Thursday, 30 September 2010

Jekyll & Hyde

Thanks to my lovely wife, I had the opportunity on my day off this week to find some space, rummage around a bookshop and then read my purchase in Costa - a great morning.

I found a copy of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson in the local Oxfam for a couple of quid and managed to finish it that same day (it's not quite what I call a short story but clearly not as long as you might first think either).

Apart from having had a previous interest in English Literature (got it as a minor on my degree) I'd heard from somewhere how this story represents something of the human wrestling over good and evil (sin) in our life.

Here is my summary of the story:
Dr Jekyll is a seemingly respectable member of society who does good works, gives to charity and regularly hosts his peers at jovial dinner party's BUT has a secret addictions and a shady, shameful hidden life. Recognising this he attempts, by way of a chemical compound, to seperate these conflicting parts of his personality.
He is successful in transforming himself into Mr Hyde, the essence of evil from within him yet when he returns to being Dr Jekyll, instead of being all that was good he remains both good and evil, just as before.
Jekyl continues to indulge his evil desires as Mr Hyde, allowing this part of him to grow in influence yet with few consequences as when he transforms back to Jekyll, there is no one left to answer for the evil previously produced.
This continues until Hyde commits murder. Jekyll resolves to never again take his compound and so never let Hyde out again. He strives to undo sone of Hyde's evil enterprises, gives himself to charitable works and re-establishes himself as a pillar of the community and then....
comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at the very moment of that vainglorious thought......I was once again Mr Hyde.

Jekyll's pride in his good works was the trigger for evil to once more become the dominant force in his life. From this point on it is the persona of Jekyll that is restricted and to which the compound releases rather than the other way round, as it was with Hyde.
The story ends with the suicide of Jekyll/Hyde who would have been sent to the gallows anyway for the murder that had previosuly taken place.

There you go - the book is a better read than that and full of more insightful observations such as the initial relative weakness and stature of Hyde when Jekyll's propensity to evil is more restrained and then the growing strength of that persona as he is given more freedom to exercise his wickedness.
The book is also much better than most cinematic portrayals of Hyde who is generally cast as a giant freak of a man with superhuman strength rather than a fragile character who's inclination to harm others (the murder for instance) is more shaped by his disregard for consequences or a need to moralise his actions rather than his physiocal capabilities.

Anyway, I loved this and have been deliberating any lessons we can learn from this piece of fiction which seems to make some genuinely insightful comments on the condition of man.
- Men (or women), however good they may be, all have an inclination towards evil/wickedness
- Men, are conscious of this duality of persona and attempt to subdue one by concentrating more on the other. This mostly comes out as good over evil (but not always)
- What we see of people in public may have little bearing on what happens in private. Even (particulalry) professing believers can create a public persona whose primary purpose is to conceal hidden sin and shame. Unbelievers do this but often don't have the same degree of moral dilemma as their goals are not be focused on the Christian hope.
- The more we indulge our evil desires (sinful nature) the more blurred our sense of right and wrong becomes and the more detached we become from our inclination towards good.
- There comes a point when you have to make a choice between what you know to be good and fruitful and the opportunities that are seemingly the more attractive but which you know will be of little or no benefit.
- Pride is a catalyst for wrong/evil/wickedness
- Good works in themselves do not produce a good person.
- Good works will benfit others but do not necessarily do anything for you. They are not the primary means by which we become better people.

In conclusion - good book worth reading which does not intend to convey an overtly Christian message (Stevenson was a rebelling Protestant) but does provide food for thought on the inner wrestlings between good and evil contained in us all.

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