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.