Hyde he could have metamorphosed into someone saintly, supposing his better nature to have been stronger. I asked my students why we don’t have a story like that (or do we??). Most answered it would be boring but one answered that it’s because in that case the text would hint that drugs are good… Clever!! To see how profoundly we distrust Jekylls who fight evil rather than commit it, consider Bruce Wayne, the man who, at night, becomes Batman (no drugs, just a mask and cool gadgets). We are currently asking ourselves (see Christopher Nolan’s trilogy) whether Bruce Wayne is as psychotic as Jekyll. So much for good intentions.
And a last point to this long post, suggested by my students’ exercises: the problem with arguing that Stevenson is criticising hypocritical Victorian society for forcing men to repress their instincts is that this depends on what kind of instinct we’re talking about. Supposing Jekyll is secretly a rapist of either women or children I certainly would like his instincts repressed to the hilt. Call me a hypocrite if you wish.