Monday, August 19, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Robert Louis Stevenson

Title: Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster

Few books can claim cultural impact comparable to that of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.  Robert Louis Stevenson's exploration of the duality of human nature has influenced literature, theatre, film (123 movies so far), television and even psychological terminology.  The American comic book industry, in particular, owes Stevenson an enormous debt.  The most obvious derivative is The Hulk but the broader concept of hidden identity is central to the superhero idiom.  My own interest in Jeckyll and Hyde was prompted by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, in which Jeckyll/Hyde is a core team member.

Reading the story in 2013 is a bit strange.  127 years after its initial publication, the once shocking plot twist is well-known, even cliché.  As such, the big reveal on page 76 of my copy has lost the impact it would have on the unsuspecting.  We are so jaded by the deluge of imitations since that one easily fails to appreciate the ingenuity of the initial work.  Original artistic ideas are scarce and should be treasured accordingly.

Given the familiarity of the basic narrative, the task of the 21st century reader is to appreciate the execution.  Stevenson's prose is richly detailed, quite often the case with Victorian era literature.  As such, the reading can be tough going even in a relatively short book.  However, there's no denying the Scot's masterful world-building.  In critique, Stevenson generally earns high praise for setting but I found his descriptions of characters - apart from Jeckyll/Hyde - to be lacking.  I don't know if I would pursue more of his books based on this reading.  I've managed to avoid Treasure Island to this point.  Maybe someday.

Nonetheless, I am glad to have read Jeckyll and Hyde for the sake of cultural literacy and geek cred.  As for the League interpretation, the physical dimensions of the character are altered.  In the original book, Jeckyll shrinks when he becomes Hyde.  In the world according to Moore and O'Neill, he grows, Hulk-like.  However, the character's amorality and violent tendencies are maintained.


  1. I love Jekyll and Hyde. It's a great book that would never be published today. Slow plot that you view second hand. There are only two places in the whole story where Hyde is experienced first hand. Everything else is told to the lawyer from other people. It's a great book. My younger son (12, now) read it a couple of years ago and loved it, which says a lot.

    I had him read Treasure Island, first, though, and he was resistant to that, because it also starts off slow. I told him to give it some time, so he did, and he loved that, too. TI has some great characters in it. Long John Silver has been just as enduring as Hyde. And I won't even talk about old, blond Pew.

    Then there is Kidnapped! which, as a teen, was my favorite of Stevenson's works. I haven't read that one since, but I loved it then.

    1. Treasure Island has been on my maybe list for my daughter for a long time. Perhaps it's time.

  2. This is one of those books which everyone knows about but not many have read. I guess a lot of people think Treasure Island was RLS's only book. Yet we all know the terms for the split personality etc don't we? But I think reading TI and Kidnapped is a great entree into Stevenson's writing.

    1. I think it's interesting that the same man wrote both Jeckyll/Hyde and Treasure Island, basically creating templates for both scifi/horror and adventure stories.