Ten or twelve life-changing books: #11

11. 1994 The Vanderbilt Agrarians, I’ll take my Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition [1930]

The delay in writing this piece on life-changing book #11 is that I wanted to go back and skim and the book for concrete ideas and have found it hard to do so. Instead, I will try to describe in broad strokes a vision of the world that has blossomed and ramified from the roots laid by the book. Continue reading

Book: Stevenson. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This was written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886 at age 35. It is a little book that can be read in an hour or two, and should be by everyone. It left such a powerful cultural impression that the expression “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” has entered the language as an archetype; any number of movies have been made based on it, at least three of which have taken on classic status.

The book

The story is well-enough known, that the basic idea need not be described. It is much thinner in plot than the movies based on the concept. There are just three main characters — Dr. Lanyon, Lawyer Utterson, and Jekyll — and only two violent incidents with “Hyde.”

A couple common misconceptions should be cleared up.

1. It is not Dr. Jekyll the good-side vs. Mr. Hyde the bad-side. Rather, it is Dr. Jekyll the mixture-of-good-and-evil, vs. Mr. Hyde the only-evil. Jekyll refers (in his “full statement of the case”) to a “thorough and primitive duality of man,” and that he “was radically both.” He was able to distill the evil in the transformation to Hyde; everyone shrank from Hyde on encounter because “all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.” Jekyll’s temptation to morph into Hyde is to indulge the evil that he nurtures all the time without the scruples of his “better nature.”

2. Despite the apparent crude physicalism of bringing about a moral change by the drinking of a potion, the actual anthropology proposed is that the body is ethereal, and conforms homomorphically to the spirit. Jekyll writes

I not only recognised my natural body from the mere aura and effulgence of certain of the powers that made up my spirit, but managed to compound a drug by which these powers should be dethroned from their supremacy, and a second form and countenance substituted, none the less natural to me because they were the expression, and bore the stamp of lower elements in my soul.

This explains why Hyde’s body was shrunken from Jekyll’s, as well as the changed face that frightened everyone that saw it. Thus, Stevenson’s model is not exactly evolutionary, or at least not in a crudely physical way: rather, the body forms itself to the inner contour of the spirit.

Jekyll’s Confession

The struggle and its analysis is detailed in the letter written by Jekyll that Utterson reads at the end. The letter is a kind of confessional narration of everything that happened. Jekyll’s problem was nurturing a secret life in parallel to his admirable one of helping humanity. The sins he nurtured are left unspecified, only identified as “undignified.” (The movies go ahead and fill in that blank by various extrapolations.) Some themes that are brought out:

1. The double-mind (in contrast to the hypocrite). This is an important insight. Consider the difference in ordinary language between (a) the double-mind, (b) being half-hearted, and (c) the hypocrite. Jekyll identifies both impulses as genuine, and explicitly rejects hypocrisy as the underlying motive.

2. There is as it were a lid on a boiling cauldron building up pressure when he goes clean for a time. Jekyll explains

For two months, I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensations of an approving conscience. But time began at last to obliterate the freshness of my alarm; the praises of conscience began to grow into a thing of course; I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling for freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.

3. A clue to why Jekyll could not overthrow his demon is found in his repentance that was only partial. For, even when he was disgusted by what his alter ego had become, and resolved not to go back, he left a back door open. “I made this choice perhaps with some unconscious reservation, for I neither gave up the house in Soho, nor destroyed the clothes of Edward Hyde, which still lay ready in my cabinet.” A chilling indication showing the difference between mere fear and true contrition is his rumination, “I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence.”

4. It becomes clear that the elements in common between Jekyll and Hyde are memory, death, and the ability to write. The latter was a physical detail needed for a couple of plot twists, and might perhaps be identified as a weakness in the construction.

Memory is what makes the continuity between the two persona possible– for example, Hyde must know to drink the potion in order to go back to Jekyll.

The fear of death, and the understanding that when one “person” dies the other will also, is what causes Hyde, fearing the gallows, to desire to go back to the Jekyll person, and what drives Jekyll, also fearing it, to desire to refrain going over again.

At length, a true horror of the evil within reaches him: “A change had come over me. It was no longer the fear of the gallows, it was the horror of being Hyde that racked me.” But by then, it was too late. “I began to spy a danger that, if this were much prolonged, the balance of my nature might be permanently overthrown, the power of voluntary change be forfeited, and the character of Edward Hyde become irrevocably mine.” Such is what happened.


Stevenson’s prose is elegant; but his strength is his weakness in that the diction of Dr. Lanyon and Jekyll, and the private ruminations of Lawyer Utterson, are all quite similarly ornate. Stevenson hasn’t mastered different voices, at least in this work.

But this is irrelevant. The basic premise of the story has entered our culture with mythic character. Indeed, I suspect few have actually read the original story: yet the image as interpretive myth is vivid.

As Anthropology in the theological sense, the premise of the story errs if it supposes that there is any good as a positive principle in the natural, sinful man. If Stevenson means that man has a “double root” ontologically, this is certainly contrary to the biblical view of man. The “problem” theologically is the portrayal of natural good in Jekyll, not the evil of Hyde.

In consequence, Stevenson’s depiction even of the “good side” falters. The fear of execution is major motive of Jekyll’s “contrition,” and Dr. Lanyon seems to ratify the idea that his secret can be kept as long as he doesn’t resort to it again. But a true penitent would turn himself in to face the consequence, let that be the gallows. On the assumption that Jekyll could have refrained ever again from becoming Hyde, the problem of satisfying public justice is a latent and unaddressed problem.

On the other hand, there are two frameworks in which the story is a useful mirror; each probably reflects part of the reason for the enduring popularity of the mythic center of the story.

First, everyone has observed at least one person in his ambit that manifests two persona that resonate as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The model seems successful as an image of the fragmentation of man’s soul, when we view that as both fallen and held back by common grace.

Second, at the deeper level, some will see it as an allegory for their own inner struggle. Especially Christians may see an echo in their own struggle against the “old man.” In a sense, only the Christian really does struggle with a double source.

Superficially, we can of course say that the concept won’t work. There is only one person finally. But Stevenson accounts for this adequately, in that finally the chemical is no longer needed: Jekyll becomes Hyde irretrievably. The inner soul or spirit dominate the physical; like the monster created by the conspirators in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, the physical eventually apes the underlying, more substantial spiritual reality.

In the story, there is no redemption finally. It can serve as a scarecrow against playing with evil, of not really taking repentance very seriously. There is no warrant for the belief in “subsequent penitence.” Such a belief is an example of self-deception.