ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON (1850 - 1894)
(Full name Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson) Scottish novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and playwright.
An inventive prose stylist, Stevenson is the versatile author of classic works in several genres. Renowned for his adventure novels Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751 (1886), and for his outstanding work of supernatural horror The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Stevenson is additionally remembered as a travel writer and author of children's verse. Just as his famous stories of piracy and horror have placed him at the forefront of writers of romances, his unusual life and personality have made him one of literature's most intriguing individuals, to the extent that his biography has often overshadowed his literary reputation. Nevertheless, critics credit his continued esteem to the enduring appeal of his fiction, which features fast-paced action, intricate plots, and well-drawn characters. Stevenson is also admired for his fecund imagination and affinity for the psychology of children, as displayed most notably in his early "boys' novels" and his poetry collection A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). Although his present critical standing does not equal that accorded him by his contemporaries, his mass popularity continues, and his novels and stories are still considered seminal to the late nineteenth-century development of adventure, romance, and Gothic literature.
Stevenson was born in Edinburgh. A sickly, fragile child, he suffered from severe respiratory ailments that frequently interrupted his schooling. Although he wanted to be a writer, his father insisted that Stevenson be trained in a more secure profession. Thus he attended Edinburgh University between 1866 and 1871, studying engineering, although the subject held little appeal for him. Later, in a compromise with his father, he took a law degree in 1875, but never practiced. Motivated by his love for adventure and his desire to seek out a climate agreeable to his health, Stevenson traveled extensively throughout his life. His journeys to France in the 1870s provided much of the material for his early travel books, An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). In 1876, while in France, Stevenson met Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, an American woman eleven years his senior. When Osbourne returned to California two years later to arrange a divorce, Stevenson followed. The newly married couple stayed in America for almost a year and then returned to Europe with Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny's son. During the 1880s, despite his con-tinuing poor health, Stevenson wrote many of his best-known works, including Treasure Island. Originally begun as a game for his stepson, the novel was published serially in a children's magazine under the title "The Sea-Cook" and became Stevenson's first popular and critical success. The works that followed, including A Child's Garden of Verses, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped, strengthened his growing reputation. In 1887, the Stevensons returned to the United States. From California, they sailed to Samoa, where they settled, Stevenson finding the climate congenial to his respiratory condition. His life on the island consisted of dabbling in local politics, managing his plantation, and writing several works, including collaborations with Lloyd Osbourne. He died unexpectedly at the age of forty-four from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Stevenson's short stories and novels for adults include the works most often cited by modern critics as his best: The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887), Island Nights' Entertainments (1893), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Master of Ballantrae (1889), and Weir of Hermiston (1896). Unlike his earlier works, these novels and stories examine moral dilemmas presented in an atmosphere imbued with mystery and horror. Modern commentators note certain recurring themes, such as those of the divided self and the nature of evil. Several of these pieces partake directly in the Gothic tradition, featuring elements of the horrific and supernatural. Reputedly based upon a nightmare brought on by fever and narcotic drugs, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde centers on the ill-fated attempt of the scientist Jekyll to dissociate the good and evil components of his being for the purposes of isolating and eliminating the latter. Compounding a drug to achieve this goal, Jekyll unwittingly transforms himself into the villainous Hyde upon drinking it. The metamorphoses begin to occur randomly, and ultimately Jekyll kills himself to stop Hyde's predations. The story has been variously interpreted as an allegory of the twofold nature of human beings, a moralizing tale about good and evil, and a satire concerned with the cultural forces that require individuals to suppress natural urges. Sometimes seen as a didactic Victorian cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning oneself to base instincts, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde escapes sensationalism through its controlled narrative: gruesome events are described after the fact by different observers. Aside from this extended work, Stevenson also wrote several other pieces of short fiction that explore Gothic and supernatural subjects. Originally published in 1885 and posthumously collected in Stevenson's The Story of a Lie, and Other Tales (1904), "The Body-Snatcher" is an account of supernatural retribution that befalls two medical students who rob graves and commit murder to obtain cadavers for dissection. One of Stevenson's most celebrated short stories, "Markheim" was first published in 1885 and was later featured in The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables. Exhibiting the influence of writings by Edgar Allan Poe as well that of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, "Markheim" is a tale of psychological horror centered on its eponymous protagonist as he commits an evidently premeditated murder and then encounters a stranger, a devilish doppelgänger, who seems to know everything about him, including his crime. The major themes in "Markheim" are similar to those of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, namely the struggle between good and evil—and freewill and predestination—within the human soul. In the story, this assay between the opposing forces of virtue and malevolence in the individual is expressed through the figure of the ambiguous double, the visitant, who most critics interpret to be the embodiment of Markheim's conscience.
