Binding precedent: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Binding precedent

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Scott Veitch

A strange case

Few pieces of fiction exemplify so conspicuously the various senses of ‘a case’ as does Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Its initial narrative – there are three – unfolds as the case of a mystery to be solved. It concerns the enigmatic identity of a man who has been named sole beneficiary in the will of eminent physician and scientist Dr Henry Jekyll. The intended legatee is a Mr Hyde. Subsequent to an alarming incident involving injury to a child in the street, the questionable nature of this proposed inheritance, and the even more questionable nature of Hyde, is being looked into by a friend of Jekyll’s, Mr Utterson. Utterson is Jekyll’s lawyer and the keeper of the will. Since Hyde seems to have access to funds coming from Jekyll, the lawyer at first suspects it to be a case of blackmail, and he pursues an inquiry into the mysterious figure of Hyde, eventually confronting him in the street. Utterson fears for the life of Jekyll himself, at the hands of Hyde seeking to hasten his substantial inheritance. But when it turns into a murder hunt – ‘The Carew murder case’ involving the killing of a prominent Member of Parliament – the likelihood that Hyde may be the murderer, and that Jekyll may be implicated in covering for him, leads Utterson to take urgent action. All his worries are confirmed when he breaks down the door to Jekyll’s laboratory to find a dead body. But the body has the face of Hyde. Jekyll has disappeared.

By way of a last desperate note Dr Jekyll had directed the lawyer to open two written documents which would, he wrote, explain the case. The first is by another doctor, Dr Lanyon, a mutual friend of Utterson and Jekyll, which forms in part a case report of the scientific aspects of what had happened. It explains that Lanyon witnessed the experimental success of Dr Jekyll in transforming his own identity and appearance into that of another man, Hyde. It is a narrative also of bewilderment and despair, testifying to an experience which has already led its witness prematurely to the grave. The other document is simply labelled: ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’. This is the narrative of Dr Jekyll’s experiments into personality change, of the temporary success of processes of change and reversal – to Hyde and back to Jekyll – and the difficulty in getting the right chemicals to secure the transition from occurring involuntarily. It includes also a statement of his motivations for pursuing the experiments – both scientific and pleasure-seeking – as well as the moral, psychological, and social consequences of his activities. It is, in the end, a confession: of insight gained but also of profound failure.

Strange Case is a powerful story and it quickly became popular. So popular that the names of its characters entered everyday English language usage and became a figure of speech for the attribution of a recognizable personality: to designate someone ‘a Jekyll and Hyde character’ rapidly established itself in the public imagination and it endures to this day. Perhaps befitting its remarkably influential status, the story has been read in all manner of ways since its publication in 1886. As a work of literature it offers a ‘case study’ in personal identity, an exploration of the psychological conditions of the human personality and its mutability. It has been read as a fictional account of the state of medical and scientific knowledge into the brain and the possibilities that scientific advances may hold, or not, for its development. Some have seen it as literary prototype for the imminent emergence of psychoanalysis as a discipline that would be so influential in subsequent interpretations of human identity and its more or less latent motivational forces. Others have read it as a reflection on problems of responsibility, exemplifying, for example, debates around the changing nature of responsibility-attribution in the law, from a character- to intent-based liability that was central to the putative consolidation of a new paradigm in the criminal law.1 Of course, Strange Case itself quickly became a bit of ‘a case’ in another sense. It became something of a cause célèbre, analysed and put to use in church pulpits and the popular press, in moral debates, psychologists’ projections, and academic investigations. Like the internal narrative itself, it was held up for scrutiny from different angles, revealing different problems or insights – of character, of delight, of horror, of warning and suchlike.

Treating the narrative here as a case draws on several aspects of what it means to understand something as ‘a case’. In one important sense, doing so involves closing off the disparate elements of some events and actions from their surroundings. This will require a certain thematization according to the organizing mode of interpretation involved: a legal case will include and exclude events and actions according to the principles of legal relevance; likewise, in its own way, treating something as a medical case will require someone to thematise and select, or even constitute, certain features as relevant and others as not. The ‘case’ is produced then by a process of inclusion – a matter of containing something, like a bookcase or suitcase does – and thereby simultaneously of exclusion. A case so formulated can then be subject to proper investigation and, ultimately, resolution. The case can be solved, as in law or medicine it can be decided or diagnosed, and the case then closed. And one mode of solving it may be understood through a different sense of its being ‘a case’, that is as an instance or exemplar of a general category: this is ‘a case of’ murder or of cancer or whatever.

And yet, and appropriately enough given the subject of multiple identities in the story, Strange Case is told from a variety of perspectives all of which do not add up to a singular or unified image. One way of understanding the proliferation of Binding precedent: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde readings is to see them reflecting the splintering of disciplinary perspectives that was becoming increasingly apparent at the time this story was written (MacIntyre 1990). Hence specialization into and then within disciplinary enquiries was leading to the rise of the expert in discrete areas of knowledge and practice. These specializations, in social science, and also in medicine, chemistry and psychiatry led to further sub-disciplines such as neuroscience or genetics, and each of these had, in various ways influence on others: the impact of developments in forensic science on police detective work, for example, and of both of these on the content of the criminal law and conduct of the prosecution and trial processes. Such developments are also borne out in university curricula, in its specializations and new configurations: in the rise of science, and scientific approaches to other subjects, say, and in the rise of ‘the expert’ as a recognizably modern phenomenon. If Strange Case mirrors these developments it does so through provoking us into considering that there is no single ‘case’: that what is deemed ‘the case’ is itself reliant on the observer’s perspective. Hence it offers legal, medical, and scientific portraits which in themselves may or may not – it is an artistic provocation that Stevenson is offering us – be able to explain the problems.

