The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations; and in the act, I was suddenly aware that I had lost in stature.

Classic fantasy tale, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886.

The plot should be familiar to everyone -- told mostly through the memoirs of a lawyer named Utterson and Jekyll's own journal entries, it focuses on Dr. Henry Jekyll, a morally upright, wealthy doctor and chemist who discovers a potion that allows him to unleash the evil side of his nature, which takes the name of Edward Hyde. While both Jekyll and Hyde are quite happy with this arrangement for a time, giving Jekyll a way to indulge his lusts for violence, forbidden pleasures, and just generally being a bastard, Jekyll soon grows to fear Hyde's growing tendencies toward murderous violence. And when Jekyll starts turning into Hyde even without the potion, he grows more and more desperate for a cure. In time, Jekyll realizes he will soon turn into Hyde permanently and writes out a diary detailing his misfortune. In the end, Hyde himself commits suicide, whether to escape the attentions of the police, in remorse for his misdeeds, or in horror at the monster he has become.

Stevenson wrote the story in a white heat after literally dreaming up parts of the tale, particularly the transformation scenes. His stepson claimed he wrote the first draft in just three days. After a critique from his wife where she pointed out that he had a fine allegory that he was trying to shoehorn into a traditional story structure, Stevenson supposedly burned his entire first draft and started over from scratch. Even then, he rewrote the entire story in less than a week, while bedridden with a hemorrhage.

Essentially, Stevenson's novella is a study on humankind's dual nature. Everyone has both good and evil inside them, much like Henry Jekyll has secret urges to indulge in sin. But when man lets his inner shadow take over, as when Jekyll uses the potion to give the amoral Hyde free reign, bad things happen, not only to friends, family, and strangers, but to the evildoer himself. Despite not depicting anyone with a traditional case of lycanthropy, it really is the perfect werewolf story -- I'm not sure any author will ever be able to surpass it.

The book was hugely successful when it was published, and it has influenced everything from the study of psychology to fiction of all stripes. It has been adapted hundreds of times for film, television, radio, animated cartoons, comics, you name it. The role of Jekyll/Hyde has been something actors have enjoyed sinking their teeth into for decades -- getting to play both the hero and the scenery-chewing villain is something few can pass up. Some of the best known performances have included John Barrymore in a 1920 silent film, Fredric March in 1931 (whose ape-like makeup is probably some of the best known makeup effects in film history), Spencer Tracy in 1941 (who went the opposite direction with very little makeup used to distinguish the two sides of Jekyll's personlity), Christopher Lee in 1971's "I, Monster," Jerry Lewis (who played a comedic version of Jekyll and Hyde in 1963's "The Nutty Professor"), Eddie Murphy (who starred in the "Nutty Professor" remake in 1996), and James Nesbitt in the 2006 BBC series "Jekyll."

There are a couple of items that most adaptations of Stevenson's novella get wrong. In the book, Hyde was actually smaller and weaker than Jekyll, as his evil had not been exercised as much as Jekyll's virtue. Hyde was also not notably ugly, though he was considered somehow repellent to everyone who met him.

In addition, the name "Jekyll" is normally pronounced, in Stevenson's native Scotland, as "JEE-kul," not the "JECK-ul" most familiar to filmgoers.

Created as part of THE DREAD CHAMBER nodeshell contest.

I realized recently that I never actually read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and needed to fix that. It’s a book whose narrative I’ve seen so many times in various incarnations that I had the illusion that surely I’d already read it. After all, Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde is firmly embedded in literature and pop culture as a fiend as recognizable as Frankenstein’s monster.

And it was Stevenson’s original portrayal of Hyde that interested me the most, because he’s evolved considerably in 20th and 21st Centuries. To most modern moviegoers, Mr. Hyde is the Victorian progenitor of The Hulk: a powerful, violent, unrestrained incarnation of pure id. And to fans of Steven Moffat’s BBC miniseries Jekyll, Hyde is a sexy, sociopathic Superman. The modern Hyde is a fiend of monstrous proportion, perhaps not physically, but he’s certainly no Gollum-like dwarf.

Except, in the original text (as Jet-Poop notes above) he’s exactly that:

Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice ….

Hyde’s youth and tiny physical stature – he’s so small he’s swimming in Jekyll’s clothes after his transformation – was a surprise. And so is Hyde’s demeanor, since he has none of the wicked charisma that Moffat and other filmmakers have imbued him with on screen. People find Hyde utterly repellent; he’s as dangerous as a rabid sewer rat, and the only person in the whole of London he seems capable of seducing is Dr. Jekyll.

Hyde’s characterization makes perfect sense from a metaphoric standpoint, and I understood it even before Stevenson offers an explanation later in the novella. Hyde is small because the evil in Dr. Jekyll is initially just a small part of his personality, and he’s young because the exploration of wickedness that he represents is a new experience to the handsome, upstanding doctor.

So, the metaphor is solid, and it’s intuitive, and Hyde is certainly a memorable and durable character, even if he’s been considerably glamorized over the years. But he represents a trope that I find distasteful as a reader and a writer: the use of physical deformity and ugliness to signify evil and moral turpitude. That particular trope is both creakingly ancient and presents a toxic mix of ableism and victim-blaming (if you’ve been disfigured, it means you must have done something bad to deserve it.)

I deal with the nature of evil quite a lot in my own work, and I’m trying to be mindful to not inadvertently use that trope, at least not when it comes to human characters. After all, the idea that we could somehow recognize the rapists and murderers among us because they have misshapen features is a comforting lie. The people who’ve done the most harm to the rest of humanity have often had great hair and the brightest smiles.

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