During this Halloween season I took up Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The book is full of the “atmospherics” that I enjoy in older British fiction. Take for example this scene between the taciturn lawyer Mr. Utterson (friend of the tormented Dr. Jekyll) and his clerk, Mr. Guest:
Presently after, he sat on one side of his own hearth, with Mr. Guest, his head clerk, upon the other, and midway between, at a nicely calculated distance from the fire, a bottle of a particular old wine that had long dwelt unsunned in the foundations of his house. The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind. But the room was gay with firelight. In the bottle the acids were long ago resolved; the imperial dye had softened with time, as the colour grows richer in stained windows; and the glow of hot autumn afternoons on hillside vineyards was ready to be set free and to disperse the fogs of London.
I mention this to reiterate the point that great literature must always begin with a good story. There is plenty of entertaining fiction that goes no deeper than that. Other works, however, will admit of readings on many levels. The moral ambiguity of Stevenson’s tale has troubled readers since it first appeared. The author’s friend, J. A. Symonds (himself a Victorian bohemian), protested at the note of despair in the work and the seeming triumph of evil.
Stevenson’s message is that hypocrisy – as represented by the moral dualism of Jekyll and Hyde – leads to psychological dualism. If not resolved, it must result in self-destruction. Jenni Calder, in the introduction to the Penguin volume, writes that the “temptation to do what is forbidden because it is forbidden is the strongest temptation of all.” It was a novel idea at the time which has since become a truism of our society: the relaxation of moral scruples will result in emotional health. A century later, such a thesis seems debatable.
I think it helps to broaden the ethical context of Stevenson’s premise and point out that the real roots of so-called Victorian hypocrisy lay in the fact that the rules were still on the books but the religious reasons for them were being increasingly neglected. It is indeed a good thing not to adopt a puritanical rigidity, of the sort that Stevenson criticizes, toward our moral failings. We can be tolerant of human weakness while remembering that the greatest kindness to people faced with temptation is to provide them with a clear sense of right and wrong. Fortunately, such is the ethical milieu in which Stevenson wrote that Jekyll and Hyde can still be read with the latter intention.
For related discussion, see my comments on Frankenstein.