Tempting as this reading is there is a sense that the narrative is less concerned explicitly with all of these than it is with the underlying matter of a tension or transition into the modern era. This tension takes the form of a dynamic between on the one hand the future of technological and scientific development and possibility, and on the other, the pull of past ethical norms and expectations. To what extent does the past bind the present and future or to what extent is it possible to leave the past behind, to break free of it? This is a question that lies at the heart of this story. In what follows I propose to explore this issue through investigating the nature of binding obligation as it can be discerned in Strange Case. The problem of ‘binding’, of the ‘bond of obligation’, is central to the narrative, and it is no coincidence that there is a strong juridical aspect to this in the text. It is therefore through an excavation of a, to my knowledge hitherto unnoticed, grounding of this problem that has its roots back in the distant realms of Roman Law that I would like to offer a reading of Stevenson’s story as one of binding and loosing, and one that bears directly on an aspect of this ‘strange case’ as a profoundly legal case.

Binding obligations

Stevenson dedicated Strange Case to his cousin Katherine. The dedication takes the form of a four line poem that opens, ‘It’s ill to loose the bands that God decreed to bind’,2 and the matter of binding obligation then reappears in many places, and in different guises, throughout the text. Sometimes it is the bond of friendship or professionalism. Hence Utterson has a ‘bond that united him’ to Mr Enfield, ‘his distant kinsman’ who had witnessed and reported the assault of the child to the lawyer.3 The two doctors, Lanyon and Jekyll, in addition to the bond of friendship had ‘a bond of common interest’ (7) in scientific enquiry. They also had a bond of medical honour and this is invoked when Jekyll prepares Lanyon to witness for himself Jekyll’s metamorphosis into Hyde: ‘Lanyon, you remember your vows: what follows is under the seal of our profession.’ (40) Utterson’s own (legal) professionalism is described in similar terms when he is directed not to open the content of Lanyon’s letter until the death or disappearance of Dr Jekyll: a direction he upholds because ‘professional honour and faith’ were ‘stringent obligations’ to his friend. (24)

Jekyll’s relations with Hyde are also the subject of bonds of obligation. The content of Dr Jekyll’s will, for example, directs that Mr Hyde inherit the estate in the event of Jekyll’s disappearance, but that no fetters should be put on Hyde with respect to this: it is to be done ‘without further delay and free from any burthen or obligation’. (6) The very relationship between Jekyll and Hyde that Utterson investigates is one that he believes would benefit from knowing more about Mr Hyde’s identity in order that he ‘might see a reason for his friend’s strange preference or bondage’ that could explain the terms of the will. (8) This term recurs when Jekyll shuts himself in his house and refuses to meet his erstwhile friends, leading Utterson to thinking of it as ‘that house of voluntary bondage’. (24) And when the MP, Carew, is murdered it is because Hyde ‘broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth’, (15) the result of which is that Jekyll tells Utterson that he ‘swears to God I will never set my eyes upon [Hyde] again. I bind my honour to you …’ (19)

But it is with ‘Henry Jekyll’s full statement of the case’ that the issue of binding comes centre stage. We need to recall at this point what led Jekyll to set off on his experimental path. It was an observation, long-made, that he had drives within himself that competed with each other, some respectable, others not. He detected this as being a general condition, ‘that hard law of life’, which attested to the ‘provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s nature’. (42) This condition, which lay also ‘at the root of religion’, led him to the further ‘truth by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two’. (42–3) There is a clarity in Jekyll’s insight at this point that takes him beyond the mere observation of a Victorian hypocrisy, one that would exclaim righteousness and honour on the outside, but be wicked and dishonourable underneath. He says: ‘though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest.’ (42) There is something mutually constitutive about these two sides to him which Jekyll intuits in these terms: ‘even if I could rightly be said to be either it was only because I was radically both’. (43) And again, he generalizes from this in terms that introduce for the first time in his confession the matter of binding: ‘It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were bound together – that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.’ (43)

G.K. Chesterton was one of the first to observe the way in which this point, and hence the story itself, worked. He noted that the ‘real stab of the story’ is ‘not in the discovery that the one man is two men; but in the discovery that the two men are one man’.4 And it was this discovery that prompted Jekyll the experimental physician to take a leap into the unknown, into the realm of possibility where science might be able to work for the benefit of humankind. Because, he reasoned, if this duality could be prised apart, would not progress be possible? ‘If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable.’ (43) The just and the unjust could be dissociated and go their different ways. This was his ‘beloved daydream’: to improve on man’s condition.

Jekyll is not a split personality in the sense that the story is often misunderstood. There is not a prior unitary subject who is split in two, and there is not straightforwardly Jekyll who is good and Hyde who is bad. The point is rather that Jekyll is Jekyll and Hyde. When Jekyll creates the drug that will transform him into Hyde, he releases ‘the evil side of my nature’ and observes that ‘This, too, was myself’. The difference was that ‘Hyde alone, among the ranks of mankind, was pure evil’. (44–5)

But let us return to the binding. Jekyll’s confession, though it is not long, contains one phrase that appears twice. The transformation into Hyde is described by Jekyll in two separate places as ‘a solution of the bonds of obligation’. (44, 51) What does this phrase mean? It contains, I will suggest, a deep trace of meaning that is central both to the text and to Stevenson’s own view of modern life. It is also, I will argue, one that is central to a particular understanding of the relation between law and life; or, in more philosophical terms, between the juridical and the ontology of human being.

‘A solution of the bonds of obligation’