Every so often you come across a story that really resonates; recently this has been ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I have had the book for ages, and only decided to read it because it is on a school reading list for a friend’s son. Like most people, I know the basics of the story and so I thought it might be relevant to my current situation.
Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde at the end of 1885, and at the time it was viewed simply as a ‘horror story’, including by Stevenson himself. The idea for the story came to him in a dream, and he described it as a ‘fine bogey tale’. His wife did not like the first draft, she thought that the story had more potential, that it might have something significant to say about human nature, rather than being a mere horror story. How right she was.
Before Jekyll and Hyde was published, Stevenson had a long struggle with ill health and was financially dependent on his father. It is said that his life had always been shaped by the search for health (he suffered with lung disease); this search took him from his native Scotland to various places including, California, Switzerland, the South of France, Southern England, the Adirondack Mountains (New York State, near the Canadian border) and finally to Samoa in the South Pacific.
His illness forced him to do most of his writing in bed, and he was lucky if he was able to take short walks; this must have been hugely frustrating for him, and he must have felt trapped in his own mind and body.
Stevenson had very strong views about human behaviour, about man’s inhumanity to man in general, and to women even more. He also had a fascination with evil; he felt that it needed examining in order to fully understand it. His views that evil could be stronger than good unsettled many at the time (it probably still does today).
He often explored the duality of man (something which is covered brilliantly in Stanley Kubrick’s, Full Metal Jacket, when a senior officer asks the lead character if wearing a peace symbol and writing ‘Born to Kill’ on his helmet is meant to be some sort of sick joke) and this is the basis of Jekyll and Hyde (although it’s success was down to the mystery and the horror of the story).
In Jekyll and Hyde, the duality of man is shaped by human nature and how society sculpts people’s morals and aspirations. Stevenson suggests that this pressure is a burden and it imprisons the natural spirit, forcing people to hide their true passions and become embarrassed about their indiscretions
This brings me nicely into why this story resonates so much with me. Considering the time when the story was written, it appears that things haven’t really changed much. Society still sets the boundaries of what is ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ behaviour; it takes a huge amount of courage to be different and to break the mould.
If we look at mental health problems, and in fact ill health in general, society judges this as weakness, the attitude of having to man up, and push on through are standard beliefs that many people still live by, especially in the work place.
In the story, Stevenson seems to class the indiscretions against society as more practical things, such as alcohol and women, but what if he was really talking about health, in particular how people viewed his own ill health?
He was obviously dependent on others and this may have made him feel useless, trapped, and reduced to begging for things leaving him unable to reach societies or his aspirations. Remember the story came to him in a dream, so how much of his subconscious is there in Dr Jekyll?
“Many a man would have blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.” – Henry Jekyll
Did being stuck in bed for a lot of the time make him feel hidden away? At the time the story was written the treatments for dealing with ill health were often as brutal as the illness itself, especially if we consider mental health, where people were locked up in insane asylums, more as a matter of hiding the problem from society than anything else.
I speak quite openly about my mental health issues, but that is because so many have paved the way before me; if I was living in 1885 they would probably have thrown away the key by now. There are however, still aspects that I will not discuss openly because I feel that I cannot. Why is this, and does this hinder my recovery?
Many people still hide health problems and it is basically out of fear; fear of what others will think, how others will react (the times when people thought they could catch HIV by touching someone) and most importantly how it will affect their career prospects.
At the moment, my biggest struggles are with anger and rage and my head sometimes feels like a pressure cooker that is about to explode. My mind and body become possessed by the strong, sometimes violent (not in a physical way) emotions, that are so hard to comprehend and deal with that the only way is to slam the lid shut and hold on for dear life.
The problem is that it is impossible to keep the lid closed forever and a blow-out is inevitable, which is when things go horribly wrong. For me, I usually end up in bed, depressed, exhausted and hating myself.
The smallest thing can spark me off, someone can annoy me in a small way, and then all I want to do is smash their face in; this is kind of ironic because I am not, and never have been a violent person, I have never been in a fight, and I even hated cricket because I was scared of the ball hitting me (I still maintain that this is more a case of clever self preservation than fear…..), so all in all, I’m a bit of a wimp.
Not having a suitable, controlled way of expressing my anger means that I turn it in on myself (or Kim has to bear the brunt of a snappy, grouch husband; I don’t know how she puts up with me sometimes) and it makes me feel like a completely different person, and I think that is why Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde resonates with me.
“No-one has ever suffered such torments, let that suffice; and yet even to these, habit brought – no, not alleviation – but a certain callousness of soul, a certain acquiescence of despair; and my punishment might have gone on for years, but for the last calamity which has now fallen, and which has finally severed me from my own face of nature” – Henry Jekyll
The last part of the story is Henry Jekyll’s full statement of the case, and this is where the story really delves into the depths of human nature. When he turns into Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll seems to get some release; he breaks free from society’s claws.
“Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could thus 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.” – Henry Jekyll
The fact that Stevenson uses a potion, or ‘the powders’ in the story to cause the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde and vice versa has been seen as a slight weakness in the story, but it was probably there to protect society; it gives a logical explanation to the change, and probably made people feel a little less terrified.
The consequences of Jekyll’s liberation soon spiral out of control and eventually lead to murder. This does not mean that in expressing our true selves we are all destined to be murderers, it simply shows the importance of accepting who we truly are and working with those truths, rather than hiding them away.
Irregularities such as alcohol are not the problem; the problem is the shame that people feel that stops them seeking out help; the shame leads to suppression, and this in turn can end in a tragedy such as suicide.
Last week I met a wonderful lady who created a health hub in Stevenage; the hub is a centre that people can pop into, and the stories she told me were incredible. People turned up in desperate states; one man was on his way to the train station to kill himself but when he saw the hub’s sign, something made him go in. Happily those at the hub were able to get him the help he needed and now he is a regular visitor.
The problem is that society still wields the rule book on how we should act and live our lives and because of this so many people are too ashamed to seek help and so slip through the net.
“The hatred of Hyde for Jekyll was of a different order. 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. – Henry Jekyll
I am lucky to have some great support around me, so I feel confident of never crossing the line that you can’t cross back from. I feel that I have a direction for the first time ever; it is a path full of potholes, barriers and hazards, but I will keep tackling it so that I can turn the anger and rage into calmness and passion.
Society’s views and beliefs on health and wellbeing can change, and are changing. The next time you see someone struggling emotionally offer them the opportunity to talk, while you listen. If someone is ill remember to send them love and kindness, not anger or frustration, even if it does mean more work for you.
Remember, what goes around, comes around.
Thank you, thank you, thank you
Ref: Penguin Classics, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories, with an Introduction by Jenni Calder