Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson 1886

Another benefit of self-quarantining during this unique time is the opportunity to explore one’s own library.  In doing so, I noticed a lovely set of 26 red-leather bound books, the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson, published by Scribners in 1902 and bought by me many years ago at some unremembered used book store.  There they had sat on a top shelf in our library for at least the 16 years we’ve lived in Cambridge and no doubt, at least that many in Newton.  I had read ‘Treasure Island’, my favorite childhood book, several times during this period but always in my childhood edition which featured Wyeth’s illustrations.  I climbed on a footstool, clutched the volume containing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I had never read before, and plunged in.  What a fascinating and superb tale.  Stevenson had the insight and wisdom of the ancient rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud who spoke of every person having both good and evil (Yzer hara) as part of their person.  The challenge of the good life is to reject the evil inclination that is part of you.  In this dark, Victorian tale, Henry Jekyll, a respected and honored physician, is aware of these two tendencies in his personality but instead of rejecting the evil side, he discovers a chemical formula which will separate that evil part into another individual, Edward Hyde.  While Jekyll continues his upstanding life, he increasingly transforms himself into Hyde who. lacking any counter-balancing good half,  becomes more and more unleashed in his evil deeds. Eventually, Jekyll becomes Hyde without using the chemcial draught and can only return to his better half by consuming larger and larger amounts of the potion.  Finally, Hyde commits a murder, Jekyll fails in his attempts to remain good, and Hyde commits suicide rather than being jailed and hung.  The story is told through the eyes of Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, Utterson and his friend and colleague, Dr. Lanyon.  More than 125 years after publication, the tale remains vivid and timely.  The triumph of evil, the unremitting hold of addiction, the dilemma of free will seen in the Jekyll/Hyde duality remain relevant today.  This is one of those books, like ‘Ethan Frome’ or ‘Embers’, that is best enjoyed on a dark winter night next to a blazing fire and a glass of single malt Scotch, preferably of the deeply peaty variety.  I shiver just to think about it!

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