Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pulling two dusty classics off the shelf

Recently, my 7-year-old asked if she could read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It had been some years since I had read it, and aside from stylistic elements that wouldn't interest a child, I was curious if there was anything objectionable for young readers.  As I started glancing through it before giving the okay, I soon became caught up in the story and spent the rest of the day reading it, while my daughter got tired of waiting and found something else to read!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually a relatively short story.  It has been romanticized on screen and stage so much that it was surprising how very little the original story contains.  The basic story is the familiar one that has been retold so often; a curious scientist develops a potion that allows him to change into a being who houses all of his base passions and selfish desires -- those that he normally keeps in check to allow him to live a successful and upstanding life.  The more that he indulges in his other darker self, the stronger the person of Mr. Hyde becomes until he begins to transform even without the potion and finds himself struggling to remain the respectable Dr. Jekyll.

I thought it was interesting that it is all told from the perspective of a Mr. Utterson; a friend of Dr. Jekyll who is concerned for his welfare and inexplicable involvements with the criminal Mr. Hyde.  Having that distance allows the mystery to be revealed slowly to the reader.  Of course, we know that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same, but it would have been interesting to have read it for the first time when it was published over 120 years ago; back when it was still a surprise ending.  Even without the romance and graphic nature of some of it's popular retellings, I was still carried along in the psychological thriller and wished with all my heart for a better ending for poor, misguided Dr. Jekyll!

Not long afterward, I found myself without a fresh book to read, and no plans to go to the library, so I once again turned to my personal library for inspiration. This time I landed on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, a thrift store find that I had failed to finish in the past.  But gritting my teeth, I determined to plow my way through it!  And sometimes it really did feel like plowing!  The early chapters were dark and gloomy and so full of mistreatment and abuse that I soon remembered why I didn't make it very far the time before.  My interest picked up after Oliver escaped the workhouse and ran away to London, but it was such a long and wordy tale that it still took me a couple of weeks to make it through.

Oliver Twist is a morality tale about an orphan boy whose inherent goodness helps him escape the clutches of society's lowest criminals, leading him to eventually find happiness and security while his enemies' dark deeds earn them humiliation, imprisonment, and even death.  But getting to that point is a long and painful process full of nightmarish desperation and fear.  This popular novel is a tale of character extremes, social protest, and hypocrisy.  It's also in part a mystery as we uncover the truth of Oliver's parentage and how that affects his future and that of other characters within the story.

There were some very interesting characters; most notably Nancy, the prostitute, whose efforts to help Oliver in the end cost her her life.  She is treated very sympathetically by the narrator, and her unbreakable attachment to the vicious and cruel Bill Sikes adds a complex sense of reality that is lost on some of the other characters who are either all good or all bad with nothing in between.  Indeed, many of the story's main players have a feeling more of caricature than character.  Dickens uses a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor which helps prevent the narrative from getting too heavy and difficult.  But he also goes off on tangents occasionally that could have benefited from a good editor.

Here's a good example of the narrative indulging in humor at the expense of brevity.  After introducing a new character who asserts, "I've been lamed with orange-peel once, and I know orange-peel will be my death at last.  It will, sir, orange-peel will be my death, or I'll be content to eat my own head, sir!" the narrator offers this commentary:

This was the handsome offer with which Mr. Grimwig backed and confirmed nearly every assertion he made; and it was the more singular in his case, because, even admitting for the sake of argument, the possibility of scientific improvements being ever brought to that pass which will enable a gentleman to eat his own head in the event of his being so disposed, Mr. Grimwig's head was such a particularly large one that the most sanguine man alive could hardly entertain a hope of being able to get through it at a sitting -- to put entirely out of the question a very thick coating of powder. (p. 134)

Notice that the preceding quote is all one sentence; and by far not the longest run-on sentence in the novel!  Despite it's length, by the time I finished it I was glad I did.  I enjoyed it more towards the end, and was rewarded with a neat and tidy conclusion.  But I have to admit that I was a little put off by the preachiness, especially since Dickens himself wasn't nearly as morally irreproachable as he would have you believe.  But even if some of his personal moral ground was a little shaky, I can understand why this would have been such a notable work in his day, and why it continues to be considered a classic in ours.


  1. I have to admit, I've only read a few Dickens novels. I love love love BBC productions of them, though. It's an addiction I have no intention of breaking.

    I might have to try the Stevenson book. The story is familiar, but I've never read the original. Sounds cool.

  2. I have a collection of Charles Dickens novels staring at me from my bookshelf, unread and sending me on a guilt trip whenever I happen to stare back at them. I just read "Great Expectations" a few months ago, and it also involved some plowing. But if it's worth it in the end, I'll have to give Oliver Twist a try.