Society & Culture

Drug addiction, Darwinism lurk behind “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

For Halloween season, Northfield author reviews horror classics for Halloween season

Editor’s note: for the Halloween season, author Peter Fernandez of Northfield has authored thoughtful reviews of two horror classics: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and (in an upcoming issue) Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

By Peter R. Fernandez

You may assume familiarity with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” if you’ve seen one of its countless film adaptations. But, like so many other classic novels, or in this case, novella, movie producers often surgically dislodge the original literary organs, and transplant them with standard theatrical invention. 

After the publication of Stevenson’s 1886 Victorian classic, popular American actor Richard Mansfield bought the rights to the 13,500 word fiction, and hired Boston writer Thomas A. Sullivan to adapt the story for the stage.

Both men judiciously realized that a drama concerning half a dozen stodgy, emotionally and sexually repressed, unmarried Englishmen, could not possibly produce quality dramatic tension. Ergo, Sullivan spooned two more ingredients into the frothing formula of fantasy, felony, and existential frustration with a pristine fiancée and a seductive tavern tart, both to titillate poor Jekyll’s infantile id, and torture his elegant ego.  

Unfortunately, the Frederic March (1930), and Spencer Tracy (1941) title character variants, as seen on TMC, were amply altered for mass audience consumption. The literary souls of Dracula and Frankenstein were also damned by gimmicky renovation and blasphemous conversion to the silver screen.  

Another glaring celluloid omission regarding this horror classic is the genuine stature and appearance of Jekyll’s homicidal half: “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish; he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile….,” according to the diary account of Jekyll’s friend, Dr. Lanyon: “… a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness… God bless me the man seems hardly human. Something troglodytic, shall we say…”

So why did Stevenson choose to portray Hyde as a diminutive and deformed man? This is explained in another of Jekyll’s letters: “The evil of my nature…was less robust and less developed after all nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted,,,”  Hence, Hyde had to be smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll.

Not unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson chooses to define Jekyll/Hyde through personal letters and diary entries. The energetic and cat-footed Hyde could have been an autobiographical allusion to Stevenson’s wild youth in Edinburgh, Scotland, where, because of tuberculosis, the author, through parts of his short life (1832-97), medicated symptoms with wine, hashish and laudanum, an over-the-counter opium tincture.

Indeed, a brimming potion seems narcotic to his Dr. Jekyll: “There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, and unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.”

Hyde also requires the formula to become Jekyll, again, in order to flee his cowardly crimes. “Think of it – I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory door but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror.”

Not unlike the drug addict, Jekyll is seeking existential escape through artificial compounds and indecent behaviors that ensnare and enslave him. Now dressed in ill-fitting clothes, Jekyll has degenerated and dissipated into Mr. Hyde, a fiendish dwarf on cockney skid-row.  

But there is more to this Victorian allegory than mere addiction, for Stevenson may have been describing the evolving human condition during the late 19th century. Sublime transformations were happening in the west through medicine (Pasteur, Madame Curie, Rontgen, Kolle), philosophy (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer), invention (Edison, Marconi, Bell, Tesla ,Forleisch), as well as  the introduction of Marxist politics and Freudian psychology.

Was Darwin’s relatively new and hugely popular Theory of Evolution critiqued by Stevenson upon his inventing Hyde as a godless, ape-like ancestor evolving into modern, secular-scientific man, Dr. Jekyll?  Or was the atheist author living vicariously thru his fiction’s unwitting scientist in the hopes of ridding the brave, new world of “superstitious and fabled” Judeo-Christianity’s “confining morality?”

It took Stevenson just three days to create his immediately successful text of terror. In a curious case of life imitating art, the author was regularly prescribed cocaine to help alleviate his tubercular symptoms in writing his groundbreaking glimpse into transhumanism.

PS: Cocaine is not good for you. It may have enabled a crippled artist to write for a season, because his body was failing him, but its toxic properties are poisonous and overtly habit forming.

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