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A close friend of mine who is an English teacher has recently been taking her class through the well-known story by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  When she told me about this I had to admit that I had never read it.  But like a large number of English-speaking people I was very much accustomed to the idea of someone being described as “a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character”, meaning that they have two sides to them: the good and the bad, the nice and the nasty.  I tracked down a copy of the book and read it.

One problem with picking up this book is that if you are used to the way the fundamental plot has been treated on TV, on film and even in “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, you approach the story expecting a trail of murder, blood and gore similar to the one left by Jack the Ripper!  But it is not so.  Dr Jekyll does indeed transform himself into the cruel Mr Hyde, but only one murder is committed, almost by accident, and Dr Jekyll spends the rest of the tale trying to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  You even feel slightly sorry for him.  If he was caught in this day and age I suspect a clever lawyer would manage to “get him off” with a manslaughter charge, anyway.

So the story in its original form is not very long, and it would probably need some embellishment (and the insertion of a female lead role!) to turn it into a satisfactory modern film script.  This doesn’t stop it from being a classic, a well-written reflection on the way that human characteristics tend to pull us in different directions and on the fact that we all have both darker and lighter sides to our personalities.  But so what?  It’s a good and entertaining story, perhaps we need say no more than that.  But in the heart of the story – the moment that things start to go seriously wrong – we see Dr Jekyll losing control.  He starts off thinking that his secret potion is a toy.  It will let him go out onto the streets, unrecognised, and do things and go places he wouldn’t otherwise dare.  But allowing his dark side to have free reign makes it more and more difficult for his other, normal side to regain the upper hand.  He ends up not being able, literally, to help himself.  The first act in all this, however, was carried out by his “normal” self.  He did it by choice.

When people in the Christian Church get together to talk about God and his relationship with humanity, sooner or later they come round to the topic of choice, and “free will”.  In a Christian context these subjects will be brought up when we discuss the extent to which God “means” things to happen, or “means” people to do things.  Sometimes in reaction to news of dreadful things happening in the world.  “If God is good, why has there been an earthquake in Iran ?” or “if God is all-loving, why does he allow a Fred West or a Harold Shipman?” 

My reaction at these times is that God no more “means” people like Shipman or West to kill other people than he “means” someone to be run over on the road, to suffer from cancer or to be struck by lightning.  I believe that he loves his creation – all that he has brought into being.  But I also believe that he loves his creation enough not to want to control it.  Like a loving parent he gives us plenty of good advice, but then lets us control our own lives.  He lets nature find its balance.  When nature loses its equilibrium we sometimes get earthquakes and eruptions.  And when some people fail to balance their own personalities (sometimes intentionally, but sometimes because of psychiatric problems) we all too often get violence, and sometimes we get murderers.

Like a tightrope-walker who throws his pole away, Dr Jekyll thought he could control things.  Actually he failed to keep his balance.  We are all Dr Jekyll.  Perhaps Stevenson’s tale can act as a warning not to go looking for Mr Hyde.

 (c) Copyright Bill Young 2004