“Jekyll and Hyde”: Introducing Mr Utterson

When first opening “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, you would be forgiven for thinking that you would find an introduction to the titular characters. Dickens’s David Copperfield, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway spring to mind as examples of this format. Yet Stevenson uses the first page to establish the enigmatic, convoluted narrative style that we will become so familiar with by describing “Mr Utterson, the lawyer” instead of Jekyll and Hyde. Utterson is portrayed as “lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable”, keen to “mortify” a taste for wine and to avoid the theatre. Instead, he watches other people indulging in the hedonistic pleasures available to Victorian gentlemen with a bit of money to spare. Focussing our attention on the monotonous rhythms of a repressed lifestyle may initially strike the reader as an inauspicious beginning to this Gothic mystery. However, it highlights one very significant point: Utterson may be the novella’s true protagonist.

Just as the novella’s title clearly signposts Jekyll’s duality, so too does the opening page signal the conflict within Utterson’s ostensibly pious soul. His very name articulates a tension in the novel: to speak (“utter”), or to remain silent. As a lawyer, words are central to Utterson’s working-life, yet – initially at least – he is “embarrassed in discourse” and seems reluctant to commit his thoughts to speech. This may seem to be a positive quality in a Victorian gentleman: he carefully considers what he says, aware of the social implications of putting a verbal foot wrong (consider the conclusion of his conversation with Mr Enfield at the end of Chapter 1). On the other hand, failing to speak out and therefore “let[ting] his brother go to the devil in his own way” seems strangely callous for a man of morality. Similarly, Utterson’s mode of employment seems to announce his reliability and trustworthiness at the same time as Stevenson evokes the stereotype of the secretive, self-interested, grasping lawyer we are so familiar with from other great Victorian novels (Tulkinghorn in Bleak House, Jaggers in Great Expectations). Whilst lawyer’s job is to maintain social stability through the correct application of legal process, is it not also to serve the desires of the gentleman who is paying? As a lawyer, Utterson additionally has the ideal excuse to spend more time in the company of “downgoing men” at the same time as maintaining his own spotless reputation. So Stevenson uses Utterson both to guide the audience’s reactions to a strange tale and therefore render it more believable, as well as to remind us that each and every individual is characterised by duality. And so we find ourselves lost in the rabbit-hole of questioning and ambiguity: things are not necessarily what they seem.

If the novella’s opening phrase leaves us with more questions about Utterson than answers, so too does the rest of page 1. “Lean, long, dusty, [and] dreary” communicates of the mundanity of Utterson’s repressed lifestyle, reminding us that Stevenson was frustrated with the religiosity of his upbringing and that he preferred the entertainments provided in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The strangeness (I choose the word advisedly) of these adjectives (who describes a person as “dusty”?) may imply that the slowness of Utterson’s life at this point is causing him to petrify and become almost like one of the many tomes of “dry divinity” he reads. Alternatively, it could connect him to the dust that covers Jekyll’s laboratory – where Hyde is “born” –  and so serves as yet another hint that Utterson is struggling to suppress his hedonistic tendencies. Other tiny details – such as the drinking of gin instead of wine – imply an eschewal of luxury even as they prompt us to question whether this obsessive attention to respectability is simply a façade (gin may be less luxurious than wine, but its association at the time with moral decay would surely not have escaped the original readers).

Ultimately, what the novella’s first page prompts us to do is consider Utterson as the protagonist; we are directed to focus his transformation as the story of Jekyll and Hyde unfolds and has a profound impact on him. By introducing this from the outset, Stevenson opens the narrative out to encompass the struggle of the middle-class man striving to maintain his reputation despite inner conflict. And it may be that Utterson’s story speaks to the reader more keenly than the strange tale of a wealthy, upper-class, gifted man who is more removed from everyday experience.

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