This is one of those books that has become so well known that most people don't know what it is about! It has been
bastardized by Hollywood, Broadway and theater, not to mention cartoons and comics. The names have become cliché to describe someone whose personality is
erratic and unpredictable. (I have a friend who uses it to describe her first husband.) But along with Frankenstein, Dracula, and
a host of other classic horror warhorses, if you haven't read it, I guarantee you do not know what it is about.
Commercial enterprises grasp onto the sensational and dramatic aspects of horror because they think gore and violence attracts viewers, and sadly they are probably right. However, masters of suspense such as Stevenson know that the most terrifying drama is unveiled subtly.
It begins as two older friends, Mr. Utterson, an attorney, and Mr. Enfield are out for their usual Sunday walk, when they pass a shabby door on a certain street in London. Mr. Enfield recalls a disturbing experience concerning the door.
He was walking home in the wee hours of a winter morning when he heard footsteps coming from two different directions. One came from a short, deformed looking man, and the other from a little girl. Both were moving at a good pace when they collided. The little girl, knocked over, was abusively trodden upon. The man was detained, and a doctor soon arrived. Surrounded by hateful and angry people, the man agreed to pay the father of the child by writing a check. Though it was assumed the check would not be good, it was, in fact. The name of the man was Mr. Hyde, and he lived at the place with the strange door. However, the name on the check was not Hyde. As Enfield relates the story, Utterson tells him he need not reveal the name on the check, because he already knows it.
Utterson is the long-time friend and attorney for Dr. Jekyll. Though again, many modern version of the story portray him as a young, handsome man, he is actually old, like Utterson and his circle of friends. Utterson holds a will made out by Dr. Jekyll leaving everything to Hyde, and upon hearing of this incident from Enfield, becomes even more distressed about his client, thinking in some way that Hyde has manipulated Jekyll.
Throughout the entire story, only one other act of violence occurs—the murder of the elderly Sir Danvers Carew, also a friend of Utterson, about a year after the first incident. A young woman observes it from her upper story window, and the description of the human monster matches Hyde. Then he seems to disappear. Meanwhile, Jekyll assures Utterson that he is finished with Hyde, and changes the will.
Throughout the year, Jekyll had been "ill," no longer keeping in the social circle as before. After this last incident of brutality, Jekyll seems to become himself once again, spending time with friends and doing philanthropic work.
But just as suddenly, he becomes reclusive again, only this time, it is much more severe, to the point of terrifying his servants. They seek Utterson's assistance. Though Utterson has tormented his mind trying to unravel the mystery, it is only after Jekyll's death that all is revealed. Jekyll placed some papers into Utterson's hands, not to be read until his death, a promise kept by the loyal attorney.
And so in conclusion of the book, the truth is finally known. It is certainly no shock to us in the present, but I cannot imagine the ghastliness that contemporary readers must have felt when the book was first published. There really isn't much in the way of clues that provide the reader information as to the connection between Jekyll and Hyde. And that is why it is such a masterpiece of terror.
The next paragraph contains a spoiler, so if you do not want to know the conclusion, stop reading here.
But as I said in the beginning, we may not know as much as we think. Modern readers probably are aware that Jekyll was a chemist, and that he created a formula that turned him into a thing of evil. But the horrifying part was that it was not an error. He took the drug because he wanted to experience the other half of his personality. He enjoyed allowing his shadow side to run rampant. Until he could no longer control it, and he became it, with or without the drug. The story is not about the horrors of making bad chemical concoctions and drinking them, it is about the human struggle between good and evil, and the premise that there is a part of us that wants to liberate the evil without bounds. Psychological terror is always more horrifying than physical terror, because there is the possibility of truth and reality within it for all to experience.
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