Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 25 - A Disgustful Curiosity

If you've never read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you should know that it's not what you think it is, or at least it wasn't what I thought it would be. I expected something not unlike Frankenstein, where we experienced the story largely through Frankenstein's eyes (except for that great, long section where the creature tells his story). With this novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, I expected the same thing. I expected a first person, or limited third person, point of view focusing on Dr. Henry Jekyll, with, perhaps, occasional shifts so we could see things as Mr. Hyde saw them. Unless I'm much mistaken, this has largely been how the story has been adapted to various other media throughout the decades.

But what about Mr. Utterson? In my edition of the novella, which is 103 pages long, Dr. Utterson is the protagonist, and our source for the narrative, for 70 of those pages (after which point the story makes one of those awkward shifts familiar to readers of Victorian literature, and we get the rest of the story through letters being read by Utterson). What happened to Utterson over the years? Why, in film adaptations, for instance, did he either fall away entirely or become absorbed into another character?

One thing I didn't know about the story (and I don't know if this carries over into any of the films, because I sort of haven't seen any of them) is that it is structured as a mystery, with Mr. Utterson -- friend to Dr. Jekyll -- playing the role of detective.

It's a measure of Stevenson's skill that, even though I knew the solution to his mystery, I still found the book to be pretty thrilling. Utterson is an engaging character, even though he is almost completely free of any of the flamboyant affectations -- he only eats sandwiches, or he must take a nap at precisely noon, or he collects mice -- that would be bestowed on him if the story were written today. In fact, as described, Utterson sounds like a pretty dull guy, but Stevenson makes him live on the page, and that's good enough. And a good mystery is going to be a good story, regardless of your knowledge of the outcome, and that's what we have here.

The last thirty pages, or so, of the novella follows the storyline I expected to be the main thread of the entire novel; this is where we learn about Dr. Jekyll, and what drove him to create a chemical solution which, when consumed, would transform him, body and soul, into a flesh-and-blood manifestation of his darkest desires and impulses. Jekyll's motivation seems to have been a desire to rid himself of guilt, and his rationalization for the whole thing is pretty asinine. Fundamentally, he's a good person, but his desire for (what I gathered to be relatively unshocking) temporal pleasures met resistance in his scolding conscience. Thinking this was all pretty unfair, considering what he had in mind to do on his Friday nights, and believing that all of mankind faced a similar divide in their personalities that could be overcome via the auspices of Science, he set about trying to conquer this problem. After succeeding, he found out that his evil side, Mr. Hyde (why he's called "Mr. Hyde", I don't know) actually had much darker impulses -- completely unfettered by conscience -- than Jekyll ever had during his most shameful hours. So, oops, I guess. But Jekyll actually doesn't have much of a problem with this, because Jekyll is innocent. It's Hyde that did those unspeakable things. Even though, of course, Jekyll chooses to drink the potion, knowing what might happen, and even though he shares the sensory pleasures and memories of Hyde. Not only that, but part of the way Jekyll deals with Hyde's sins is to do his best, as Jekyll, to correct them afterwards. All of which ultimately seems like a highly convoluted and impractical way of going about having a conscience. Put a little more thought behind this, Dr. Jekyll, and this whole nightmare could have been avoided.

Frankenstein suffers from similar problems of logic and reasoning, and I don't care. Both are still fascinating, occasionally brilliant (moreso Frankenstein, but Stevenson has his moments as well) and highly entertaining (moreso Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It's famous for a reason, you know.

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Sorry for the brevity on this one, but I'm not sure there's much that I can say about this book that hasn't been said a million times before.


Greg said...

Bill, what's up with thinking your posts are too brief? A brief post is a one paragraph quickie, not a six paragraph breakdown of a work.

I've seen the Frederic March and Spencer Tracy versions of this, and if you get the DVD they're both on it so it's hard not to see them both. I prefer March's more feral performance to Tracy's more sinister one, but I do enjoy the horsewhipping fantasy scenes in the Tracy one (that's in Frames of Reference where you see Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner bridled like horses carting Tracy who is whipping them to go faster. Of course, I would have preferred Bergman or Turner whipping him but you can't have everything.

bill r. said...

I just didn't feel like I said much with this post, that's all. I don't know...I just feel like apologizing for things nobody cares about.

I do have that DVD, and I plan on watching both soon.

Greg said...

The March one is interesting. He comes off as incredibly wooden when playing Dr. Jekyl. The thing is I've seen other early work of March and he isn't wooden. Formal yes but not wooden or stagy. His Mr. Hyde is feral and played naturalistically so I think he was choosing to overdue the wooden staginess of Jekyl to show a pronounced difference between the two characters.