Aug 30, 2007

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

This novella starts with two men, Mr. Utterson and Mr. Enfield, going on one of their customary Sunday walks and commenting on the strange connection between a well known doctor, Dr. Jekyll, and a strange man named Mr. Hyde, a man that causes an eerie repugnance in all of those who chance to meet him. Mr. Enfield is telling his friend how he saw that man trample over a girl and leave her behind, frightened and bruised. When pressured by the girl’s family and those who watched the incident, he gave the family a check for £100. The strange thing is that the check is in the name of Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Utteron is alarmed when he hears this tale – Dr. Jekyll happens to be an old friend of his, and as a lawyer, he knows that according to his will, in the case of the doctor’s death or disappearance, this repugnant Mr. Hyde shall inherit all his property. From then on, the story narrates Mr. Utterson’s investigating just what the connection between his friend and Mr. Hyde might be.

This story is supposed to be mysterious, but, like most people, the one thing I knew when I started reading it was the twist, the solution to the mystery. It has become so engrained in our culture that it is pretty much impossible to avoid, even if one doesn’t quite know the details of the story. That was the case with me – the details actually turned out to be quite different from what I imagined, and I enjoyed the unexpected little surprises.

Reading this book felt a little like reading Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles – the stories are very different, but they have certain things in common, like for example the very atmospheric descriptions:
It was a wild, cold, unseasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers; besides: for Mr. Utterson thought he had never seen that part of London so deserted.
There is also the way language is used, that typical nineteenth century way that is so different from contemporary writing. And finally, there is the fact that both books contain a very dated conception of science. Having been published in 1886 and 1901, they both belong to a period in which what is and what is not science was not yet well-defined. The experiments Dr. Jekyll performs in this book are more the kind of thing one would expect from a wizard than from a scientist. It’s interesting how this book gives us a glimpse of the mindset of the period.

Another thing I find interesting about books from this period is the fact that the way the characters react to the eerie, the mysterious, the supernatural, is very different from what you find in contemporary books. These days you no longer find fictional descriptions of people dying of shock or fright, or of very physical reactions like turning completely white or having every hair in one’s body rise. These days those things are mostly common expressions that are used metaphorically, but back then they were meant literally.

I will also be reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the RIP challenge – the novel is from 1818, so it’s quite a bit earlier, but it will be interesting to see how many of these elements I also find in it.

Reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews
So Many Books
Educating Petunia
My Own Little Reading Room
One More Chapter
Eloise by the Book Piles
In Spring it is the Dawn


  1. I'm seriously thinking about adding this one to my R.I.P Challenge list. I think it would be a great read. I hope you enjoy Frankenstein, it is one of my all-time favorites, I just posted my review of it today. :)

  2. Wow, look at you already completing one book for the RIP challenge! Woo-hoo.
    I read this one last year and my copy was a Barnes & Noble Classics edition. It was great because it had a lot of background info. I was so surprised by this book because it was nothing like what I had expected - of course my knowledge of the story came from movies.

  3. You did it again. You made me want to read the book without giving away any of the plot. I love that you compared it to Baskerville's. I read that one a couple of years ago. And, like you, I only know "the twist" in Jekyll and Hide. I was trying to wait until I had finished my current book before starting on the challenge books but as today is rainy and rumbly, I may just have to start reading Jekyll today.

  4. What a creepy cover! The face behind the letters.

    I enjoyed this book a few years ago, and also loved Hound of the Baskervilles, and I know just what you mean about the 19th century mood/style/tone.

  5. I swear you have a way of making me want to pick up every single book you do you do that?!!

    Just picked up Frankenstein last week. It's not on my list, but I figured it was well past time I read it. Suppose the same could be said for Jekyll/Hyde.

  6. I don't know if this is one that I would read or not...but your review certainly has me leaning more towards reading it one of these days. Like you mentioned, it's one of those stories that we come to know so well that there's not much mystery. But it's still a classic, and I should probably read it sometime.

    I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Frankenstein! It's one of my favorite books. I went into that book not expecting much at all and came away with a favorite.

  7. ah, dr. jeckyl is great, isn't it!? i'm glad you enjoyed it.

    i also loved the little differences. in a way, the fact that it was so different made the story go up in my estimation. i really like stevenson's original approach to the story - approaching it retrospectively.

