Classics Book Club – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce, Michael Calder and Lucy Carr
The Classics team have decided to form a team book club, reading the same classic and compiling our thoughts in a feature. For this issue, we decided to spotlight Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is a genre-defining text that explores the duality of man and the complexity of the good and evil that exists within us all. The protagonist, Gabriel Utterson, is perplexed by the violent tales surrounding Mr. Hyde and his acquaintance with the seemingly respectable Dr. Jekyll. The novella’s popularity is propelled by a morbid curiosity of the human capacity for violence and brutality. Rooted in the plot are questions of conscious and unconscious accountability and the religious themes of original sin. Despite being a ‘shilling shocker’, it was an immediate and worldwide success that spawned a stage production only a year after its release in 1887, as well as numerous television and film adaptations in the subsequent decades. It is a chilling and enduring tale of mystery, deceit and revelation which shocks the readers and confronts them with their own moral reflections.
This was a classic that I came late to, and I think my preconceived notions of the story through popular culture significantly shaped my perception. I almost felt like I knew the full story without actually reading Stevenson’s novella. However, I can confirm that I was completely wrong and this also made for fascinating reading. I had a lot of ideas, especially regarding the forms of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I assumed Hyde would be the physically larger of the duo, the hideous monster, whereas Hyde is actually more of a shell of Jekyll, smaller and reclusive. I am not sure whether I was disappointed or whether my expectations were exceeded. It soon became clear to me that the popularised images of these characters have been regurgitated into an idea that has strayed from the original. I do think that by reading this book, I have been reminded to reserve judgement and to have an open mind. By adopting this approach, I found myself enjoying the novella more and found myself reading it in one sitting. I was gripped from the first chapter and mostly curious to see how events would unfold. I think it was ahead of its time and a must-read for a quick sci-fi fix.
I’ve read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a few times over the years. It’s one of those classics where, even if you haven’t read it, you’re familiar with the story, and as a defining science-fiction, horror and mystery novella, it’s a continually relevant point of reference in literary criticism (meaning it’s almost impossible to avoid if you’ve studied English Literature at any level).
I found the discussions that came from reading the story a lot more engaging than the actual experience of reading it. I enjoyed Jekyll and Hyde, and I think every time I’ve read it, I’ve raced through it in one sitting, but it’s not one of my favourite classics or go-to recommendations – it’s not a classic that has stayed with me like others have. This is probably because I read Frankenstein at a similar time, and I adored Shelley’s writing so much, that Stevenson’s novella, for me, is completely outshined by association. Saying this, Jekyll and Hyde has interesting themes to dissect, and is a novella you can draw a lot out of in critical analysis. Plus, I often find works that discuss the duality of human nature, supernatural forces, and ideas of good and evil immediately interesting, so it’s definitely worth a read if you do too.
While I had encountered various adaptations and interpretations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my first readthrough occurred during my second year at university.
I’ve since revisited the gothic misadventure of Henry Jekyll on several occasions, appreciating the narrative’s discreet, eerie undertones, overt horror and violent depictions, and thematic significance across diverse societies and time periods. Particularly shockingly, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opens with an instance of gratuitous violence, as the unknown Mr. Hyde ruthlessly tramples an innocent girl, depicting the treacherous environment that awaited children within Victorian society and the disregard for actions which brought harm.
As an exceedingly short and accessible narrative, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be digested quickly but discussed unendingly, which makes for interesting conversation. Written during a period of incredible literary development, especially within the Gothic genre, Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal work accompanies fantastic, innovative developments within the literary sphere, including extensive commentary on the hypocritical, repressive nature of Victorian society, the dichotomous discourse between science and religion, and the multifaceted nature of humanity, tied up within a fantastical narrative.