Leslie S. Klinger on Robert Louis Stevenson’s most enduring – and unsettling – creation.
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”—Italo Calvino
What makes a literary character immortal? There are only a handful: instantly recognizable, immeasurably plastic, timeless beings that have grown larger than life—they have captured our imaginations in ways that only a few flesh and blood beings may have.
Often, their creators were envious or oblivious of their creation’s merit. For example, Mary Shelley regarded Frankenstein as her “hideous progeny,” Arthur Conan Doyle despised his tales of Sherlock Holmes as distractions from his worthier pursuit of writing historical fiction, and Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in no small part as a tribute to his idol Sir Henry Irving. Certainly none of these creators imagined that their creations would live for centuries, firing the imaginations of millions of readers, stage-goers, and movie fans.
In 1886, Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde joined this elite company. (1) Unlike the other authors, Robert Louis Stevenson was hardly a “one-hit wonder”: His adventure novels Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Master of Ballantrae are highly regarded and treasured by generations of readers, as is his poetry (A Child’s Garden of Verses). Though he died at age forty-four, his fame was already established, and he was lionized by many other popular writers of the day, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, J. M. Barrie, and G. K. Chesterton.
While his literary reputation ebbed and flowed in academic and critical circles over the succeeding century, Stevenson is viewed today as a writer of “originality and power.” (2) Yet Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is unlike anything else Stevenson wrote, weaving a compelling condemnation of Victorian ideals into a shocking story of crime detection. (3) Hailed today as a potent blend of mystery, science fiction, and horror, the novella, like Frankenstein before it, has been too often simplified, distorted, and refashioned into a warning about good defeated by evil. The true nature of Stevenson’s tale is far more complex.