Wednesday, October 22, 2014

G.K. Chesterton on Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

Robert Louis Stevenson

In my opinion, the last chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the best written chapter in any book in the English language, as far as I've read, and it is one of my favorite fictional stories. G.K. Chesterton is one of the few Christian thinkers who holds a similar high regard for Stevenson and his philosophical romances, as expressed below:

"No man ever wrote as well as Stevenson who cared only about writing. Yet there is a sense, though a misleading one, in which his original inspirations were artistic rather than purely philosophical. To put the point in that curt covenanting way which he himself could sometimes command, he thought it immoral to neglect romance... It is also characteristic of him (and of the revolt from Victorian respectability in general) that his most blood-and-thunder sensational tale is also that which contains his most intimate and bitter truth. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a double triumph; it has the outside excitement that belongs to Conan Doyle with the inside excitement that belongs to Henry James. Alas, it is equally characteristic of the Victorian time that while nearly every Englishman has enjoyed the anecdote, hardly one Englishman has seen the joke — I mean the point. You will find twenty allusions to Jekyll and Hyde in a day's newspaper reading. You will also find that all such allusions suppose the two personalities to be equal, neither caring for the other. Or more roughly, they think the book means that man can be cloven into two creatures, good and evil. The whole stab of the story is that man can't: because while evil does not care for good, good must care for evil. Or, in other words, man cannot escape from God, because good is the God in man; and insists on omniscience. This point, which is good psychology and also good theology and also good art, has missed its main intention merely because it was also good story-telling."

Source: Excerpt from the book The Victorian Age in Literature by G.K. Chesterton.

G.K. Chesterton

"A recent incident has finally convinced us that Stevenson was, as we suspected, a great man... But from the book which Messrs Chatto & Windus have issued, in the same binding as Stevenson’s works, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson,’ by Mr H. Bellyse Baildon, we learn that he has the other essential qualification, that of being misunderstood by his admirers....

Mr Baildon, for example, is perpetually lecturing Stevenson for his ‘pessimism’; surely a strange charge against the man who has done more than any modern artist to make men ashamed of their shame of life. But he complains that, in ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ Stevenson gives evil a final victory over good. Now if there was one point that Stevenson more constantly and passionately emphasised than any other it was that we must worship good for its own value and beauty, without any reference whatever to victory or failure in space and time. ‘Whatever we are intended to do,’ he said, ‘we are not intended to succeed.’ That the stars in their courses fight against virtue, that humanity is in its nature a forlorn hope, this was the very spirit that through the whole of Stevenson’s work sounded a trumpet to all the brave. The story of Henry Durie is dark enough, but could anyone stand beside the grave of that sodden monomaniac and not respect him? It is strange that men should see sublime inspiration in the ruins of an old church and see none in the ruins of a man.

The author has most extraordinary ideas about Stevenson’s tales of blood and spoil; he appears to think that they prove Stevenson to have had (we use Mr Baildon’s own phrase) a kind of ‘homicidal mania.’ ‘He (Stevenson) arrives pretty much at the paradox that one can hardly be better employed than in taking life.’ Mr Baildon might as well say that Dr Conan Doyle delights in committing inexplicable crimes, that Mr Clark Russell is a notorious pirate, and that Mr Wilkie Collins thought that one could hardly be better employed than in stealing moonstones and falsifying marriage registers. But Mr Baildon is scarcely alone in this error: few people have understood properly the goriness of Stevenson. Stevenson was essentially the robust schoolboy who draws skeletons and gibbets in his Latin grammar. It was not that he took pleasure in death, but that he took pleasure in life, in every muscular and emphatic action of life, even if it were an action that took the life of another....

The conception which unites the whole varied work of Stevenson was that romance, or the vision of the possibilities of things, was far more important than mere occurrences: that one was the soul of our life, the other the body, and that the soul was the precious thing. The germ of all his stories lies in the idea that every landscape or scrap of scenery has a soul: and that soul is a story."

Source: Excerpt from the book Twelve Types by G.K. Chesterton.