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Reading Jekyll and Hyde (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

The words engineering and literature aren't often used together, yet an engineer's life is the source for Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The story came from Stevenson's fascination with duality, of how good and evil coexist in the same person. Dr. Jekyll is a large, benevolent physician, although not entirely a good man. Chief among his human frailties is his foolhardiness which causes him to release from inside himself a small evil man, Mr. Hyde. For Stevenson the fascination was not that Jekyll changed into this evil man, but that it was already inside him.

At one point Stevenson has Dr. Jekyll look in the mirror and say of Mr. Hyde "And yet when I looked upon this ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was, myself." Stevenson's inspiration for this was the life of an engineer friend. Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde while mourning the sudden loss of his much loved friend and mentor Fleeming Jenkins, an engineer. weeks to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It's obvious that as he wrote engineering was much on his mind. At the surface Jekyll and Hyde is filled with allusions to prominent engineers.; his alter ego was named after Major General H. Hyde, a Royal Engineer and member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers. The evil Hyde's victim shares a name with another Telegraph engineer, whose murder in the story is investigated by Inspector Newcomen, the same name as the famous inventor of the steam engine.

This naming game is playing throughout the novel, yet there is a deeper connection between engineering and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson shared with his friend Jenkins a love of drama and poetry. Yet never was their bond through engineering. Stevenson wrote that Jenkins "taste for machinery was one that I could never share with him, and he had a certain bitter pity for my weakness." Stevenson said that to Jenkins the "struggle of the engineer against brute forces and with inert allies was nobly poetic." To Stevenson his engineering friend Jenkins was an embodiment of two contradictory things - engineering and poetry. In this Stevenson saw a duality; he saw a divided self, a double life.

How, he wondered, could a love of engineering and poetry exist together in the same person. So, as Stevenson wrote a biography of his late friend Fleeming Jenkins he probed the duality of his engineering friend. And from this exploration of how two people could be contained in a single person emerged his greatest imaginative work The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises