Saturday, January 31, 2009

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson

Finished Reading: 01.2009

This is the short story of a London doctor who contemplates the dual nature of man - the good and the evil. Speculating that his evil nature holds down his good side from doing fully all the good that he believes is in him, he seeks a way to separate the two. Through a transforming potion that he devises and drinks, Dr. Jekyll is able to become a fully evil version of himself, Mr. Hyde. His plan is to be freed of evil during the day by succumbing to the evil during the night, and he starts out with difficultly in relinquishing his good for evil. But his evil side, Mr. Hyde, grows stronger each time he is released and Jekyll finds it harder and harder to control Hyde's unrepentant crimes. Eventually it becomes too difficult to return to good, and this split personality is more often Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll.

Stevenson has a beautifully descriptive writing hand and his depictions, especially of the weather and nature as backdrop to the narration are exquisite. One such flourish follows:

"It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face."

The story unfolds through the eyes of various observers, firstly a man named Mr. Utterson, a close friend and confidant of Dr. Jekyll. Throughout, we see by way of Mr. Utterson some unexplained events transpire, mainly the continued disassociation of Dr. Jekyll from common society and the increasingly frequent appearances and bad behaviours of Mr. Hyde - particularly some malicious acts of public cruelty to a child and the murderous beating of an innocent man. Chronologically, the story ends at it's middle, with Mr. Utterson discovering the suicide of Mr. Hyde who cannot stand the agony of his position any longer.

While the story could end there, the reader is then introduced to two very long letters, typical of the days when one poured one's soul into the ink well and scratched it elegantly on paper. The first is written by a Dr. Lanyon and reveals some things that were until now unresolved about the story. We had only known previously from Mr. Utterson, that Dr. Lanyon suffered from some grave knowledge of the situation and subsequently died. The second letter is from Dr. Jekyll himself and further reveals all that there is to know of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as only he (or they?) can.

These successive narrations of the same story from different observers present a layering that resembles the differently powered lenses of a microscope. The first, represented by Mr. Utterson (an attorney and friend), takes on the form of general knowledge obtained by observation and some here-say. Dr. Lanyon (a doctor colleague and friend) has been chosen to be the second lens by those intimate to the details (Jekyll and Hyde), and he shares his experience gained through an arranged encounter by Mr. Hyde where he is permitted to see the mysterious and awful transfiguration of Mr. Hyde back to the form of Dr. Jekyll. Apparently it was too much for him, and he dies soon after as mentioned.

The final lens is that of first hand experience, a letter penned by Dr. Jekyll exposing his inner fears and emotions along with all that has transpired behind closed doors, unknown to the reader, right up to his very end when he finishes his letter and we jump back to the middle of the story to find Mr. Utterson come upon the just completed suicide of Mr. Hyde (and Dr. Jeykll as collateral).

Theologically, the text is rich with metaphor for the human sin nature. Jekyll represents man, who contains both good and evil. He tries to separate the two and ends up with a purely evil identity, Mr. Hyde. Nowhere is it suggested that a purely good entity could be created, as Jekyll assumes that he is not lacking in good, but only held down by some measure of evil. 

"If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil."

If we take Hyde to be the sins of Jekyll separated from from his nominal self, we can draw parallels with the general sin nature of man. Jekyll creates this sinful identity as a way to willfully, darkly express himself in ways that he dares not normally. When he first takes the potion, he finds it difficult to remove the sinful entity from himself, as he has, by his own admission, been a fairly good person and has not indulged heavily in the lower things of life. Hyde manifests as a weaker, younger, uglier version of himself, as he represents qualities not often exercised. 

However, as time passes and Mr. Hyde is brought more frequently to reality, the sin grows stronger and Jekyll grows weaker under its control. It is now easy to become Hyde and difficult to change back to Jekyll, and eventually the uncontrollable Hyde becomes his default state with only bursts of short lived Jekyll now and then. 

Unable to be good enough the atone for the evil within him, Dr. Jekyll turns to his transforming potion and the accompanying unconcerned freedom as his savior. Unable to live with the prospect of facing the crimes he has committed and the world in which he does not belong, Mr. Hyde kills himself, seeking no savior.   

This is a spectacularly dark book, full of meaning and beautifully described. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had a place in my general knowledge, thanks to some humorous animated shorts and children's stories, but the real text is much fuller and enjoyable.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Michael Crichton

Finished reading: 01.2009

The first time I read this Crichton classic was about eight to ten years ago during a time when I was reading all the titles on this author's diverse resume (and my reading did not extend beyond, but fully encompassed nearly every work by John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton). Having moved into deeper literature from the somewhat shallower pool of John, Tom and Mike in recent years, a look at this old friend was a welcome retreat). With Crichton's recent passing, I remembered fondly this well worn paperback and brought it down from my shelf for a look.

Crichton's work as a whole is intrinsically tied to the current technology, news and science of the day it was written, and so I expected to have a few smiles and roll my eyes at this outdated "present day technology" from over 20 years ago. However, this sci-fi techno thriller based in an underwater world of submarines, submerged science stations, and pre-Windows computers, did not seem any stranger than buying a low mileage used car from the dealer down the street. Perhaps the submarine technology is obsolete but not enough for this land lubber to notice.

My disappointment from lack of Andromeda Strain cultural shock aside, (referring to the 1969 Crichton novel which portrays the then avant-guarde scientific technology as hopelessly ancient and simple to the modern reader, but now 40 years removed) I think Sphere is good for its suspense and use of technology but lacks character development and follow-up.

A collection of scientists and a psychologist are called down to a mystery object discovered deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and make base camp in a pressurized underwater Naval station. Unknown to these non-combatants, they are about to stumble upon a spacecraft mysteriously stuck beneath heavy layers of coral. It turns out the craft is not from where they hoped (or feared) or from when they thought (or thought possible). In the process of exploring the submerged vessel, they discover a large non-human sphere and a strange presence eminating from within. They try to work beyond their differences and increasingly untimely demises, to learn the knowledge of and then survive a perplexing but dangerous monster who likes numbers, word codes and killing.

I was interested in how Crichton develops the characters by way of their diverse basic types. Norman is level-headed and diplomatic, Harry is intelligent and arrogant, Ted is a good natured opportunist, Beth is gentle yet sometimes combative, Harold is the Navy through and through, and Tina is quiet and proficient. They are men and women, whites and minorities, some fit and some out of shape. Even though these simple descriptions could lead to obvious conclusions, the author explores how these stereotypes actually interact in a situation of peril, and who comes out ahead in the competition for life.

For the most part the characters are only explored shallowly in ways that directly apply to the story at hand, and as for follow-up, some characters are killed off too suddenly without enough reflection or fear from the surviving characters. We see the inhabitants of the submersed station psychologically through the eyes of Norman Johnson, and so we see the world as he wants it to be. 

We are shaped by our environment, and our literary minds are shaped by our chosen author's written environments. Having read much higher fiction recently, it is difficult to make strong statements from the text, and too easy to ask for more detail and change of heart. However, Sphere performed well for what it is - an entertaining page-turner with suspense and thrills at every chapter.