20 January 2009

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Barnes & Noble recently had a sale on their own series of classic literature books so I bought a few. I started reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and had a very hard time putting it down. I was very impressed at Mr. Stevenson's command of language. His word choice and composition made the book very enjoyable. It was quick to read but carried with it very full imagery.

The overall metaphor and discussion about the dual personality of man was rich. In my view he captured that struggle that everyone has as we live life. Without suggesting how we should act he was able to very powerfully describe how and why we act the way we do. I think this is a very effective way to teach, explain the way things are and what consequences there may be and let people choose for themselves.

As Dr. Jekyll wrote explaining what was happening to him, he used the word liberty a few times in his description of Mr. Hyde's behavior. I found this to be a very accurate description of peoples thinking, though, personally, I think it is a short sited mistake in their thinking. For example, Dr. Jekyll describes his feelings at the beginning of his experiment by saying, "I was the first that could plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty." He felt that by shedding the respectable side of his person he was now more free to act in any way he wanted to. Later in his experiment he discovers that he likes the respectable side of his person better, but still states that his other side has more liberty. "Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde."

I think the overall story and life itself points to the fact that this definition of liberty is flawed. In the person of Dr. Jekyll he had the power to be either Jekyll or Hyde. But in the person of Mr. Hyde he lost all his freedom. He describes himself as by saying that "his terror of the gallows drove him continually to commit temporary suicide, and return to his subordinate station of a part instead of a person; but he loathed the necessity." Mr. Hyde began to appear even when Dr. Jekyll did not want him to and soon he could not be controlled at all. In the end he committed suicide showing that he had no liberty at all because he chose to live as Mr. Hyde.

Real life is the same in that as we chose good we gain more liberty not less. And as we choose poorly we lose our liberty; we become trapped and unhappy. We often look at behaviors displayed in the world and in the media thinking that we are trapped because we cannot act in that way. This is a misconception. We can act that way, but as Dr. Jekyll found out, it only looks like it would be liberating. In reality it may be exciting or pleasurable for a short time, but it will not bring lasting happiness, only misery.

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