Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance . . . the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.
Mr. Utterson is a wealthy, well-respected London lawyer, a reserved and perhaps even boring man who nevertheless inspires a strange fondness in those who know him. Despite his eminent respectabili-ty, he never abandons a friend whose reputation has been sullied or ruined.
Utterson nurtures a close friendship with Mr. Enfield, his distant relative and likewise a respectable London gentleman. The two seem to have little in common, and when they take their weekly walk together they often go for quite a distance without saying anything to one another; nevertheless, they look forward to these strolls as one of the high points of the week.
As the story begins, Utterson and Enfield are taking their regular Sunday stroll and walking down a particularly prosperous-looking street. They come upon a neglected building, which seems out of place in the neighborhood, and Enfield relates a story in connection with it. Enfield was walking in the same neighborhood late one night, when he witnessed a shrunken, misshapen man crash into and trample a young girl. He collared the man before he could get away, and then brought him back to the girl, around whom an angry crowd had gathered. The captured man appeared so overwhelmingly ugly that the crowd immediately despised him. United, the crowd threatened to ruin the ugly man’s good name unless he did something to make amends; the man, seeing himself trapped, bought them off with one hundred pounds, which he obtained upon entering the neglected building through its only door. Strangely enough, the check bore the name of a very reputable man; furthermore, and in spite of Enfield’s suspicions, it proved to be legitimate and not a forgery. Enfield hypothesizes that the ugly culprit had somehow blackmailed the man whose name appeared on the check. Spurning gossip, however, Enfield refuses to reveal that name.
Utterson then asks several pointed questions confirming the details of the incident. Enfield tries to describe the nature of the mysterious man’s ugliness but cannot express it, stating, ”I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why.” He divulges that the culprit’s name was Hyde, and, at this point, Utterson declares that he knows the man, and notes that he can now guess the name on the check. But, as the men have just been discussing the virtue of minding one’s own business, they promptly agree never to discuss the matter again.
He is not easy to describe. . . . And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.
The story of Jekyll and Hyde is one of the most well known in the English language, and few readers come to this novel without knowing the secret behind the relationship of the title characters. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Stevenson’s novel does not reveal this secret until the very end. Instead, the book presents us with what seems like a detective novel, beginning with a sinister figure of unknown origin, a mysterious act of violence, and hints of blackmail and secret scandal. Although the opening scene also contains vaguely supernatural elements, particularly in the strange dread that Hyde inspires, Stevenson likely intended his readers to enter the novel believing it to be nothing more than a mystery story. The uncanny side of the novel appears gradually, as Utterson’s detective work leads him toward the seemingly impossible truth.
Even as it plunges us into the mysterious happenings surrounding Mr. Hyde, the first chapter highlights the proper, respectable, eminently Victorian attitudes of Enfield and Utterson. The text describes these men as reserved—so reserved, in fact, that they can enjoy a lengthy walk during which neither man says a word. Declining to indulge their more impulsive thoughts and feelings, they display a mutual distaste for sensation and gossip. They steer away from discussing the matter of Hyde once they realize it involves someone Utterson knows. The Victorian value system largely privileged reputation over reality, and this prioritization is reflected both in the narrator’s remarks about Utterson and Enfield and in the characters’ own remarks about gossip and blackmail. In a society so focused on reputation, blackmail proves a particularly potent force, since those possessing and concerned with good reputations will do anything they can to preserve them. Thus, when Hyde tramples the little girl, Enfield and the crowd can blackmail him into paying off her family; Hyde’s access to a respectable man’s bank account leads Enfield to leap to the conclusion that Hyde is blackmailing his benefactor.
In such a society, it is significant that Utterson, so respectable himself, is known for his willingness to remain friends with people whose reputations have been damaged, or ruined. This aspect of his personality suggests not only a sense of charity, but also hints that Utterson is intrigued, in some way, by the darker side of the world—the side that the truly respectable, like Enfield, carefully avoid. It is this curiosity on Utterson’s part that leads him to investigate the peculiar figure of Mr. Hyde rather than avoid looking into matters that could touch on scandal.
However, while Utterson may take an interest in affairs that polite society would like to ignore, he remains a steadfast rationalist and a fundamentally unimaginative man without a superstitious bone in his body. One of the central themes of the novel is the clash between Victorian rationalism and the supernatural, and Utterson emerges as the embodiment of this rationality, always searching out the logical explanation for events and deliberately dismissing supernatural flights of fancy. Enfield approaches the world in much the same way, serving as another representative of the commonsense approach. By allowing these men and their Victorian perspectives to dominate the novel’s point of view, Stevenson proves better able to dramatize the opposition between the rationalism that they represent and the fantastical subject matter that comes under scrutiny in this focus. However, while this method contributes much to the story’s overall effect, it also presents a challenge for Stevenson. The author must struggle to convey to us a sense of metaphysical dread surrounding Hyde, even as he situates his novel’s viewpoint with men who never feel such emotions themselves.
In the opening chapter, Stevenson overcomes this challenge by highlighting his characters’ inability to express and come to terms with the events that they have witnessed. “There is something wrong with [Hyde’s] appearance,” Enfield says. “I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point.” In other words, Hyde’s ugliness is not physical but metaphysical; it attaches to his soul more than to his body. Enfield and, later, Utterson, whose minds are not suited to the metaphysical, can sense Hyde’s uncanniness but cannot describe it. Their limited imaginations fail them as they approach the eerie and inexplicable; as rational clashes with irrational, language breaks down.