Saturday, October 25, 2008

Thoughts On A Re-Read

40. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The idea behind Jekyll and Hyde, that every person actually has dual, or multiple selves, always interested me. Though Stevenson uses this premise to divide humans, or specifically men, as there are no female characters to speak of (though that itself adds to discussion), into moral opposites, I would like to take the theory in a more complicated direction.

I don't believe most people contain two innate selves, a good and a bad, but rather that people do have slightly differentiated personalities within them (and the degree of separation depends on the person), that have different motivations and temperaments, none of which are necessarily good or evil. I think Stevenson foresaw this way of thinking, and the story does tell us that most people are not quite so morally binary as Jekyll. The protagonist Mr. Utterson, in fact, from whose point of view proceeds the first part of the story, for those not familiar with it, is specifically described as without the violent passions or hidden shameful history of other men. This goes to show that Stevenson was not trying to make a blanket statement, but rather propose an idea that could be further refined.

Of course, I am reading this in terms of postmodernist? conceptions of the self, that are much more vague and open than those of Stevenson's day. My teacher suggests, as is apparently an accepted interpretation, that Stevenson was criticizing the constraints of society that pressured men into restraining themselves until they could no longer hold back and committed terrible crimes. He wasn't saying it about all men, just some. I don't know if I quite agree with that, but it's an interesting hypothesis. If criminals weren't so "constrained by society" would the worst deeds not happen? For example, would legal prostitution mean less rape? I don't know. Perhaps Stevenson would think so.

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