The Tedious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a cultural phenomenon. It seems that is impossible to go your life without experiencing his gothic novella in some medium or other. Off the top of my head, I have seen various TV adapatations of the story, with actors such as James Nesbitt, John Hannah, Dougray Scott, and Sam Witwer portraying the titular roles. In film, as well as in their own adaptations, the duo often crop up in films outside of their own story, whenever some form of supernatural or gothic aesthetic is required. Dr Jekyll (but more so Mr Hyde) is recruited into the Victorian Avengers in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, of which the most extraordinary thing about it is just how bad the film is. In the equally as bad but far more enjoyable Van Helsing, Hyde serves as a minor antagonist to the titular character, being killed off almost as soon as he introduced, only to transform back into Dr Jekyll as he dies, to which my favourite line in all of cinema is stated: ‘Van Helsing! You murdereeeeeer!’. During my schooling years I was an unwilling audience member of a stage production of the book, when, for what I only assume were budgetary constraints, a school trip consisted of going to another school and watching the play. 

Despite all of these experiences with the story, it was not until very recently that I read the original source itself. Having now done so, I wonder for the life of me how it became popular to begin with. Most likely that conclusion is due to the fact that I am coming to the story some one hundred years or so after it was written, through the lens of having seen the story adapted and twisted and distorted through the ages. The crux of the story is in the twist, of that there is no doubt, and in knowing the ending before you come in, it does ruin the ‘reveal’. Yet I cannot point to that as the sole, or even an important, reason in why the book doesn’t resonate with me. There are many books or shows or some other form of media where I have been aware of the ending and still found them enjoyable. Peter Falk‘s Columbo is a show designed around the audience member knowing the ‘ending’ and watching the raggedy detective figure out something we already know. With Stevenson, the ending is built up in such a mundane way that I am quite confident in stating that even if I had no knowledge of the story before reading it, my nonreaction to the revelation would have been the same.

The reality is that it is simply poorly paced. Despite its short length (the copy I have comes in at a leaf under ninety pages), it feels much longer than it is, in no small part to its tediously drawn out nature. Of those ninety pages, a good seventy or so are nothing more than descriptions of dimly-lit alley-ways, the narrator Mr Utterson attending and leaving a succession of dinner parties, and stilted conversation between people who we are told are old friends, but between whom the conversations are so dry, stilted and dripping in exposition that they come across as nothing more than shades of characters inserted in to provide Utterson with the information he needs to make his discovery. It’s less Columbo uncovering the clues, more him sitting having his dinner with Mrs Columbo for forty minutes, only for the murderer to knock on his door and give him all the evidence.

Even then, Utterson struggles to make the connection until the final moments of his story. Throughout the story he is told that Mr Hyde boards with Dr Jekyll, that Mr Hyde and Dr Jekyll are never seen together, that Dr Jekyll disappears at roughly the same time as Mr Hyde, and that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have near-identical handwriting. Despite these in-your-face clues, Utterson only makes the connection when he’s standing in Jekyll’s laboratory over the body of Mr Hyde, who is wearing Jekyll’s clothes, reading Jekyll’s suicide note that says in no uncertain terms: By the way, in case you haven’t realised yet, I am both Dr Jekyll and  Mr Hyde.

I must also assume that Stevenson was paid by the comma for this work. There is something about the long running sentences in literature of that time period, the painfully long descriptions of just about everything. Open a tale of Dickens or Hardy or Hubert or Austen or any of the Brontës and you’ll seemingly go pages at a time without a full stop. But those had the greedy excuse of serialisation, of profiting off the length of the book. Stevenson has no such excuse. It doesn’t help that his long-winding sentences describe nothing but those dingy alleys. You don’t need a sentence containing two dashes and three semi-colons to tell me how dirty the street is. Particularly as the picture it paints is so bleak and dark that it is akin to crude, faint, listless strokes on an already jet black canvas.

The prose is poor, the characters are bland, the story is lifeless. Yet, here I am, over one hundred years later discussing it, so I guess he got something right. What that something is, though, I doubt I’ll ever know.

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