Literary Rant #1

***Contains Spoilers***

Curious Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

I have been doing a radio show on literature with Cradio for nearly two years now. Given this is our 50th Episode Special (kind of, not really planned…), it is about time I actually wrote something about the books, poems and short stories we’ve been reading. I might even revisit books I’ve already read in this series and also throw in books that I’ve been reading for fun too.

So first one… a classic horror story from the author of Treasure Island fame. Most people think they know this classic story: it’s obviously the Victorian precursor to the Incredible Hulk (as portrayed, for example, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen aka, the Victorian Avengers with Sean Connery).

Yeeahhh… no. It’s really not. It is actually far more complex and far more interesting than modern pop culture references give it credit for.

To summarise the plot briefly: the story of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is told from the perspective Mr Utterson, a lawyer and old friend of Dr Jekyll who has been given a strange will which in the event of Jekyll’s death or disappearance, everything is to be left to Mr Hyde, whom Utterson has never heard of.

A series of crimes occur with Mr Hyde being identified as the culprit and Dr Jekyll mysteriously draws in an out of society until eventually Mr Utterson finds Mr Hyde dead from suicide dressed in Dr Jekyll’s clothes.

There are several envelopes explaining the whole affair after which Stevenson concludes the affair. Mr Hyde is Dr Jekyll transformed into his most base, unpleasant and sinful aspect. It started as an experiment to achieve the opposite effect, that is perfect virtue and then turned to a fun indulgence for the perfect Victorian gentleman. However, Dr Jekyll slowly lost control of Mr Hyde and found the only way to end it all was to succumb to Mr Hyde and then commit suicide.

This story is a wonderful, haunting and atmospheric Calvinist catechesis on the human person. Stevenson was a Calvinist and it shows right through. Calvinists (especially pre-destination Calvinists) hold a rather dim view of human nature which is entirely the opposite to Catholicism. To put it in classic medieval fashion:

Human beings at their core are dung… they are bad and evil but thanks to the mercy of God and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, they are covered in snow and so can enter the joys of heaven, but they’re still a pile of dung under the snow.

This is very much evident in this book the ugly, stinky, and nasty nature of Dr Jekyll was allowed to be unleashed… Mr Hyde, according to Calvinists, is the true nature of the refined, educated and virtuous Dr Jekyll. Dr Jekyll was the veneer of snow and the snow melted so to speak.

By contrast, the Catholic vision of the human person is entirely different. We are snow, that, at the Fall have become covered in dung and Christ comes to blast away the dung and let the pure snow shine through, if we allow him too, because some people really like dung. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde would have had an entirely different ending if it was written by a Catholic and that’s why I like this story. It’s a great starting point to have a discussion about human nature, sin and salvation.

Stevenson does a fantastic job of creating a creepy and suspenseful atmosphere through out the story with much fog and a well paced story.

In short, the Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde you think you know is really just a shadow of the meaty, though-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable story that it really is. Go read it for yourself.

You can also listen to me banter about it with two rather more intelligent mates over at Cradio. If you like that sort of thing, you can subscribe too over at iTunes

Listen In | Subscribe Here

*Photo Credit: By Charles Raymond Macauley (1871 – 1934) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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