HYDE by Daniel Levine

Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. $24.00

Whilst Daniel Levine has created an intense atmosphere of suspense with rich sensory detail, HYDE is neither a mystery nor a thriller. It is a horror story. Levine admits as much in his introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson’s THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Levine attributes the success of Stevenson’s short novel to “its conjuration of our most nightmarish fascination: the horror of self-transformation. Horror not at changing from I into Other, but at changing from I into something repulsive and alien that the unfortunate transformer must admit is also I" (304). In this re-imaginative telling of the classic tale, Levine presents a Jekyll who is no saint and a Hyde who is no demon.

(If readers have not read THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE or have not read it recently, than I strongly suggest doing so before reading HYDE. It gives greater clarity to Levine’s reinterpretation. Given the publisher has wisely provided it at the back of the attractive hardback, readers have no excuse for not acquainting themselves.)

In the four days between Dr. Henry Jekyll’s “death” and Poole and Utterson’s breaking down the door to Jekyll’s cabinet, Edward Hyde recounts his “life”. In many ways, it is Hyde’s attempt to understand how he came to be in this terrible débâcle, one leading only to “extinction”. Hyde springs fully grown from Jekyll’s psyche, rather like Athena from Zeus’s head but without her wisdom or knowledge. He is a scientific experiment given physical form then let loose in Victorian London. The two parts of Jekyll’s psyche are still loosely integrated, with each exerting influence over the other. Jekyll, however, holds back experiences and memories; this pattern of behavior cripples Hyde as he struggles to live--to experience, to understand, to create his own worldview. Jekyll is, in modern parlance, a control freak and for good reason. He has things to hide, horrible things that corrode his carefully constructed image of himself, that eventually annihilate his very being. Hyde pieces these things together over the course of his short life--abuse, adultery, fornication, professional failure, and sexual inadequacy. Hyde uncovers the truth just before he, too, chooses extinction.

HYDE is a literary novel with a strong post-modernist foundation. Levine takes the old detective’s adage “everybody lies” to its post-modernist conclusion--“nobody is knowable”. Good detectives know that whilst people lie, they do so when they have reason so to do. Postmodernism supposes we can never know anything, largely because we can never get past ourselves, our own psyches, our own biases.

So it is with HYDE.

Jekyll, Utterson, and Lanyon have been friends for years, but know each almost not at all. (Yes, three is used symbolically and repeatedly within the novel.) John Utterson is reduced to a cypher who plays things close to the legal vest whilst Dr. Hastings (Hastie) Lanyon provides the perceived standard Victorian attitude toward illnesses of the mind. Henry Jekyll is an alienist, the term then for psychiatrist. Lanyon refused to allow Jekyll to treat his late wife, Winnie; that knowledge of his misguided arrogance eats him alive in his grief. When French doctors called upon Jekyll to treat Emile Verlaine, Jekyll discovered Verlaine had two other personalities, including one completely unknown to the other two and called L’Inconnu (the Unknown One). In treating this case, Jekyll created professional disgrace, which he has taken great pains to hide, yet he tries to replicate the effects, via drugs, within himself. The most satisfying case of Janus-like behavior is Sir Danvers Carew who is an elderly, respected, if not beloved, Member of Parliament and general do-gooder who has quite the hidden agenda, one that crosses the early science of psychology with Victorian era spiritualism. There is a creepiness to Sir Danvers that both Edward Hyde and the reader intuit immediately, drawing both to the same conclusion that Sir Danvers is a manifest danger to Jekyll and Hyde’s existence. 

Edward Hyde is a compelling character, one who elicits sympathy and understanding, however devious and murderous his behavior. The story is strongest when Hyde gives his interpretation of the events originally laid down by Stevenson. Hyde becomes self-aware, first of his incompleteness, then that real self-understanding--he did it to himself. Like Jekyll, it unhinges him, but it profoundly affects the reader. The story works less well when it gets into Hyde’s separate, seedy life--the prose gets rather overwrought and the persons within this world are more shadow than substance--though that may be the effect of Hyde’s naive perspective.  

If Hyde is compelling, Jekyll is not. Levine, I think, went too far in presenting Dr. Henry Jekyll as a self-loathing hypocrite seeking his own extinction, rather than a man of disparate, wounded parts who can no longer compartmentalize them and who is ultimately destroyed by them. As readers, we are not invited to feel much sympathy for Jekyll.

Levine went to great pains to break the morality tale sensibilities of Stevenson’s original novel. He succeeds, but at a cost. Levine’s intense focus on the psychological disintegration of Jekyll, and later, Hyde, provides the power and the horror of the novel. The sexual nature of those struggles, especially the hypocrisy borne of repression, strikes a clichéd chord and distracts from the narrative. It also does a real disservice to the qualms and doubts the Victorians suffered over the nature of science, technology, and progress. Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, whose work plays an implicit role in the novel, helped shatter Victorian sensibilities and make the later Victorian era more the age of doubt than faith. Levine’s narrow focus left him little opportunity to make more than subtle hints about that doubt.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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