Sunday, 5 April 2015

Vladimir Nabokov's lecture on Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

From "Lectures on Literature"*.

1/ Nabokov dismisses the interpretations of this book as a mystery story (which, to him, is "the very negation of style", conventional literature), a detective story (as a detective story, it is lame), a parable or an allegory ("tasteless"). He quotes Stephen Gwynn, that it's "a fable that lies nearer to poetry than to ordinary prose fiction".

2/ The names Jekyll and Hyde, according to Nabokov, are of Scandinavian origin: Hyde comes from the Anglo-Saxon "hyd", which is the Danish "hide", "a haven"; Jekyll comes from the Danish name Jökulle, meaning "an icicle".
Then he goes on to mock "Not knowing these simple derivations one would be apt to find all kinds of symbolic meanings, especially in Hyde, the most obvious being that Hyde is a kind of hiding place for Dr Jekyll, in whom the jocular doctor and the killer are combined."
Is there anything wrong in seeing the word "hide" in Hyde and "kill" in Jekyll?
I'm not sure about "hyd", "hide" and "Jökulle". The last word is particularly curious, because the Danish alphabet doesn't have "ö", only the Swedish alphabet does.
Note: according to the notes in my copy of "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", the name Jekyll is meant to be pronounced like "jee-kill", not /ˈdʒɛk(ə)l/ as OED says. 

3/ I'm glad to discover that Nabokov's view on Jekyll is quite similar to mine, but of course he expresses it a lot better:
"Is Jekyll good? No, he is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad, a preparation consisting of a 99% solution of Jekyllite and 1% of Hyde [...] Jekyll's morals are poor from the Victorian point of view. He is a hypocritical creature carefully concealing his little sins. He is vindictive, never forgiving Dr Lanyon with whom he disagrees in scientific matters. He is foolhardy. Hyde is mingled with him, within him."
To make it clearer: "Jekyll is not really transformed into Hyde but projects a concentrate of pure evil that becomes Hyde, who is smaller than Jekyll, a big man, to indicate the larger amount of good that Jekyll possesses".
According to "the popular notions about this seldom read book" (to use Nabokov's words), Jekyll and Hyde are 2 separate beings that exist within 1 person, good and evil, but that isn't the case.

4/ Nabokov draws the house:
(or rather, it's a student's drawing, with his alterations).
"Just as Jekyll is a mixture of good and bad, so Jekyll's dwelling place is also a mixture, a very neat symbol, a very neat representation of the Jekyll and Hyde relationship."

5/ "Stevenson's artistic purpose was to make "a fantastic drama pass in the presence of plain sensible men" in an atmosphere familiar to the readers of Dickens, in the setting of London's bleak fog, of solemn elderly gentlemen drinking old port, of ugly faced houses, of family lawyers and devoted butlers, of anonymous vices thriving somewhere behind the solemn square on which Jekyll lives, and of cold mornings and of hansom cabs."
Now Nabokov points that out, the setting seems familiar, even conventional. But of course the tale isn't conventional. This book is great because it's strange and well-written and also because it is many things at once and beyond them all: mystery novel, Gothic novel, detective story, fable, allegory, doppelgänger literature, popular/ sensational fiction, etc. 

6/ Interestingly enough, Nabokov also likes and draws attention to a passage I've just pointed out in the earlier post: the chocolate-coloured pall scene.

7/ Speaking of alliteration, he quotes Stevenson:
"It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in so far as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration and upon assonance. The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied. You may follow the adventures of a letter through any passage that has particularly pleased you; find it, perhaps, denied a while, to tantalise the ear; find it fired again at you in a whole broadside; or find it pass into congenerous sounds, one liquid or labial melting away into another. And you will find another and much stranger circumstance. Literature is written by and for two senses: a sort of internal ear, quick to perceive 'unheard melodies'; and the eye, which directs the pen and deciphers the printed phrase."
And adds "and let me add as a reader, the internal eye visualizes its color and meaning".
Let me paste here a few more words by Stevenson:
"Each phrase in literature is built of sounds, as each phrase in music consists of notes. One sound suggests, echoes, demands, and harmonises with another; and the art of rightly using these concordances is the final art in literature."
Really, Stevenson plays a lot with sounds:
E.g: "the bless seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? [...] I read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend."
You can find it even in the 1st line:
"Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable."

8/ I wrote the depravity of Hyde was vague, unspecified.
Nabokov says "Stevenson gives us the specific, lifelike description of events by humdrum London gentlemen, but contrasting with this are the unspecified, vague, but ominous allusions to pleasures and dreadful vices somewhere behind the scenes. [...] If we are really being told "never mind what the evil was- just believe it was something very bad", then we might feel ourselves cheated and bullied. We could feel cheated by vagueness in the most interesting part of the story because its setting is so matter of fact and realistic".
This, to him, is a problem "It was safer for the artist not to be specific and to leave the pleasures of Jekyll undescribed. But does not this safety, this easy way, does it not denote a certain weakness in the artist? I think it does."
I do like Stevenson to make it clearer, but this is not necessarily a weakness. London is covered in fog, the vices are also covered in fog, and darkness, and the ambiguity makes the story complex, fascinating, open to interpretation. Hyde is a secret, he goes into the house through the back door, the mystery isn't revealed to anyone but Dr Lanyon until Jekyll's suicide, it is all a secret from the beginning to the end, even after the end. This might be a deliberate artistic choice rather than an evasion. Also, not saying what the vices are also makes them worse than they actually are.
Nabokov mentions the suggestion that they refer to homosexuality, which he doesn't dismiss as tasteless or impossible, even if he says "this Victorian reticence prompts the modern reader to grope for conclusions that perhaps Stevenson never intended to be groped for". Then he remarks "In any case, the good reader cannot be quite satisfied with the mist surrounding Jekyll's adventures. And this is especially irritating since Hyde's adventures, likewise anonymous, are supposed to be monstrous exaggerations of Jekyll's wayward whims."
Indeed, what have Jekyll and Hyde done?
"Now the only thing that we do guess about Hyde's pleasures is that they are sadistic- he enjoys the infliction of pain".
And that's the worst part, a lot worse than the other excesses.

9/ Quoting Stephen Gwynn, Nabokov points out "the monkish pattern" of the book: Jekyll, Utterson, Enfield and Poole are bachelors, and women have hardly any part in the action.

10/ In the last part of the lecture, Nabokov writes about Stevenson's last moments, of which I was ignorant. 
"What, has my face changed? There is a curious thematical link between this last episode in Stevenson's life and the fateful transformations in his most wonderful book". 



  1. Thank you very much for this, very insightful and interesting. I look forward to reading more of your blog. Best.

    1. Thank you. It's mostly Nabokov's views here but I'm glad you enjoyed the post.