Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella of split personality, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) immediately caught the attention of the late Victorian reading public and has been catching attention from new audiences ever since. It has provided the inspiration for 123 film adaptations, including the madcap 1953 version featuring Abbott and Costello.
The book was published in a late Victorian culture that was itself more than a little schizophrenic. A story that dramatized the dual nature of human beings perfectly suited a society committed to hiding the less admirable features of human nature behind a curtain of respectability. Today, its title stands for the conflict between the official self we present to the world and the genuine self we harbor within.
The story came to Stevenson in a dream induced in part by the medicinal cocaine he had taken while ill with tuberculosis. Upon waking, he quickly wrote it down. However, his wife burned the manuscript, which she thought subversive. Fortunately, Stevenson was able to write it again without undue difficulty.
The tale’s most provocative feature is that it’s Jekyll, not Hyde, who is the monster. Jekyll is a torn man well before he invents his personality-altering potion. Although he’s obsessed with maintaining his distinguished image in public, he nevertheless pursues “undignified pleasures” at night and “stood...