The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an 1886 gothic novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson, who is most famous for having written both this work and Treasure Island. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde tells the story of a London lawyer, Mr Utterson, who investigates the strange events that surround his friend Dr Jekyll and the mysterious and foreboding man Mr Hyde.
That plot blurb might have surprised you; it certainly would have surprised me had I encountered it before I had read the novella. The fame of this novella is so great that it has grown a life of its own, with most people knowing the plot twist that occurs at the end of the novel without knowing who the main character of the story is.
The important question then is: is the story worth reading if you already know the ending? I think the answer to that is yes, it’s a great book that deserves its fame. That said, if you don’t yet know the ending, do yourself a favour and read the novella before it can be spoiled, as not knowing will add to your enjoyment of it. I certainly wish I hadn’t known the ending before I read it.
One of the reasons why the novella is so good is the writing style. Despite its age, the writing style is very accessible to modern readers (unlike many novels from the time with their long-winded sentences). This is something I also noticed when I first read Treasure Island (which I also heartily recommend, if you are interested in non-fantastic adventure stories). The writing is admirably clear, and wonderfully evocative, making it a pleasure to read.
Stevenson is also a master of building suspension. At its heart, the novella is a mystery story with strong elements of horror, and the suspense at what is going to happen next, and what the solution to the mystery is, is built wonderfully well throughout the novel. Admittedly, the effect of this is somewhat diminished by you already knowing the ending, but the story is good enough at sweeping you away that it’s often easy to forget that you already know the ending as the suspense rises.
I also really admire the narrative structure of the story. Most of the story is told from Mr Utterson’s point of view, but the denouement of the story is told in the form of stories written by two other characters. Mr Utterson is the perfect vehicle for delivering the suspense of the story, but I admire Stevenson’s realisation that the explanation of the mystery works best when told from somebody else’s point of view. And it really works well.
Another strength of the novella is that, because the novella focuses on the mystery of what is going on instead of explicating the details of what is happening, the story can work as an allegory for a number of wildly different things (which I won’t mention just in case somebody doesn’t yet know the ending). This makes the novella a worthwhile read, as it satisfyingly leaves you thinking about the various ways in which it can be read.
Another way in which the novella is satisfying to think about is its genre placement. Gothic applies to it very well, but in addition to that it seems to me to exist at the exact centre point between fantasy and science fiction, with many readers ardently arguing that it belongs in just one or the other of them. As such, it is a fascinating case study for anyone interested in definitions of fantasy and science fiction.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an expertly crafted, satisfying little story that I would recommend to anyone interested in mysteries with a hint of horror, even if they already know the ending.