Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Robert Louis Stevenson in a dream, in October 1885, on a wind-whipped night by the sea. He’d fallen asleep uneasily, and as his wife, Fanny, remembered, “my husband’s cries caused me to rouse him, much to his indignation. ‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,’ he said reproachfully”—the essence of the book he would write twice in the next six days, all the while confined to bed and hardly able to speak for fear of his lungs hemorrhaging.
He woke at dawn and wrote furiously. On the third day he came downstairs with the manuscript—30,000 words—which he read aloud to Fanny and his 17-year-old stepson, Lloyd, by the fire. Lloyd listened, “spellbound, and waiting for my mother’s burst of enthusiasm,” but it did not come: “Her praise was constrained, the words seemed to come with difficulty; and then all at once she broke out with criticism. He had missed the point, she said; had missed the allegory; had made it merely a story—a magnificent bit of sensationalism—when it should have been a masterpiece.”
Stevenson was livid, enraged, “his voice bitter and challenging in a fury of resentment,” and he stomped back upstairs; Fanny remained by the fire, “pale and desolate.” Then Stevenson returned. “You’re right,” he said quietly to Fanny. “I’ve missed the allegory, which is, after all, the whole point of it.” He threw the manuscript in the fire. Fanny and Lloyd shouted and reached for it but Stevenson stayed their hands: “In trying to save some of it, I should have got hopelessly off the track. The only way was to put temptation beyond my reach.” He wrote it again in three days.
As vastly popular as it subsequently became, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more than a tale. I think no truer thing about men and women has ever been written, for Stevenson captured that most maddening of human truths: we are capable of leering, squirming, unimaginable evil even as we are capable of astounding and incredible grace. We court and slay, we rape and heal, we lie and confess, we rant and pray, we rage at the Other even as we know, deep in our uttermost bones, that the Other is also us.
How will we win the war in ourselves, a battle of every hour, in every heart? A gaunt Scot dreamed the answer to this final human question long ago: the victory begins when we speak the hard truth about the Jekyll in us all.
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