Reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I couldn't
help but recall the classic justification of druggie burnout behavior. Usually, it came
from the mouths of parents.  Their children weren't really stoners, you see, but just
“experimenting with drugs.”

I always wondered about these folks
experimenting with drugs. Did they put a white
lab coat on? Was a Bunsen burner and microscope nearby? Could I take a peek at
their lab notes?

Well, Dr. Jekyll, in Robert Louis
Stevenson’s famous book, did just
that. He had the Bunsen burner and
microscope. The lab notes even
show up in the novel.

So I’m hardly surprised that some
have compared Dr. Jekyll to Albert
Hoffmann, the Swiss scientist who
made the first batch of LSD, and
sampled it himself. Now there was
a bloke who really did
with drugs
. Or perhaps the real-life
Dr. Jekyll was Timothy Leary, the
acid-inspired former Harvard prof
who advised people: "Turn on, tune
in, drop out."

Dr. Jekyll followed that inju
nction….though with some unfortunate consequences.  If
the good doctor had been around during the Summer of Love,
 his mates would have
called it a bad trip. At
least that would be the 1960s interpretation of Robert Louis
Stevenson’s book.

But there’s also a 1950s version. This view of the
novel would draw on the fashionable
Freudian terminology and obsession with psychiatry of that era. Dr Jekyll, from this
perspective, is simply tapping into his subconscious. Those aligned with this
interpretation will point out that Robert Louis Stevenson first got the idea for this book
from a dream—the time-honored source of messages from our repressed mind, at least
according to eminent Viennese doctors with couches in their examination rooms.

But in the 1970s, this same story could serve as the perfect
platform for a structuralist reading, with Jekyll and Hyde
standing in for signifier and signified (remember that
Saussurean admonition about the “arbitrary nature of the
sign!”). In the 1980s, as Nietzschean readings got fashionable
again, under the impetus of Foucault
and Deleuze, Hyde now
strutted the stage as a kind of unfettered Übermensch, but
in the 1990s he was ready to emerge as a gender studies topic,
the outed male whose closet life is suddenly exposed to public

And what about an interpretation of this novel for o
ur times?
What would a professor say about the
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll
and Mr Hyde
in the current day? Well, I could tell you, but I
would first need to issue a trigger warning.

I’d prefer to ask a different question. How did the Robert Louis
Stevenson, the author of this classic work, view his protagonist’s
double character?  The answer can be clearly read in his novel, for Stevenson leaves
no room for doubt that he saw Jekyll undermined by
moral weakness. Our good doctor
has invented a potent concoction that, when swallowed, removes all ethical and
religious constraints. Instead of a typical human nature, in which good and evil are
balanced against each other, the latter now predominates, the former dispatched from
the scene. "I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold
more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil," Jekyll explains. "All human beings, as we
meet them, are commingled out of good and evil," he adds. "Edward Hyde, alone in the
ranks of mankind, was pure evil."

The physical, in this charged space, becomes the visible exponent of the metaphysical.
When Dr. Jekyll drinks his potion, his body also changes, to mirror the viciousness
now unleashed in his soul. Jekyll shrinks into the figure of Hyde, who appears
"small, slighter, and younger" than Jekyll. "Evil was written broadly and plainly" on
Hyde’s face. His body wears “an imprint of deformity and decay.” People who encounter
Hyde, even in situations where they can’t get a good look at his features, feel instinctively
a repulsion, a fear of his moral contagion.

When John Barrymore played Jekyll in the 1920 film version, he managed the change
to Hyde on-screen without any make-up, relying simply on his facial contortions and
acting bravado to effect the transformation. I suspect Stevenson would have been very
pleased with this approach.
The reader is expected to see Hyde as latent in Jekyll, not
his opposite but one of his constituent parts.

