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Learning episode 3:

 

Purpose and use of this learning episode: Distilling good and evil in Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde


On the myclasses portal where this learning episode was found there were links to the Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, found on the web in text format. Some of the actual short stories noted here are removed from this version but citations are included for these very well-known texts, in the Readings and links section of this page. The following text with links were offered to the students, excluding the full-text of Stevenson's novel and some images from broadcast films, due to copyright reasons.

 

Students attending a face-to-face class for this study watched the DVD version of the film in class with computer and overhead projector, while students studying as flexible learning were offered a copy of the film on CD-ROM, copied under the special provisions of local Copyright laws.

 

Image for learning episode three of the brave new world theme area of the mySF ProjectIndex:

Forum topics for discussion
Stevenson's scientist, Dr Jekyll
"Turn to the dark side," says Mr Hyde
Resource list
Readings and links
Further reading and links

 

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The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.

 

Forum topics for discussion:

 

 

Why does Dr Jekyll want to find pure evil and experience it?

 

Why does Mr Hyde look so different from Dr Jekyll?
  Does Dr Jekyll get what he deserves?

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Robert Louis Stevenson's Scientist, Dr Jekyll

 

There are many texts associated with the brave new world theme area in the mySF Project. One of these is the novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson. This is the text that we are focusing on in learning episode three, looking in particular at the image of the scientist in this novel and the later films, as well as the central idea of playing around with the nature of humanity so that a perfectly evil human might be created, or a perfectly good human. This is the central idea of the novel by Stevenson. If the topic interests you, you can jump to the electronic version of Stevenson's novel by clicking this link. Otherwise, you can borrow or access the electronic version of one of the film versions of this very famous novel.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Stevenson was a Scottish writer born in 1850. He wrote many novels and was also a poet and travel writer. His novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written very rapidly while Stevenson was convalescing in 1885. The novel became very popular, after it was reviewed well. Even though it sold very well to the reading public, it was not well regarded as literature and this is probably to do with its use of a scientist to discuss the nature of good and evil in human nature.

 

Most people who discuss the novel call it an allegory. An allegory can be defined as a literary work (in this case) in which the events of the novel and even the characters themselves represent other things. This representation of other things might be to express political, spiritual or even political ideas symbolically. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the allegory seems to talk about the very nature of humanity as a battle between good and evil.

 

You might not think that an allegorical novel about human nature would not sell well but please remember this novel used an obsessed scientist, an evil and twisted psychopath and the poor streets of a city like Edinburgh in the Victorian era as the main characters and setting. As one of the main characters is a fine, wealthy doctor who turns to evil and falls in with prostitutes and drug-addicts in defiance of his straight-laced Victorian society upbringing, you can see why critics thought the novel was not quite respectable enough to be literature and why the normal reading public liked it so much.

 

The novel itself does not run like any of the 123+ films (that's right, there have been over a hundred and twenty adaptations of the novel in film, and counting) and theatrical productions based on the novel. Just like Shelley's Frankenstein studied in learning episode two, the original form of the novel as an investigation of the mysterious Mr Hyde and then a confessional suicide letter was not well suited to making films, so the novel was changed enormously to fit into the filmic mode.

 

The 1920s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 

Even the name of the film was changed from the original novel by the 1920s but of course the novel was so popular that the phrase 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' had already passed into popular culture, that is, the phrase was understood to mean a person or situation that was both very good and very bad. Two sides of the same coin, the light and the dark. Sounds like Darth and Luke in Star Wars, doesn't it? Stevenson tapped into an ancient story of the battle between good and evil in all of our hearts and it has always been a popular idea for narratives.

 

The 1920s version of the film is available for students use. It was directed by Robertson and the images on this page come from that source, with Mr Hyde played by the famous actor John Barrymore. In this film version we are introduced to a number of wealthy middle and upper class characters including the renowned Dr Jekyll, who is a brilliant and innovative scientist as well as running a clinic for the very poor and diseased of the city. In nearly all the film versions there is also a love interest, in this case with the daughter of another professor in love with Dr Jekyll because he is such a good man.

 

Dr Jekyll is obsessed by the idea of discovering and perhaps even controlling the nature of humanity itself. In the film version Dr Jekyll has a simple microscope and the very use of this tool makes him seem dangerous, tinkering around with nature and trying to be as powerful as God or Nature to some of the others.

 

The other doctors are more selfish than Dr Jekyll and one takes Jekyll to a seedy nightclub where he oggles and makes advances at some half-naked women. Dr Jekyll refuses to take part in this very ungentlemanly behaviour and he is taunted by the claim that 'You have to know evil to choose good!' This taunt spurs Dr Jekyll and he returns to his laboratory where he brews up a cocktail of chemicals that will isolate all the evil in human nature and temporarily dispel all that is good.

 

Dr Jekyll returns to his laboratory, mixes the drink (with impure chemicals) that will transform him into Mr Hyde, and drinks it. The mixture causes a good deal of poor acting, amongst other things, but it is interesting to see that evil in human nature actually causes physical changes to the body of Dr Jekyll so that he becomes twisted, shorter, with longer fingers and more hair.

 

This 1920s film used special effects of speeding up the application of make-up to show the change from Jekyll to Hyde. This use of film for special effects to show a human changing into something Other was repeated many times for transformations, as for human to werewolf and human to vampire. Even though the transition from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde is very crude by current standards, this series of effects was part of the film's success.

 

More important for our study in the brave new world theme area is the fundamental concern of this story, one man's attempt to explore and even manipulate human nature itself. With the earlier Frankenstein, this is another (almost) mad scientist attempting God-like powers in using a variety of coloured liquids, distillation flasks and beakers, and a grimy dark cellar/laboratory. We see these props of SF and horror and particularly of genetic engineering time and again in films, stories and novels.

