The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Critical Overview
by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde book cover
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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

When The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson was published in 1886, it quickly became a bestseller in America and Great Britain and soon, its two main characters became part of the vocabulary of common speech. Whenever someone refers to a "Jekyll and Hyde personality," it is understood to mean someone with a combination of agreeable and disagreeable traits that appear in different situations. Since its initial publication, the work has appeared in several editions in print and has been adapted in various film, television, and audio versions. The novel has gained critical acclaim as well, especially for its narrative structure and its thematic significance.

James Ashcroft Noble, in his 1886 review of the book for The Academy, writes, "It is, indeed, many years since English fiction has been enriched by any work at once so weirdly imaginative in conception and so faultlessly ingenious in construction as this little tale." Celebrated novelist Henry James comments in his 1888 review for The Century that it has "the stamp of a really imaginative production." James praises Stevenson's artful construction of the "short, rapid, concentrated story, which is really a masterpiece of concision," and its consequential ability to sustain the reader's interest. Critic Leslie Stephen, in his 1902 assessment of the novel, finds it "able to revive the old thrill of delicious horror in one who does not care for psychical research; it has the same power of carrying one away by its imaginative intensity." In his piece on Stevenson for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Robert Kiely explains, "Readers of [Stevenson's] own time were exhilarated by the freshness, the unexpected directness in the midst of luscious paragraphs in which he had seemed only to be marking time ... Part of the appeal of the tale is, as the title suggests, its strangeness. It has its own obsessive logic and momentum that sweep the reader along." Stewart F. Sanderson in his overview of the novel argues, "The pace of the narration, the deft way in which details supporting both the action and its unravelling are interwoven throughout the narrative, and the economy with which the story's terrifying atmosphere is created, combine to form a work of extraordinary psychological depth and powerful impact." Stephen Gwynn, in his book on Stevenson, praises the novel's style, insisting that it is "a fable that lies nearer to poetry than to ordinary prose fiction." Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture on the book, considers it "a phenomenon of style" with "its own special enchantment."

Several critics have also celebrated Stevenson's psychological portrait of the novel's central character and his struggles with "those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature." Commenting on one of the novel's themes, Sanderson writes,

the notion of evil and the frailty of conscience coincides here with Stevenson's imaginative treatment and literary craftsmanship to form a work of remarkable power; so much so, particularly as the pace quickens with Jekyll's desperate attempts to replace the failing supply of his drug, that the reader is swept forward without questioning the premises of the allegory or the credibility of this strange but realistic tale.

Noble echoes this assessment when he concludes that the novel has a "much larger and deeper interest than that belonging to a mere skilful narrative. It is a marvelous exploration into the recesses of human nature; and though it is more than possible that Mr. Stevenson wrote with no ethical intent, its impressiveness as a parable is equal to its fascination as a work of art." Kiely notes the allegorical nature of the story with its "warnings against intellectual pride, hypocrisy, and indifference to the power of the evil within," but claims that "the continuing...

(The entire section is 938 words.)