At times this book almost reads like a parable, a lesson from a sacred text. Now that isn’t
a trendy interpretation of the book. When is the last time you’ve even encountered the
word ‘wicked’ in a work of literary criticism? (I note that, according to Google, the
frequency of use of that word peaked around 1810.)  Who even dares talk about literature
as a moral phenomenon? Freud would not approve. Nietzsche would throw a fit.  Yet
such is how Robert Louis Stevenson presented his most famous character. And the
author’s own attitude will appeal to those who subscribe to the view, as expressed in
the words of novelist John Gardner (in his book
On Moral Fiction), that "art is
essentially and primarily moral—that is, live-giving—moral in its process of creation
and moral in what it says."

Frequency of use of the word 'wicked' in publications since the year 1800

I don’t go quite so far as Gardner, but I do believe that storytelling originated as a
Darwinian mechanism for passing collective wisdom from generation to generation.  
The audience who heard the
Iliad, when it was first recited, was filled with future
soldiers who prepared themselves for military endeavors by learning about the exploits
of Homer’s heroes. The
Odyssey, in contrast, featured a different hero, who preferred
to apply intelligence rather than brute force to situations, but those imaginary incidents
also provided what we would today call “teachable moments.”  If you look at the full
range of ancient literary works, from
The Egyptian Book of the Dead to Sappho’s poetry,
you encounter the same thing, again and again—these were admonitory works that
aimed to instruct. Stories delighted, but also taught. They prepared the young for adult
life, preserved community values, and served as a storehouse of knowledge.

We are familiar with other purposes of storytelling
nowadays. We even have ‘learned’ (if that is, in fact,
the right word) to embrace novels that deliberately
undermine moral precepts—celebrating authors
who offer piquancy by envisioning a brutal
club or the sadistic impulses of a serial killer. Yet
such books would not have the power to shock if
not for thousands of years of a pre-existing
paradigm, in which protagonists were heroes
and both those who told these tales and those
who listened believed that the behaviors described
could serve, in some degree, as guideposts to the
good life.

This previous paradigm has never been refuted, even if it is no longer fashionable. Yet it
still haunts our psyches….and even our popular culture. That’s why audiences still crave
the happy ending, that’s why those blockbuster superhero movies might make a villain
—the Joker, say—look cool for most of the movie, but still allow good to triumph over
evil in the end. This desire for moral outcomes is probably hardwired into our systems.

So I am hardly surprised that Jekyll and Hyde often show up in the writings of people
who care not a whit for literary criticism, but have embarked upon a personal voyage
of dramatic proportions. Every day a marriage counselor somewhere hears complaints
about the spouse with a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality.  You will find references to
Stevenson’s story in accounts of recovered alcoholics, former drug addicts and a host
of other individuals who have triumphed over their own weaknesses and failings.
They understand that this story is their story, and not a platform for fashionable lit

Such successes provide much more powerful testimony to Stevenson’s importance
than anything someone might say at the MLA. I don’t doubt that academic
interpretations of this book will continue to morph in response to the latest trends
in the ivory tower. Digital humanities are hot nowadays, so in the next phase of their
post-history Jekyll and Hyde will no doubt get turned into bits and bytes, translated
into an algorithm or an app, and reveal their secrets through regression analysis. But
will these new tools bring us any closer to the heart of this old novel?

Stevenson was interested in the soul. And that’s still something that doesn’t get
easily reduced to a digital medium. Y
eah, that might change—who knows what
digital storage devices will actually store a century from now? We all might end up
as digital downloads. In the meantime, read the book. And perhaps even mull over
Jekyll’s tragedy in the very terms that Stevenson laid out for us.  You might find a

lesson in it.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz
from Basic Books.

Publication Date: June 20, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Strange Interpretations
of Dr. Jekyll  and Mr. Hyde
I am hardly surprised that
Jekyll and Hyde often show
up in the writings of people
who care not a whit for
literary criticism, but have
embarked upon a personal
voyage of dramatic
To purchase, click on image
Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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When John Barrynore played Jekyll in the 1920 film, he
managed the change to Hyde without the use of makeup
Hyde is the Freudian Id, or maybe a stoner on
a bad trip, or perhaps Nietzsche's Superman.....