Here’s a head scratcher for you. I think that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson might just be the first story where we witness the effects of internet anonymity.
Hear me out.
I’ve read the story a few times and there’s something interesting in the way Jekyll explains his transformation into Hyde. In the book when he first transforms he doesn’t describe it as an alien force taking him over, rather that he feels liberated by this identity. As he looks at it, he judges that in this form he is the more churlish Hyde and proceeds to act that way. He isn’t as much compelled by it as interpretations of the book put it.
There’s no frame of reference for it in that time period but now we see countless examples of teenagers let loose on the web. Freed from the constraints of parents and society while protected by their anonymity they can be as good or as evil as they alone choose. Some have described it as liberating to be free of such constraints. To be as foul, evil and heartless as they wish with no consequences ever to be visited back on them.
Doesn’t that sound, just a bit like Henry Jekyll?
From the book’s own words:
“The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous.”
“Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.”
What if his physical form never really influenced his mind in the least? What if every act of evil, every moment of despicable decision was always and only made by Henry Jekyll, he just blamed it on a secondary identity?
It almost sounds as if he were assuming a role, a charade where he; Jekyll, is blameless because Hyde does the terrible things. And yet, the same man is behind them all. He admits at how easy he, not Hyde, is capable of doing depraved things. He only disassociates when the idea of responsibility comes up.
And then later on in the book after he murders a man he starts labelling Hyde as the secondary personality. Prior to that he makes reference to the fact that he has both good and bad impulses in him. “I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both;”
I don’t think the book is really about how a man’s evil side takes over. I think it says that, given the chance, a good man will indulge his evil nature with anonymity. There you have a metaphor behind why he starts turning into Hyde spontaneously. It isn’t some malignant force; it is Jekyll’s own actions and nature coming forward. He has done too much evil to ever go back to his real life. This is the reality, he is more alive here and more vibrant. The fictional identity has transcended reality once it’s killed a man.
Henry tries to disassociate but when he narrates the murder he describes his own pleasure from it. Not that he’s a passenger or some other person has taken over. He has indulged the pleasure he comes from being Hyde. He associates that with being evil. He likes being the monster.
In the end I don’t think that there is another personality. It’s just how Henry Jekyll disassociates his own dark impulses.
There are no other voices, no other will but his own.
There is no Edward Hyde. There is only Henry Jekyll. The monster.
So too does this work exist.