Lee on Literature: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The phenomenon of duality, that humans have two compartmentalized "good" and "evil" sides, has intensified as the world has become more industrialized from the mid-1800s to the present era of James Holmes and Oscar Pistorius. The Calvinistic fantasy of "evil" as something external—something outside of the human soul can be isolated and extinguished—and the belief that human nature can be separated and managed, drove Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886. This duality, experienced through a prism of drug use, likely affected the actions of two modern day killers, James Holmes and Oscar Pistorius.

As a boy, author Stevenson was intrigued by a Scottish story character, Deacon Brodie, who was a cabinetmaker by day and a robber by night. Brodie's duality bloomed from Scottish Victorianism, an exploding bourgeois wealth and social structure of 19th-century Europe. With industrialization's rapid development worldwide, a separation from nature followed, creating strong divisions between "urban" and "rural" life, between "work" and "leisure." Abstract expression and compartmentalization of natural instincts increased, especially with regard to sex and violence.

Fueled by this intensifying duality, Stevenson had a vivid dream about a man sitting by a window, escaping a heinous crime by taking a transforming powder that literally separated and concealed his "evil" side. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was crafted from this dream. Written out of financial necessity and a cocaine binge, Stevenson produced 64,000 words in six days, completely discarding the first draft of Jekyll and Hyde when his wife pointed out that "it was really an allegory, whereas he had treated it purely as if it were a story." To address this problem, Stevenson changed the point of view from first person to third person, creating an observant, neutral character John Utterson, an acquaintance of Dr. Jekyll who investigates a vicious assault and possible blackmail by Hyde. This outside perspective allows the reader to look somewhat objectively upon the principal dramas—to be separate—akin to the judgments of a Greek chorus and the modern media consumer. Utterson, like us, is an audience trapped in a prism of social norms, an industrialized onlooker, thus creating layers of separation between subject and reader.

Utterson, a local London prosecutor, eventually tracks down Hyde, who is the main suspect of a late-night beating death. The prosecutor also maintains social contact with Jekyll at jovial dinner gatherings. Utterson perceives Hyde as repulsive and dwarfish, with a voice and face of pure evil, and a heavy step; whereas, Jekyll is perceived as taller, light-footed, more convivial and infinitely more attractive. They are the same man, but for the face put forward with or without ingestion of "the powder." This distinction is important. The duality is as strong for Utterson as it is for Jekyll and Hyde. For those living in an industrialized world, divorced from nature, duality and perception become reality.

How did society perceive James Holmes and Oscar Pistorius before their infamous acts? How did Holmes and Pistorius perceive society, the duality inherent to modern industrialism? James Holmes was a PhD candidate studying neuroscience with a strong interest “temporal illusions” and mind-altering drugs; he confronted duality on mental terms. Oscar Pistorius was an Olympic hero with the aggressive hallmarks of a steroid user; he confronted duality on physical terms. Both could compartmentalize their “good” and “evil” sides; both could effectively deal with duality, up to a point. But like Dr. Jekyll, both likely lost control over management of their separate “faces” under the influence of drugs. Yet as we sit back and judge these men, should not society acknowledge the odd separation of our dark own side, the natural desire for power and sex—all strangely extinguished by pervasive drug use, pornography, media distraction and senseless violence?—a question skillfully raised by Robert Louis Stevenson over 100 years ago.

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst the rapid transformation of 20th Century India.

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