  8. Great review, Nymeth. I think I read this one long, long ago but I'm not sure. I may need to revisit it.

    Have you seen the Julia Roberts movie "Mary Reilly"? It's based on the Jekyll and Hyde story but from the viewpoint of a maid in Dr. Jekyll's house. I really enjoyed it.


  9. Becky: I read Frankenstein many years ago - I remember liking it, but not much else. I'm really looking forward to revisiting it. You really should add this one. My edition was only 55 pages long, so it's a really quick read!

    Iliana: It helped that this one was so short :P That's great - I would have loved an introduction with background info. This strikes me as one of those stories that have a lot going on behind them.

    Petunia: You should start - I would love to discuss it with you once you're done.

    Dewey: It's very unique, isn't it? I really love it.

    Debi: I promise it's not on purpose :P Both this and Frankenstein are great books to add, not only because of how good they are, but because they are such fast reads!

    Chris: I like reading these kinds of stories, stories that became so engrained in our culture, because in a way, they are the myths of our time. I often start reading them thinking there are no surprises left, only to find out I am wrong. More often than not, the "oral" version of the story we are all familiar with is very different from the original.

    Jean Pierre: I liked his approach too. I can only imagine what the first readers must have felt, not knowing anything at all about the twist. It must have been fantastic!

    CJ: I haven't, no, but it really sounds interesting. If well done, a retelling of a familiar story from an unexpected point of view can be fantastic!

  10. Interesting - I *almost* picked it up at the bookstore today, but I didn't realize it was a novella and was convinced it must have been the abridged copy (since it contained other stories and was rather short). Shame on me! :)

    I never realized it was supposed to be a secret that they know... I guess it is just common knowledge now.

  11. Another great review, Nymeth! I love that you're reading the classics of the genre. I'm in the middle of Dracula, and would also like to read this one and Frakenstein. I think it's fascinating to see how much they reveal about the time period in which they were written.

  12. I read this when I was a teenager but I just vaguely remember the story. I've seen several movie versions, none of which are good retellings of what I remember of the story. I do have a copy of this, I'll have to re-read it sometime.

  13. I've never read this, but I've always wanted to. It's interesting to me how you compared it to Conan Doyle, not a connection I would have thought of myself. I think Jekyll and Hyde will make a great autumnal read, if I can fit it in with my other choices. Thanks for reviewing it so beautifully!

  14. Great review, Nymeth! I read this in college, in a course about madness and literature. It was so interesting - we read all kinds of books with the premise that the stories had no supernatural elements - so there was no "monster" Mr. Hyde - Jekyll was schizophrenic with a split personality, that kind of thing. We also read Frankenstein that way - it was fun and interesting (although I do prefer my stories to have supernatural elements!)

  15. Trish: I never realized it either until I read the book. It's only revealed in the last chapter. I envy those who got to read it with no foreknowledge whatsoever!

    Robin: Thank you :) I need to revisit Dracula one of these days, it's been much too long. And yes, that is definitely fascinating!

    Carl: I'm actually curious about the movie versions. I know there are many, but I'm never seen a single one. It's too bad the ones you saw were disappointing.

    Belleza: I think that what they have in common are general characteristics of that period. Readers at that time probably didn't notice those things, so they wouldn't think they had anything in common, but we notice those things more. This is definitely a great autumnal read, and the fact that it's so short makes it easy to fit in.

    Darla: Thank you! That sounds like an interesting course. I do like fantastic elements in stories, but seeing them in a different light for a change should be fun. And after all, mental disturbances were often mistaken for supernatural phenomena in the past.

  16. This is another book I can't believe I haven't read yet. I will get around to it someday I am sure. Frankenstein is really good (one book I have actually read!) and I hope you enjoy it.

  17. Nice review! I agree that it is very hard to not know the storyline and outcome of many of these old novels, and how one has to focus in order to enjoy the original work. It certainly is rewarding, though!

  18. Excellent review! It's been a very long time since I read this story, but I recall that I enjoyed the atmosphere. My 15-year-old is a big fan of 19th-century literature. I should probably recommend Jekyll and Hyde to him. Thanks for the reminder. I love the quote you used.


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