"God forgive us:" The Cloud of Broken Witnesses

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In his thrilling novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson paints the inescapable tension between good and evil in the human spirit. Frankly, that by itself is a pretty good summary of his theme. But, there is more to be said about what he implies concerning human desires and the remedies we can find for them. He doesn't leave us entirely in the dark when it comes to where salvation lies.

Dr. Henry Jekyll, in case you’ve never treated yourself to a trip through this little book, becomes obsessed with separating the sinful side of his nature from his goodness, making of it an entirely new person, Mr. Edward Hyde. Hyde eventually takes over, ruining Jekyll’s life and leading them both to a suicidal death.

Why is Jekyll obsessed with this doomed venture in the first place? Well, there are two possible answers: either he wants to exist without compunction in a form that cannot be punished so that he may give vent to all his evil desires, or he wants to be untroubled by his evil desires so that he can continually be good and not evil.

Many readers would choose the first answer, given the amount of time that Stevenson spends describing the perverse pleasure that Hyde finds in his ill-pursuits. I'm not sure, however, that I would choose the first answer. I think that the second option is more consistent with the sort of person Dr. Jekyll is. 

Stevenson takes great care in painting Jekyll’s character: his reputation lauds him as a happy, talkative host, who loves nothing more than to be well-liked by everyone. And in the few periods of time when Hyde doesn't trouble him, he goes directly back to hosting and spending time with his friends. It seems far more likely to me that Jekyll is the sort of person who would leap at the chance to claim perfection, so that he never need fear offending anyone, or being something other than likable. Frankly, who wouldn't choose a life with no trials? So, according to our second option, he seeks to find a way to separate the good and evil in his nature in order to put evil thoughts and deeds away from himself permanently, the better to love and to be loved by his friends. 

This is where things get all too familiar. He cannot succeed because man's nature is twinned: good and evil, in equal measure. Despite the potion, Jekyll's sinful heart turns toward Hyde unbidden, and given just this little avenue in which to act, the evil grows and grows, until he can no longer repress it. Man cannot escape his nature, try as he might. Dark stuff, huh? 

Now, we come to the gritty part: what in all this darkness is Stevenson trying to tell us? To my mind, we readers have a choice between a moral and a theme. These two, after all, aren't the same thing, though it is often tempting to equate them as we read.

Reading Jekyll's tale in search of a moral hands us a comfortably legal principle: don't give yourself over to bad things, nor let down your guard against your evil heart. Death lies that way. I think we want to hear this as readers. We're all Jekyll, after all, placing our faith in right action and living in fear of the Hyde in our souls. We scrape and claw to distance ourselves from our sin, putting on a glittering face to shield Hyde from the world. 

To say that this moral is the primary takeaway from Stevenson's story would do it and ourselves a disservice, however. The story is told through the eyes of our narrator, Utterson, and in a pivotal moment, he and his companion Enfield encounter their mutual friend Henry Jekyll while out on a walk. In an otherwise banal conversation, Utterson (and thus, Stevenson) takes special care in describing Jekyll's face.

But the words were hardly uttered, before the smile was struck out of his face and succeeded by an expression of such abject terror and despair, as froze the very blood of the two gentlemen below. They saw it but for a glimpse, for the window was instantly thrust down; but that glimpse had been sufficient, and they turned and left the court without a word. In silence, too, they traversed the by-street; and it was not until they had come into a neighbouring thoroughfare, where even upon a Sunday there were still some stirrings of life, that Mr. Utterson at last turned and looked at his companion. They were both pale; and there was an answering horror in their eyes.
‘God forgive us, God forgive us,’ said Mr. Utterson.
— Stevenson, The Incident at the Window

I take it that we aren't witnessing the actual transformation of Jekyll into Hyde—if we were, the secret of the letters, told later in the story, would be anti-climactic as Utterson would already know that Jekyll and Hyde were in fact the same man. No, what we are witnessing is Jekyll, helpless in the knowledge that he has been abandoned to his evil twin—his sin has overtaken him utterly. And how does Utterson respond? "God forgive us." 

So what? In this scene it is proved that Jekyll cannot separate good from evil and truly live perfectly, which leads to helpless knowledge of his bondage to his sin. A word from Utterson one way or the other couldn’t change his fate! What are we to think? Is it all despair?

I submit that it is not. It seems to me that Stevenson wrote this story to reassert the power of fellowship in saving one's soul. You see, Jekyll withdrew into himself in search of salvation, and it consumed him. Who is to say how the story would have ended had he turned to his friends with an open heart, and trusted them to identify with him, and to forgive his flaws? 

In Utterson’s exclamation, Stevenson points the way to a life lived in repentance, continually identifying with one’s neighbor. And in the end, I believe this to be the essence not only of the Christian walk, but also of a literary education. In an important sense, in taking up literature, we beg alongside Shakespeare’s Richard II, “For God’s sake. Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Richard does not suggest such morose proceedings merely in order to wallow in self-pity. No, I think he does so because he himself is a king, newly deposed, and at the mercy of his own frailty. And he needs desperately to be reminded that he is not the only king to have faltered, failed, and fallen. He needs to be reminded that he is not alone—that fundamentally, his plight places him in company, be it good or ill.

Each time we return to fiction, we find an account of our own company, a reflection on the great poverty of the human spirit, and its fabulous wealth. We are immortal souls pent up in flawed, finite prisons of flesh. We are all Jekyll, hiding our Hydes. Rather than leaving us there, however, Stevenson suggests that joy lies in imitating Utterson, outing our Hydes with one another, and participating in a great cloud of broken witnesses, saying "God forgive us." 

In this dark novella, we are reminded of a pivotal command: “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Locked in the second commandment is not only an injunction to right living, but also the key to a life full of succor in our need. The fellowship of all human souls lies not in their valour but their cowardice, not in their triumph but in their failure, not in their striving but in their need. And in that company, even one’s Hyde can be forgiven.