I have a habit of reading three or four books at the same time and I will sometimes sit on my bed, reading one with all the others are lying around me, calling me to pick them up again. I can cycle through several books in one sitting, unless I reach a particularly pressing moment in one that demands to be seen all the way through.
Recently, I’ve been reading: Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, George Bernard Shaw and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m not sure, in hindsight, if that was the best thing to do because I feel like I’ve been bombarding my senses with glorious descriptions, long sentences, vocabularies a little beyond my own, unique plots, colorful characters and I can’t help coming away with the sense that all modern writing – including my own – is pale, flat, unimaginative and colorless in comparison.
It’s not necessarily true, but it’s a bit like trying to eat rice after having stuffed yourself with chocolate truffles.
Stevenson, in particular, has a real gift for description. Most description I read doesn’t really do anything for me, but Stevenson can make me feel his atmosphere, as well as see it. In his short story “A Lodging for the Night,” about the 15th century, real-life poet and thief Francis Villon, Stevenson describes Paris in the snow:
The air was raw and pointed, but not far below freezing; and the flakes were large, damp, and adhesive. The whole city was sheeted up. An army might have marched from end to end and not a footfall given the alarm. If there were any belated birds in heaven, they saw the island like a large white patch, and the bridges like slim white spars, on the black ground of the river. High up overhead the snow settled among the tracery of the cathedral towers. Many a niche was drifted full; many a statue wore a long white bonnet on its grotesque or sainted head. The gargoyles had been transformed into great false noses, drooping towards the point. The crockets were like upright pillows swollen on one side. In the intervals of the wind, there was a dull sound of dripping about the precincts of the church.
I was so stunned at how evocative it was, I had to read the paragraph a second time.
I also just finished reading Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was published in 1886 and is more of a novella than a novel. Most people are familiar with the story, even if they haven’t read the book. It has been turned into plays, movies, TV shows, a musical and entered into popular culture and even the dictionary (I checked and the term “Jekyll and Hyde” really is in my dictionary – it means to have two sides to your personality, good and bad).
It’s actually written like a mystery and is almost entirely from the perspective of the lawyer, John Utterson, who is a friend of Dr. Jekyll and is trying to discover what hold the mysterious man, Edward Hyde, has on the doctor. Utterson thinks blackmail, but the truth is far more than he ever imagined. In fact, the reader never does find out what Utterson thinks because he is given a manuscript to read, written by Henry Jekyll and containing his confession, and the story ends with Jekyll’s account. What Utterson does with the truth is left to our imagination, perhaps because the truth was so horrible that its affect was devastating to Utterson just as it was to another of Jekyll’s friends, Dr. Lanyon.
One of the supreme ironies is that the term Jekyll and Hyde should mean two sides of the same person, good and evil, because Dr, Jekyll fails in proving this out. Dr. Jekyll says that he believes in two sides and that if he can find a way to separate the two selves, then the good side can go on its way, unimpeded by any evil. However, all he really does is create a receptacle for all his evil impulses that he can indulge in without consequences. His original self remains as is, with the same conflicted nature.
Henry Jekyll admits that his experiments failed. However, he argues that the reason Hyde emerged as the second self is because Jekyll went into the experiment with the idea that he could create a means of indulging his pleasures without sullying his good name, instead of sincerely trying to free his good self from evil. The implication Jekyll makes is that if he had had altruistic motives for his experiments, then an angel instead of a demon might have emerged. We don’t actually know if that would be true, however. It depends on how deeply rooted you believe evil is in people.
According to Robert Louis Stevenson, in a letter to a friend, the reason that Hyde came out was because of Jekyll’s hypocrisy. Jekyll himself writes to Utterson that although his pleasures were not really that bad, he desired so much to be thought of as, not just good, but exceedingly good. And in order to maintain his reputation, he created Hyde so that he did not have to give up his vices. The trouble is that in unleashing and feeding Hyde, Hyde grows stronger and takes him over.
The theme of Jekyll and Hyde, in a way, is not really about the dual nature of man, but about a man who wants to have a dual nature so that he can enjoy the best of both worlds. There is also an interesting theme about removing inhibitions and the almost primal animal evil it releases. The idea – I’m not sure if this is coming from Stevenson or simply my own interpretation of the story – is that civilization and the desire to be thought well of doesn’t really make people better, but what it does do is prevent people from acting as they would if there was nothing to prevent them.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also has its share of stunning descriptions. The scene that most stood out to me is in the manuscript, written by Dr. Lanyon to Mr. Utterson, explaining the mystery that Jekyll is really Hyde – the Hyde who has committed a terrible murder – and how the horror of seeing this unnatural sight of Hyde transforming into Jekyll before Lanyon’s eyes has so shaken his soul that he feels himself dying.
He [Hyde] put the glass to his lips and drank at one gulp. A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked there came, I thought, a change – he seemed to swell – his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter – and the next moment, I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror.
“O God!” I screamed, and “O God!” again and again; for there before my eyes – pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death – there stood Henry Jekyll!
The reader knows what’s coming, but it’s still a powerful scene, nonetheless. I particularly liked how he describes Jekyll as having come back from the dead. It is a powerful visual, as if Jekyll is dying every time that he is submerged into Hyde and resurrected every time he comes back, but each time he comes back, there is a little less of him, as though a bit of him dies every time Hyde is released. It’s a very chilling thought, in a thoughtfully chilling book.