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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #303: Dr. Henry Jekyll

That's his secret, Cap. He's always angry.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, at the height of British Victorian cultural repression. Jekyll was a popular, friendly, very proper gentleman in London society, and yet he was tortured by coarser animal lusts that he kept hidden within himself, the kinds of impulses and behavior that were anathema to the hypocritical worship of respectability that defined Victorian moral codes. Jekyll wanted to get rid of those baser parts of himself, and so concocted a purifying serum. Of course, it didn't work that way, instead unleashing those nasty aspects of his personality. The potion released his alter ego, the brutish and violent and sociopathic Edward Hyde.

While Hyde was ascendant, he engaged in the kids of pursuits Jekyll could not - Stevenson was coy about these in typical Victorian fashion, but it certainly seems like sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with some murder thrown in for good measure. The novella follows Jekyll's attempts to control this rather pronounced personality disorder, and Hyde's attempts to elude the police. It's a tragedy, ending with Jekyll's suicide as he realizes he can no longer control the Hyde persona and will eventually become that foul creature permanently.

There's certainly a lot to unpack in Stevenson's work, a piece so seminal the characters remain in vernacular language 130 years later. The concept of human duality has been explored many times since (including the classic original Star Trek episode, The Enemy Within, where Kirk physically splits into his two component personas). It's something we're all aware of fundamentally: the part of us that wants so badly to be loved and respected and admired, to follow the rules and eat right and put the toilet seat down when we're done; and then the other, that lurking, darker, more bestial portion of our soul that lusts and craves and covets and seeks freedom from the constricting laws of modern society. As Billy Joel called him, The Stranger ("you'll give in to your desire when the stranger comes along...").

Were the Victorians right, seeking to deny and repress those urges? Or are there healthy ways to let the Hyde within us out to play so he doesn't build up in power and intensity until he overthrows our Jekyll? I don't know the answer to that. I really don't.

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