Set in London in the 18—s, Dr. Jekyll is a large, handsome “smooth-faced man of fifty” and a dabbler in transcendental sciences who, by means of drinking a potion, transposes into a small, youthful but “trogolyditic” creature that engages in unnamed acts of pleasure and obscenity, as well as in finely described acts of physical violence.
In the beginning, Dr. Jekyll, who is a composite of what is best and worst in human nature, voluntarily assumes his alter-id by tipping a pint whenever he wants, and then reverts back to his conscience-saddled self by taking an antidote. But something unexpected happens. The Jekyll-to-Hyde metamorphosis begins to take place against Jekyll’s will and the antidote loses its power of reversal. On the verge of being apprehended by the lawyer Utterson, Hyde kills himself by drinking a solution of instant death.
That’s the basic plot of the story. Everyone is more or less familiar with it. But did you know that one of the most important vehicles of action in the story are letters and written documents?
Without them, the story doesn’t exist.
There’s Dr. Jekyll’s last will and testament, which transfers all his possessions to “his friend and benefactor Edward Hyde.” It’s because of the jarring contrast between Hyde’s pale, ugly dwarfish appearance and the contents of Jekyll’s will that Mr. Utterson the lawyer senses that something’s rotten in the city of London and is determined to expose Hyde as the dangerous immoral brute that he is. There’s the mysterious letter, addressed to Utterson, whose contents are unknown, that Sir Danvers Carew is carrying when Hyde violently smashes his bones with a heavy cane and kills him in the street. Then there’s Jekyll’s forgery of a letter from Hyde, which Jekyll gives to Utterson, designed to reassure the good lawyer that Hyde has absconded from London and thus no longer poses a threat. There’s Dr. Lanyon’s private letter to Utterson, which in fact contains yet another letter in an envelope, with the express warning on the seal not to open it till the “death or disappearance of Dr. Jekyll.” And of course, there’s the final letter, from the hand of Jekyll himself, “Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case,” which as a matter of fact is only a partial statement of the case.
In a book about identity and multiple selves, it makes perfect sense that Robert Louis Stevenson would create a story that contains multiple points of view, expressed in different letters.