The arrival of a New Year invites reflection on a particular horror of human existence. A horror that was well exemplified by the ancient Romans who gave the passage into a new year to Janus, the god of gateways, who bore two faces—one facing forwards and the other backwards; looking both to the future and to the past. This god, this monster, does not remind us that two men can be one man. He reminds us of something more terrible still: that one man can be two men.
Truly, what man is not?
At this time of Resolution, it is customary to reflect on who we have been and who we will be. What are our sins? What our strengths? Which will hold sway over the other? Which man will we choose to be?
Whose story better portrays this universal struggle than Dr. Henry Jekyll’s?
Few, that are as thrilling.
In 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson had a nightmare. When he awoke, he sat down at his desk and three days later he had The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mrs. Stevenson, however, did not care for the story and objected to it. Mr. Stevenson, in a feverish rage, cast the manuscript into fire where it was consumed. Shortly afterwards, a calmer Mr. Stevenson repented his decision, sat down again, and three days later, the strange case returned—dedicated to his cousin, rather than to his wife.
Mrs. Stevenson’s objection was that the tale relied too much on the gothic style prevalent at the time. This gothic style is related to the modern “goth” style insofar as they are both reactions and rebellions to the same problem—the eradication of mystery for the sake of elevating mastery, which has left the world too small to satisfy.
Now, young delinquents wear stark eye makeup, studded leather, and nihilistic street slogans reflecting a subculture of death-worship and despair. Then, young ladies wrote shocking novels about ambitious scientists who reasoned they could make men out of corpses, only to discover they could only make monsters. We have come a long way, but the ailment is the same.
This original gothic mode was largely a literary backlash against the Victorian Enlightenment, a cultural movement that stressed reliance on reason, science, and social progress to solve the problems of the human condition. The gothic movement, contrariwise, stressed irrationality, obscurity, and criminality to suggest that there were realities at large that are beyond man’s ken or control.
Mr. Stevenson was sensitive to the gothic notion that man does not live by reason alone, and that any attempt to do so would lead to a tragic fall. Consequently, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is constructed according to the classical tragic pattern, in which the hero toils towards his own undoing without realizing it until it is too late, upholding the principle that man is not necessarily the architect of his own fate. Stevenson’s novella thereby unites an ancient structure to a modern theme with the doctor who pursued a theory designed to murder his conscience, granting full license to his lower passions. Dr. Jekyll devised to hide within himself in the act of his animalistic indulgences—and so gave birth to the troglodytic Mr. Hyde. Hyde was the drug-induced liberation of all that was base in Jekyll; all that was hiding beneath his civilized surface, and the doctor’s foil to free himself from shame by eliminating his better nature from the equation.
The tragedy came in the discovery that conscience can never be eliminated from the equation—it is the man who is butchered on the operating table in the effort to surgically amputate conscience from existence. Dr. Jekyll was made to learn “that the doom and burden of our life is bound forever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.”
There is no circumvention of the consequences of letting vice run amok while virtue slumbers. There is no security for the soul who keeps his sins secret. There is no immunity, no escape, because there never can be balance between good and evil. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not a story of Taoist yin-yang philosophy. It is the opposite. The premise is that good and ill are not equal halves that together create harmony, but rather forces at war with one another; a war in which one side is always winning or losing. It is a relationship not of equals, but of genesis and destruction—the good slowly permits life to the other, while the evil slowly consumes its creator to the point where the good is no more. As Lucifer betrayed the Father, so are works of Satan always traitorous; and so did Dr. Jekyll’s counterpart horrifyingly betray his maker.
The strangest thing about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that it is not strange at all. It is a very common case of “the hard law of life which lies at the root of religion.” It deals with the everyday plight of ordinary temptations and the familiar effects of the sins they lead to. But though the sins may be familiar, we seldom behold them face-to-face. This story holds nothing back—the grotesque, the gruesome, and the grief are shoved down our throats, casting light on the dark side of our dual nature.
Temptation is a sly device taking silent root and growing like a tree, becoming more and more difficult to do away with, until it dominates and defines a landscape. Jekyll’s dream was to have uncontrolled pleasure through a controlled system. In the end, he is the one controlled by an uncontrollable chaos. Jekyll is enslaved, who contrived to be the master, by the hidden child of his own intellect and immorality. One can only pretend to be something for so long before it becomes who you are. Those who make deals with the devil are more likely to be his victims than those who make war with him.
Strange as well is that the whole world is aware of the story of Jekyll and Hyde but does not know it at all. It is, in fact, passing strange that the effect of popularity is to reduce a substantial creation to an insubstantial cliché. If you who read this think that Mr. Stevenson’s story is about a mad scientist who drinks a potion to become a salivating monster in shredded clothing, you are applying a Marvel Comics paradigm to a fable of mystic consciousness.
If you make any New Year’s resolution this year, consider making it a resolution to examine The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—and through it, your own conscience.
Will you rend the veil of self-indulgence head to foot?
Will you look on your life as a whole?
Will you choose the better part?
“The terms of this debate are as old and as commonplace as man.”
Editor’s note: The illustration above of Dr. Jekyll was painted by Howard Pyle for Charles Scribner’s and Sons and first published in 1895.