Jekyll and Hyde, Now and Forever - Tor/Forge Blog


Jekyll and Hyde, Now and Forever

Jekyll and Hyde, Now and Forever

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By Alex Bledsoe

I recently read Kevin MacNeil’s jaunty novel A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde, and it got me thinking about the many variations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic good/evil dichotomy. More specifically, why do we ascribe all the powerful qualities—strength, determination, even enjoyment—to the evil side of our natures? Why is good depicted as weak and helpless?

Random example: the Star Trek (TOS) episode “The Enemy Within,” in which a transporter accident splits Kirk into two beings. All-good Kirk is morose and helpless to make even the simplest decision, while all-bad Kirk, grinning and laughing, tries to date-rape Yeoman Rand.

We see it in most other kinds of stories, too, and especially in the genres of SF and fantasy. The hero is weaker, less powerful, seemingly less intelligent than the villain. Often for the hero to succeed, the villain has to make an egregious mistake tied to his supreme overconfidence. This goes back to the idea that we, as readers/viewers, will only identify with the underdog. So naturally if a character is split into good and evil, the “good” half will be the weaker.

In Fight Club, the idea that anyone is special is ridiculed: “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” But villains, i.e. the bad side of our nature, are. They are unique in their conduct, often in their appearance, and certainly in their achievements. Conversely, heroes are Everyman, usually not even interested in heroics until some egregious Bad Thing happens. You see this in the origin stories of many heroes, especially super ones (i.e., Batman’s murdered parents, the destruction of Krypton, etc.).

There have been exceptions. For a brief period in the 80s, the idea of the “hero” was embodied by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, and Segal. These were big, strong, tough men who were not weak, and since no one villain could stand up to them, the filmmakers compensated by sending herds of disposable minions for these men to break. But these films, for the most part, have not stood the test of time. They’ve become artifacts of their era rather than tales that speak to new generations.

So why do so many creators make good weak and evil strong? Why do we as content consumers crave that?

I have no real answer. I could get into religion (Christianity’s “turn the other cheek”), philosophy (Nietzsche’s concept of the “Ubermensch”), psychology (Freud’s concept of the “id,” given genre expression in the classic Forbidden Planet), even current events (the threat of terrorism makes everyone feel weak and helpless). The analysis has no end. And maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe the power of the idea is simply in the comprehending of it.

Whatever the origin, the ultimate expression of this idea comes from the Scots genius Robert Louis Stevenson. The irony is that the story behind the “Jekyll and Hyde” trope isn’t quite what it’s become in the public consciousness: Edward Hyde may be all bad, but the potion that releases him doesn’t make Henry Jekyll all good. Still, even Stevenson accepted the most basic idea of good vs. evil: that evil gets to have all the fun.


Image Place holder  of - 4Alex Blesdoe’s upcoming new book, The Hum and the Shiver, goes on sale September 27.

About the book: No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music—hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Learn more >>

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8 thoughts on “Jekyll and Hyde, Now and Forever

  1. I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but it seems like it could be related to the ancient dichotomy between military and civilian society. The strong warrior hero archetype (like Heracles or Cuchulainn), while ultimately beneficial in war, is fundamentally destructive in nature and cannot live in civilized society without being tamed. Heracles has rages, murders people, and must be bound by the gods in order for his strength to be an asset to society. Cuchulainn also kills his own son, and has to be restrained by his people when he returns from war with his angry-form on. The modern equivalent might be a Veteran with PTSD, In a Horror story he might be useful but his strength is ultimately associated with a disconnect with modern life.

    I agree that the desire to identify with the underdog does play a part, as does the fact that a story where the bad guys are weak and the good guys are strong is unlikely to contain the kind of dramatic tension that you see when those are reversed, but in Tolkein and in many other iconic areas of modern sci-fi/fantasy, it isn’t just that good guys are weak and bad guys are strong, it is that good societies are often civilian in nature (Hobbits, the Federation) while bad guys are militaristic in nature, and therefore value strength over more domestic qualities.

  2. Good article– I never thought before about the fact that the “good guy” is usually the weaker one. But I do have a minor quibble– although many people do believe that “turning the other cheek” is about being submissive and humble, it’s not. Turning the cheek would force the aggressor to use his opposite hand if he wanted to hit you again. It’s a bit complicated to go into here, but basically (in ancient Israel) if the aggressor used the opposite hand he would be acknowledging you as his equal. Turning the other cheek is about standing up for yourself and stating that you are just as good as the other person is. So your use of the phrase here actually undermines your point.

  3. But in TOS The Enemy Within, the good Kirk is shown to be stronger because he is not afraid to re-merge while bad Kirk is terrified like a witless animal. Also good Kirk is smarter, more capable of reasoning. I think that portrayal of the split between our good and evil sides was more nuanced than you suggest.

  4. More specifically, why do we ascribe all the powerful qualities—strength, determination, even enjoyment—to the evil side of our natures? Why is good depicted as weak and helpless?

    I think Winn makes a good point (about “the ancient dichotomy between military and civilian society”), but it seems to me there’s another point too. That is the still-existing stereotype within our society of men having the virtues of strength and determination, whereas women are stereotyped as “weaker, less powerful, seemingly less intelligent” than men. That means there is an odd characterization in these myths and stories of the bad man being supremely manly, whereas the good man is essentially a woman!

    1. And for an interesting inversion of that, Mia, see the surprisingly entertaining 1971 Hammer film, “Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde,” in which diminutive and weak Ralph Bates turns into tall, beautiful and deadly Martine Beswick.

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