One of the most famous stories ever written is certainly “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Surprisingly, though, this book is seldom linked to its author, Robert Louis Stevenson, whom everyone knows as the author of the universally acclaimed “Treasure Island.” Nevertheless, he is also the “creator” of the immortal characters of Dr. Jekyll and his evil counterpart, Mr. Hyde.
Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) became a literary celebrity during his lifetime and he is among the most translated authors of all time. He was admired by several other great writers such as Hemingway and Kipling. G.K. Chesterton said that Stevenson “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen.” His frail health prevented him from pursuing a career in engineering – his family profession – and he also had to give up his studies to become a lawyer. He then dedicated himself to writing only. He married an American lady and wrote “Treasure Island” for his stepson. Stevenson endured stressful health problems throughout his entire life, till his death on the isle of Samoa, in the South Pacific, at the age of only forty-four.
This novel was published in 1886 and recounts a story that is strange indeed. A scientist, Dr. Jekyll, creates a potion that, when it is drunk, transforms an individual – from the good, kind person he is – into an ugly, malevolent, wicked semi-human being. Dr. Jekyll is a respected doctor in London society and believes that human beings are made of two different parts: the good one and the bad one. He also believes that the good part is able to control the evil one, and that this is a positive trait that can improve society. During his experiments, he decides to use himself to test such hypothesis and so, when he actually (because of a “wrong” ingredient) discovers a recipe able to operate the transformation, he drinks the potion and changes himself into his evil “twin”, Mr. Hyde. Thus, he starts leading a double life. While he is the good doctor, he has a normal, fruitful existence, with a loving fiancé and faithful friends. At night, though, he runs around London terrorizing people, leading a life of corruption and recurring crime. When he becomes Dr. Jekyll again, he regrets Hyde’s evil doings and tries to make amends. But then… he drinks the potion again. And the vicious circle continues. At a certain point, Dr. Jekyll realizes that the evil side is becoming stronger and stronger, until he is unable to turn back into Dr. Jekyll at will. Such story can only end in tragedy, with the death of the cursed scientist.
This novel is usually interpreted as a description of a split personality (the good one versus the bad one). But, instead of two personalities coexisting in some individuals, I rather think that Stevenson portrayed the two sides of the human personality, which are common to all. The character Dr. Jekyll represents the positive side, the true “humane” nature, i.e. the person one really is: a decent, kind, loving individual. Mr. Hyde portrays the hidden, lowly instincts that are there, inside each of us, but that we try not to let come up to the surface of our “way of being”. Can something be learned from this story? Are these two traits intertwined in such a way that they can never be untied, separated? Is a battle between the two inevitable?
Elsa Franco Al Ghaslan