Dualities in Stevenson’s life and fiction abound. The conflict between his Calvinist background and the sensuality of his final abode in the South Seas. Perhaps most famously the duality in human nature as expressed in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. While his thoughts on this were doubtlessly fed by the psychological thoughts of his day, the initial inspiration came from the notorious Edinburgh criminal, Deacon Brodie.
You can take a drink with the man at the pub which bears his name, on the corner of Lawnmarket and The Royal Mile, his life history conveniently summarised on the wall outside.
My personal recommendation, however, is to cross the Royal Mile and grab yourself a cup of tea and a slice of the most delicious chocolate fudge cake in the Deacon’s House Cafe, sited, I believe, in the workshop where Brodie worked as a cabinet maker. The mural, spanning three inside wall, details key events in his life:
Brodie made replica keys which he used to rob his clients when they travelled away.
Identity discovered, he fled the country but was eventually captured as he disembarked in Amsterdam.
He was sentenced to hang, ironically, on gallows of his own design.
Perfect material for the fertile imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson to transform into a gothic tale regarding the baser side of human nature.
Dr Jekyll’s fascination for this question is what drives him to begin his experiment.
It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date . . . I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.
The tragedy, of course, is that while he succeeds in said separation, the two natures rather than living side-by-side combat each other, and it is the evil Mr Hyde who gains the upper hands and eventually subsumes the gentlemanly Dr Jekyll.
I’m not going into the psychology behind this. It is too depressing.
The duality of human nature is reflected through the dual narrative. The opening 3rd person narrative struck me as melodramatic and I’ve got to admit I rolled my eyes a couple of times reading it for the first time.
He put the glass to his lips, and drank at one gulp. A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked there came, I thought, a change—he seemed to swell—his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter—and at the next moment, I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror.
“O God!” I screamed, and “O God!” again and again; for there before my eyes—pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death—there stood Henry Jekyll!
I’m being unfair. I’m sure in Dr Lanyon’s place, seeing this unexpected transformation, I would have been suitably horrified. I suppose it’s only because the story is so well-known, I can be amused by it.
The mystifying events of the 3rd person narrative are clarified in Dr Jekyll’s explanatory death note, a 1st-person narrative which details his motivations, methods and ultimate defeat. It answers all our questions. Or does it? Can you describe Mr Hyde’s appearance from the text as opposed to the numerous films and television series that have been made? Would you agree with this artist’s impression? (taken from my 2006 Folio Society edition).
In What does Edward Hyde look like? John Sutherland points out the remarkable lack of physical detail in the text. Rather Stevenson gives us a series of impressions.
He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.
We know he is short – Dr Jekyll’s clothes are too short for him. We know he has hairy hands.
But the hand which I now saw … was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair.
Multiple witnesses, however, fail to capture Hyde’s appearance in words. Not even the woman who watches him beat a man to death. His evil is uncanny, indefinable. Leaving Hyde’s appearance mostly to the reader’s imagination is a masterstroke. He is our hidden evil streak, the stuff of our individual nightmares. It’s what ensures that, even in the 21st century, he remains a terrifying creation.
Next on Stevenson in September October – Treasure Island