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Detoxifying Dr. Jekyll - Yew Erdri Ming

About Detoxifying Dr. Jekyll

Previous Entry Detoxifying Dr. Jekyll Mar. 30th, 2018 @ 02:54 pm Next Entry


Can the quest for moral perfection lead to the creation of a perfect monster? Or is the idea of such a quest indicative of a monstrous nature from the outset? One way in which Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is discussed is in how truly either persona reflects the central character's essential nature. It's a story that both pays tribute to and counters the ideas of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Both stories warn of the dangers of man imitating God through scientific experiment but where Mary Shelley clearly has a lot of sympathy for her monster, Hyde is presented as more thoroughly repulsive. And yet it's not quite so simple as that.

Jekyll at first describes the temptation of the Hyde persona as a kind of "slavery" but in the very next paragraph he uses the word "liberty":

Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete. Think of it—I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory door, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll.

It almost sounds like the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and the sort of freedom Jekyll describes would be familiar to the average Internet troll. But is "liberty" an altogether accurate term here? John Milton once wrote, ". . . none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but licence." Like Elster in Vertigo, the freedom that Jekyll describes is dependent on his licence or, to use the preferred term of to-day, privilege. Hyde knocks over a child in the street or even murders a man because he disregards the right of his victims to walk safely in the city. Meanwhile, Hyde himself greedily clutches at protection, hiding behind the wealth and facade of Jekyll.

Of course, Mary Shelley saw Milton from a very different perspective. Her monster is obsessed with Milton's Paradise Lost, identifying with the figure of Satan in it. No surprise given Mary Shelley was influenced by the general love the Romantics had for Paradise Lost, leading to the creation of the "Byronic Hero". Figures like Lord Byron's Manfred who threw off the influence of good and evil to assert their own minds and powers. The idea holds an undeniable appeal but between the publication of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the concept of asserting personal passions without regard to others was criticised in a diversity of great works from Moby Dick to The Masque of the Red Death to Madame Bovary to Crime and Punishment. But the effectiveness of these works is in their complexity; the fascination we feel for Ahab, the horror we feel of the Red Death, the sympathy we feel for Emma, and the stimulation we feel from Raskolnikov's argument. The revelation isn't that these seemingly good ideas turned out to be bad after all but that the consequences of true insight into human nature are tragic and horrifying.

We don't see much of Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, what we learn about him is mostly from characters discussing their impressions of him. We learn more about Jekyll's internal life and his feverish efforts to not be Hyde. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Jekyll's friend and lawyer, Utterson, who until the end believes Hyde and Jekyll are separate entities. Utterson worries about Jekyll's association with the infamous Hyde and after the murder Jekyll says to Utterson, "I cannot say that I care what becomes of Hyde; I am quite done with him. I was thinking of my own character, which this hateful business has rather exposed." No real thought to the victim of the crime anymore than he had real sympathy for the other victims, only a horror at what damage there might be to his reputation. When one considers Jekyll's original motive when he created Hyde, to separate and therefore somehow purge all his negative impulses, it seems all of Jekyll's supposed goodness is but vanity. His interest is more in crafting his purity than in any action that might do effective good. This is a product of the idea of good and evil as abstractions--where they are two concrete states that one can be, then one can focus on them instead of evaluating individual actions based on their real merits. It's the ultimate indictment of Puritan psychology. Of people who can't look directly at their own preoccupations with self-image because fundamental to the drive for salvation is to be worthy rather than to attain worthiness through achievements that can be measured empirically. And this cuts both ways. Jekyll describes the aftermath of his decision never to be Hyde again:

I resolved in my future conduct to redeem the past; and I can say with honesty that my resolve was fruitful of some good. You know yourself how earnestly in the last months of last year, I laboured to relieve suffering; you know that much was done for others, and that the days passed quietly, almost happily for myself. Nor can I truly say that I wearied of this beneficent and innocent life; I think instead that I daily enjoyed it more completely; but I was still cursed with my duality of purpose; and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence.

Not only do the good acts seem worthless to Hyde who doesn't attempt them, they seem worthless to Jekyll after he's done them. The good acts Jekyll refers to are never sufficiently satisfying because he's always aware he's motivated not by the actions themselves but for how those actions might reflect on him, in terms of his reputation and his self-image. When he defines his goodness in terms of an abstraction made concrete by two physical states then no number of positive acts will ever be sufficient. Hyde is naturally a more satisfying persona because Hyde casts off this moral preoccupation entirely. The phoniness of Jekyll's motives make Hyde's base motives seem more legitimate. As a system designed to regulate indulgent, destructive behaviour, the moral sphere to which Jekyll belongs begins with a crack that widens to complete destruction when put into practise.
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