Sunday, August 14, 2011

Five best: decadent writing of the 19th century

Nicholas Frankel is the editor of The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (Harvard University Press, 2011). He is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For the Wall Street Journal, he named a five best list of decadent writing from the nineteenth century.

One title on his list:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

In Victorian England, supposedly uniform in its prim rectitude, Robert Louis Stevenson produced a remarkably sympathetic account of a man's descent into mindless gratification and depravity. A respected medic by day, Jekyll becomes at night the slave of a drug that unleashes "a being inherently malign and villainous, his every act and thought centered on self, drinking pleasure with bestial avidity." As the psychopathic Mr. Hyde, he beats a man to death, mauling the unresisting body and "tasting delight from every blow." The story itself exhibits a split personality. The opening chapters, told from the point of view of lawyers and men of science, describe with a professional's objectivity Jekyll's disintegration. But the "full statement" with which the story concludes—delivered from the mouth of Jekyll himself as he struggles both to deny and to justify the spawning of his criminal alter-ego—is a masterpiece of obfuscation attempting to defend his "profound duplicity of life." Hyde is no monster from the void: He is the animal that lurks within the most respectable of us.
Read about the other works on the list.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also appears on John Mullan's list of ten of the best butlers in literature and among Yann Martel's six favorite books. It is one of Ali Shaw's top ten transformation stories.

--Marshal Zeringue