 

The image of the mad, bad scientist

 

Stevenson does not create a mad, bad scientist. Instead, he shows us a moral and virtuous man who is intr\igued by the biochemical basis of humans. He looks through a microscope and sees the building blocks of life, the cells, and in them sees the chance to manipulate human nature.

 

In the novel Stevenson explores the duality of human nature. By this is meant the inner conflict of humanity's sense of good and evil. Not only is the good Dr Jekyll seen as a good-looking, upstanding doctor who cares for the poor, but we also have evil symbolically represented as Mr Hyde, who looks unmistakeably like a poor, old man with disabilities. This is what evil looks like!

 

Dr Jekyll's aspirations to God-like powers is another case of hubris, as seen with Shelley's Frankenstein. This aspiration to God-like powers is a sort of pride and of course that must lead to a fall, so of course Dr Jekyll must be destroyed. This is the nature of hubris in literature since the ancient Greeks and others established the idea.

 

While this image of the scientist over-reaching the imposed boundaries of human nature is now familiar to us, it was new at the time of Stevenson. Stevenson helped establish the fear of science in the popular imagination. After all, it was science that led to Dr Jekyll becoming the sociopath Mr Hyde with his string of grisly murders, rapes and abuses through the streets of the city, mostly aimed at the working poor.

 

All sorts of duality

 

Most critics think that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about the duality of human nature, about the way we all have to battle with our own personal evil within: the evils of lust, hatred, and the enjoyment of hurting others, as seen in Stevenson's story. It is often pointed out that the duality of human nature is only one part of the duality expressed in the story. Many critics have also pointed out that the story is about the hypocrisy in Victorian culture, where gentlemen seem virtuous and  upright on the outside, but they have secret lives of depravity with prostitutes, alcohol and opium. It is never very clearly pointed out exactly what the depravities are that Mr Hyde enjoys but the films hint at them with Chinese opium dens, murders, sadism and rape.

 

Other critics say that the duality of the story also mirrors the duality of the class system in Victorian England when it was written and some writers have said the story relates clearly to the duality of a society that oppresses homosexuality. Here the duality is the pretense of heterosexuality while the individual has a secret, homosexual world.

 

Finally, other critics have even likened the story to the duality of religious and secular life, that is, the huge differences between religious people and non-religious people in society while one critic also said the story related to the religious and political divisions between Anglican England and Roman Catholic Ireland.

 

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Science Fantasy - turn to the dark side, says Mr Hyde

 

We are watching Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as part of the brave new world theme area, so of course we are assuming that the story is Science Fiction. We are also assuming that the story is about genetic engineering, in its widest sense.

 

First, there is a good deal of technology in the story, as seen in the dingy laboratory with the beakers of coloured fluid bubbling, and the protagonist is a scientist. In this was there are strong links to SF in the story. The result of the experiment is a sort of monster that is clearly Other, so this is another example of alterity in the narrative, so again, it is SF to this degree. Other elements also argue that this is a SF story, but some critics do not believe it is. One of these critics is Darko Suvin (1978) who says that instead the story is fantasy. His reasons for saying this is because Dr Jekyll uses the mixture to become Mr Hyde initially, and uses another mixture to change back, but later in the story Dr Jekyll changes of his own will into Mr Hyde, simply because he really likes being depraved and lustful and doing all the things that Mr Hyde does. Here, there is no scientific intervention, it is more like magic, or the sort of transformation that happens to werewolves just because it is a full moon. In this way, Suvin believes the story is fantasy rather than SF but because of the elements of technology, Suvin (1978) calls the novel a Science Fantasy.

 

The second part of the focus for us here is genetic engineering but clearly the novel was written well before there was any clear idea of genes and genetic characteristics that could be manipulated. However, the use of science to look down into the building blocks of life to change fundamental human characteristics and attributes is common to all genetic engineering stories in SF, even if the building blocks can improve us, like 'Blood Music', or kill us all as in recent films like 28 Days Later, Outbreak, and many others. Again, the image of the scientist trying to achieve God-like powers over the very fundamentals of human nature means this story places us firmly in the SF genre.

 

The next learning episode, number four, looks at another early novel through one version of a film. Again we see a brilliant scientist/doctor tampering with nature itself and resulting in ... a bestial island of savagery, murder and death - The Island of Dr Moreau.

 

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Resource list:

 

Fleming, V. (Director). (1941). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the 1931 screenplay by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. MGM.

 

Mamoulien, R. (Director). (1932). Dr Jekyll and My Hyde. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Warner Home Video, DVD Version, 2004.

 

Robertson, J. (Director). (1920). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. DVD Version. Dark Vision. England.

 

Stilwell, N. (Director). (2006). Jekyll + Hyde. Teleplay by David Reilly and Nick Stilwell. GLE Entertainment Mainline Releases.

 

Suvin, D. (1978). 'On What Is and Is Not an SF Narration; With a List of 101 Victorian Books That Should Be Excluded From SF Bibliographies'. Science Fiction Studies. Number 14, Volume 5, Part 1, March 1978. Retrieved 10 January, 2007 from http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/14/suvin14art.htm

 

 

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Readings and links:

  Notes on Robert Louis Stevenson from Wikipedia
  Notes on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1920 film version
  Notes on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1941 film version
  Notes from Wikipedia on the novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
  Full electronic text of Stevenson's novel, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde"

 

 

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Further reading and links

 

 

Short story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon

 

Short story 'The Dead Man' by Fritz Leiber

 

Short story 'The Furniture of Life's Ambitions' by Brian Stableford

 

Short story 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear

 

Novel, in electronic format, 'Frankenstein' by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

Brave new world theme area podcast 1a - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

 

Brave new world theme area podcast 1b - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

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ends

Michael Sisley

 

 

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