Several more of Stevenson's works of short fiction follow in the Scottish literary tradition established by Sir Walter Scott, with many drawing upon the Gothic conventions of the uncanny and inexplicable used by Scott in his romances. These include "Thrawn Janet," a ghost story that exploits superstitious belief in witchcraft and demonic possession; "The Merry Men," a hallucinatory sea tale concerned with madness and conscience; and "The Pavilion on the Links" and "Black Andie's Tale of Tod Lapraik," adventure stories with detailed historical backgrounds. Other stories, such as "The Bottle Imp" and "The Isle of Voices," draw upon the folklore of the South Seas Islands. Collected in Island Nights' Entertainments, "The Bottle Imp" recounts the tale of a Hawaiian man who, while visiting San Francisco, buys a bottle containing a magical but malevolent creature that grants its possessor wishes. He soon learns, however, that the imp is evil and seeks to relieve himself of its curse. Another of Stevenson's most famous stories "The Beach of Falesá" (1892) is principally a work of literary realism concerned with British imperialism in the South Seas. The story's characteristic eeriness, however, has prompted some to comment on its subtle use of Gothic conventions. For many of his remaining stories, including "Providence and the Guitar" (1878) and "The Story of a Lie" (1879), Stevenson drew on his own vagabond youth, wryly detailing the posing and fakery that can accompany a bohemian way of life in these pieces.
After Stevenson's untimely death, his family issued editions of his letters and approved an official biography designed to sustain popular perception of Stevenson as a brave, talented, and somewhat fey invalid whose life and works were above reproach. Although several critics warned readers against this eulogistic approach to the writer, the content of Stevenson criticism did not change significantly until 1915, when Frank Swinnerton (see Further Reading) published his R. L. Stevenson: A Critical Study. Considered by modern critics the most important challenger to the Stevenson myth, Swinnerton rejected the uncritical adoration of early readers and inspired a change in the critical approach to Stevenson, which had previously focused on personal rather than literary subjects. Although critics are still fascinated by his life and reputation, they now respond to his work more often with serious analysis and acclaim. In the contemporary period, Weir of Hermiston, the novel that Stevenson was at work upon when he died, has come to be regarded by many as his best effort for its forceful style and for its psychologically and morally complex characters. Meanwhile Treasure Island, Kidnapped and A Child's Garden of Verses remain popular with young readers, and continue to be regarded as classics of children's literature.
Critical appreciation of Stevenson's status as an influential Gothic writer has largely focused on his novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The work itself was immensely popular with contemporary readers, although early critics' reactions varied widely. Almost all acknowledged Stevenson's skill as a writer of suspense, though many questioned the work's moral intent. Some viewed the story as a moral allegory on the nature of evil, while other commentators found Stevenson's own remarks illuminating, particularly his statement that the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde was meant to show that desires, when ignored, become perverted. Since the middle of the twentieth century, critics have continued to forward moral, thematic, and psychological interpretations of Stevenson's novella. Masao Miyoshi has studied Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a complex work that explores the paradoxical "double nature" of man, a favorite theme of both eighteenth-century Gothic and later romance authors who sought to depict the unresolved dualities inherent in all human beings. Joyce Carol Oates has assessed the novella as a characteristic work of Victorian Gothic, describing it as a moral parable, a cautionary tale concerned with the good and evil impulses that reside within us all. Matthew C. Brennan represents numerous contemporary critics who have taken a psychological and cultural approach to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by emphasizing its use of such Gothic tropes as unconscious repression and the urge toward self-destruction. Linda Dryden (see Further Reading) has returned to the contemporary Victorian reception of Stevenson's novella, arguing that the story capitalized upon a peak in late nineteenth-century concern with such quintessentially Gothic themes as cultural degeneracy, criminal insanity, and atavism. Dryden has likewise linked the book's popular success to its artistic rendering of the particularly urban and imperial anxieties associated with life in fin de siècle London. While scholarly interest in Stevenson's novella endures, opinion remains divided over the overall value of the writer's oeuvre. Despite some critical neglect of his writings, however, his children's poetry, adventure stories, and adult romances persist in attracting readers who appreciate fine writing and exciting adventure, and his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continues to be regarded as one of the outstanding examples of late-Victorian Gothic horror.