Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. He was dearly fond of his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham (Cummy), who deeply influenced the young Stevenson. He was also closer to his mother than was common for people of that time and income; they may have understood each other better because both suffered from ill health. Stevenson was an avid reader and began writing at an early age. He wrote essays and sketches for various magazines and newspapers, and in 1878 published his first book, An Inland Voyage, based on his 1876 canoe trip through France.
The old friends of respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll are confused by his new will. His heir is Edward Hyde, a man of bad temper and worse behavior. Dr. Jekyll’s research is bringing him great distress, and his friends try to learn the reason for this and for his bond to the despicable Mr. Hyde.
The story is set in the 1870s, in London, England. The city, the buildings, and the people (whether servants, working-class, or educated) are all historically consistent. The reader gets the distinct impression that the author may have walked streets like these, with foot traffic at any and all hours as people of nearly every living standard go about their business and leisure. He may have visited houses and buildings like those he describes, some showing improvements and social advancements, others neglect and decay.
The viewpoint character, Mr. Utterson, is introduced to us as a lawyer, who is frequently “the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.” He remains constant throughout the story. He is clearly the character with whom the author hoped the reader would identify. He is austere in his own appetites and simultaneously possesses enough sense of privacy to allow others to go to the devil in their own ways. Yet he has enough charity (or what passes for it) to look after their affairs when they are ruined.
This is a good reading exercise for students who can read at a grade five level or better. Like most works in an older style, it is more understandable when read aloud. With an ordinary dictionary available, any middle-school or junior high school student can plough through the stiff, formal prose. There are phrases used throughout which are now regarded as literary cliches, such as: “his blood ran cold in his veins” and “with a heavy heart.” These give a sense of the time that has passed between the writing of topical, popular fiction with a contemporary setting, and the present day when this novel seems antique.
This novel will come as a refreshing change for readers and movie-goers accustomed to stories about self-indulgent and licentious characters. It is no longer currently fashionable for authors to write from the point of view of characters who value self-restraint and courtesy above achieving personal goals. Readers who have never read the works of Dickens or Tolstoy may find this short novel a good start to the study of classic novels.
1. What was Dr. Henry Jekyll trying to discover?
2. What do his colleagues and friends do when they feel anger and revulsion at Mr. Edward Hyde? Do they treat him as he did weaker people?
1. Are anger and hatred natural emotions? Are criminal behaviors necessary? Can people choose alternatives?
There have been at least ten film adaptations of the novel, and at least four versions are available in video format through stores and libraries. The most critically successful film adaptation was the 1931 Paramount version directed by Rouben Mamoulian; but Lon Chaney’s performance in the 1920 version included phenomenal transformation scenes with no use of heavy make-up or appliances.