And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Not just most people today don’t understand the original story, though that’s true, but every retelling of the story, from the earliest stage plays to Steven Moffat’s otherwise brilliant miniseries Jekyll, miss a key point of Robert Louis Stephenson’s original story:
There is no Mr. Hyde.
Edward Hyde is not a separate personality living in the same body as Henry Jekyll, released through a magic potion. “Hyde” is just Jekyll, having transformed himself into someone unrecognizable, indulging his urges to do unspecified activities that would be unseemly for someone of his age and social standing to do in Victorian London (i.e. some combination of violence and sex. Torture is specifically mentioned).
Jekyll did not create his potion to remove the “evil” parts of his nature. He just wanted a way to indulge in them without feeling guilty and without any consequences besmirching his good name. That’s also why he names his alter ego “Hyde,” because he is a disguise, to be worn and discarded like a thick cloak. He might as well have called himself “Mr. Second Skin,” or “Mr. Mask.”
It’s crucial that Hyde is much younger than Jekyll. Hyde allows Jekyll to indulge in the urges of a much younger man without facing any of the consequences. It’s also important that it’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Jekyll is a respected professor. Hyde is a lower class schlub, and therefore, as Hyde, Jekyll can get away with a lot worse behavior.
Crucially, we never get Hyde’s point of view. Because it does not exist. Even when he looks like Hyde, Jekyll always thinks of himself as Jekyll. In his testament that ends the book, Jekyll always talk about his time in Hyde’s body using “I” statements: I looked in the mirror and saw Hyde, the pleasures I sought in my disguise, I awoke to see I had the hand of Hyde. Even when describing the murder of Sir Danvers, the worst thing he ever does as Hyde, Jekyll says “I mauled the unresisting body” and then “I saw my life to be forfeit.” That is, he both takes responsibility for the murder (and the pleasure it brought him) and has a very Jekyll-like fear of losing the good life he has. He is always Jekyll, no matter what he looks like, or how he’s behaving.
One source of the misinterpretation of the story is that Jekyll himself refers to Hyde as a separate person, an other, who has desires and cares completely separate from Jekyll’s. That while Jekyll may want commit the sins of Hyde, Hyde doesn’t care about the friends, respect, wealth, or love that Jekyll needs.
But Jekyll’s an extremely unreliable narrator in that respect, because his own account belies his conclusion. Not just in his own recounting of the times that he was disguised as Hyde but still thought of himself as Jekyll, but because “Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case” is in fact written by Jekyll when he’s stuck in the body of Hyde. If there were ever a time for Hyde to exert himself, talk about himself as an autonomous being, it would be then. But he does not. Because he can’t. Because he does not exist.
The fundamental mistake most versions of Jekyll and Hyde make is not understanding that Jekyll wants to do all the things he does as Hyde. He loves being Hyde. He revels in the freedom of being Hyde and it’s only when the consequences catch up to him anyway that his dual personality becomes a problem for him.
This fundamental mistake leads to further misunderstandings. First, Jekyll is not good. He’s not bad, either, so much as Jekyll is a deeply repressed man who has hidden his violent and sexual urges. His biggest sin is that he wants to do terrible things and face no consequences.
Second, Hyde is not the accidental result of an unrelated experiment. Hyde is the absolutely intended result of Jekyll’s experiment.
Third, Jekyll is not unaware or out of control when he’s Hyde. He does not wake up with no memory of what happened the night before. He remembers perfectly, everything he does as Hyde, because he was in control the whole time.
And finally, Hyde is not a monster. He’s not the grotesque pink giant Hulk of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the super-fast, super-strong, super-handsome superhuman of Jekyll. He’s a short, ugly, ape-like man whose great advantage over Jekyll is that he’s young and seemingly lower class, and therefore can get away with shit.
Obviously, this rant is one hundred years too late to change the popular perception of this classic of horror. To most people, Jekyll and Hyde is the story of two completely separate personalities, one good and one evil, that share a body, and that’s not going to change.
That said, I think the original is a much more complicated take on the nature of evil, society, shame, and repression than any that have followed it, and I’d love to see a version that really explored the appeal of Hyde to Jekyll. What would you do if you could be someone else for a night, do whatever you wanted to do, commit whatever sins you wanted to commit, without fear of any kind of consequence? How much are we good because we want to be good, and how much are we good because we just don’t want to be punished?
The idea of evil as “that guy, over there, who takes over my body sometimes against my will” is too simple, and dissociative, and irresponsible. It’s the mistake Jekyll himself makes. Hyde is not someone else who commits Jekyll’s sins for him. Hyde does not exist. Jekyll commits all of his sins on his own.