The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeBMJ 2007; 334 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39125.611736.59 (Published 15 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:371
- Fiona Subotsky ()
Do doctors need split personalities? Stevenson shows how important it was for a Victorian doctor to preserve his reputation by pursuing his pleasures secretly.
The scene is London and the fog swirls frequently. The plot unfolds in a thrilling way, by peeling off layers as characters reveal their experiences to the main narrator, Utterson, Dr Jekyll's lawyer, until the final pattern of events becomes clear.
Jekyll is a well respected, middle aged doctor whose hobby is chemistry, carried out in a laboratory at the back of his house. He discovers a chemical combination that releases an alternative personality, his baser side: “Mr Hyde.” The actual physical changes are even more fantastical and are emphasised by the many film and television versions, which show the hair sprout, knuckles enlarge, face distort. Hyde enjoys unnamed viciousness without conscience, and Jekyll enjoys this, while being able in his own personality to concentrate on “good deeds.”
Apart from two episodes of violence (an attack on a child and a murder), we are never told what the dreadful pleasures are; this is left to our imagination. Utterson hints at the later physical consequences of youthful “depravity,” and homosexual activity has also been offered as an interpretation.
Hyde swallows an antidote to return to being Jekyll, until supplies run out. Then he asks another doctor, Dr Lanyon, to obtain more antidote for him. Lanyon does this, and Hyde turns into Jekyll under Lanyon's eyes. Lanyon, overcome by horror, retires to bed and soon dies. Later the antidote ceases to work at all and Jekyll hides himself in his laboratory. Eventually Utterson and Jekyll's valet break down the door and find Hyde dead, but no sign of Jekyll. Papers explain what has happened.
At no stage do Utterson or Lanyon go to the police, but they protect and support Jekyll until the end: the trampled child's family is bought off; the doctor's reputation is maintained.
I first read this book many years ago, when my film producer husband was making a version of the story called I, Monster, originally intended to be in 3D. On re-reading, Jekyll and Hyde strikes me as brilliantly written and with many modern resonances. For instance, there doesn't have to be much scientific fantasy about substances that become addictive and foster behaviour outside the range of the acceptable—alcohol, for a start, and other substances are also more readily accessible to doctors. We might think of this altered state as “dissociation,” and Stevenson uses the same term. Finally, Dr Lanyon's fate is unfortunate: it is now clearer we should not protect our errant colleagues in this way.
By Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
First published 1886