Friday, October 15, 2010

The acids were long ago resolved; the imperial dye had softened with time - the spoiled Jekyll and Hyde

This curious item, copied from page 187 of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), depicts the streets and buildings near the house of Dr. Henry Jekyll.  Most of the information presented in the map can be found in the first chapter of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

Two doors from one corner, on the left hand going east, the line was broken by the entry of a court; and just at that point, a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two stories high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower story and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence.

In the lower left, the arrow representing the “stumping” Mr. Hyde is about to crush, “like some damned Juggernaut,” the arrow representing a little girl.  The scrap is not actually Nabokov’s but rather a “student drawing… with Nabokov’s alterations.”  The handwriting is mostly VN’s – “Freshly painted shutters” and so on.

I want to make one more alteration.  The dissecting room, the hiding-place of the hideous Hyde, is not directly connected to Jekyll’s house, but separated by a small courtyard with no other exits.  Stevenson’s precision, the fact that any good reader can reconstruct this map, is a good part of what makes Jekyll and Hyde the best thing he ever wrote.

The other part is the strength of the “allegory,” as his wife called it.  Hyde’s entrance has “a blind forehead of discoloured wall” and is “sinister,” “blistered,” and “distained.”  It “thrusts” itself into an otherwise pleasant side street.  Jekyll’s house is perfectly respectable, on a main square, and no one knows – no, that’s wrong, no one understands – the blatantly obvious symbolism of the ugly little piece in the back and to the side.

My favorite sentence of Jekyll and Hyde, in which a bachelor lawyer is enjoying “a bottle of a particular old wine”:

In the bottle the acids were long ago resolved; the imperial dye had softened with time, as the colour grows richer in stained windows; and the glow of hot autumn afternoons on hillside vineyards was ready to be set free and to disperse the fogs of London. Insensibly the lawyer melted. (“Incident of the Letter”)

Jekyll and Hyde is filled with transformative potions.  By itself, this passage is merely finely purplish.  It becomes more complex when read against the “compound” of “dark purple, which faded again more slowly to a watery green” that transforms Hyde back into Dr. Jekyll.

How many readers begin Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde without knowing the rudiments of the story?  The characters have become part of the language.  The reader has an opportunity, then, to watch Stevenson's language, and his imagery and structure – to keep track of the “how” of the novel the first time through.  The “how” is amazing.  Obvious, even – of course Hyde’s door is horrible, of course wine is an identity-changing substance.  Obvious once I see how it all fits together, but not before.

Kevin at Interpolations has written about one way it all fits together, about the clever mix of documents we read and documents we don’t that pulls the story along, and how the documents are not just a device, but a theme, another approach to the ideas of the book.  I guess I have turned his well-focused post into another example of what I’m trying to get at here.

This is the Stevenson book I recommend to everyone.  Seventy pages in my Oxford World’s Classics edition.  Culturally significant.  Halloween-appropriate!  And, although spoiled rotten in one way, full of surprises for any careful reader.


  1. What would you suggest as a second Stevenson read?

  2. Hi Wuthers, from reading your post, I immediately dropped into your comments section and started musing, about this and that, and other things. Before I knew it, I'd posed questions I couldn't answer in the form of a blog posting. Hence:

    Have a good weekend.


  3. Kevin, thanks. More good stuff. I don't have any answers.

    mel, a second book. For fiction, I'd go with Kidnapped, but my real answer is a good collection of essays - The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays is the most recent one that I know of, and the best I've seen.