“The Body-Snatcher.” By Robert Louis Stevenson.
Before Robert Louis Stevenson became world renowned for The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1888), he wrote a number of short stories delineating many of the themes he would explore more deeply in his famous novella. Among these, “The Body-Snatcher” (1884) is a moral tale of a defective conscience set in the medical world of the late 1820s, one that raises perennial questions about medical ethics, scientific consequentialism, and our general regard for the human body.
Fettes is a fledgling medical student in Stevenson’s hometown of Edinburgh. When he receives the attentions of a “meteorically famous” anatomy professor known only as Mr. K, he believes his life as a successful doctor has been made. In his second year of studies, Fettes is not only handpicked by Mr. K to be “sub-assistant” to his classes, he’s offered a side job that requires him to lodge in the same building, adjacent to the dissecting classroom. It is here, after typical nights of mindless carousing, that Fettes “would be called out of bed in the black hours before the winter dawn by the unclean and desperate interlopers who supplied the table.” In other words, his primary duty in service to Mr. K is to pay for dead bodies delivered to his door — corpses to be used for dissection in Mr. K’s hands-on anatomy course. “In that large and busy class, the raw material of the anatomists kept perpetually running out,” which necessitates a steady supply of fresh bodies.
To Fettes, these nocturnal transactions are simple and routine. He neither feels the need to ask where the bodies come from nor gives much thought to sleeping among the dead. Indeed, Fettes is a young man who is little interested in the fate and fortunes of others; he is a slave to his own desires and low ambitions. Like the weak-minded Henry Jekyll of Stevenson’s later tale, Fettes manages to function as a respectable and successful gentleman by day, but at night he indemnifies himself for his nefarious nocturnal duty with “roaring, blackguardly enjoyment” that numbs his conscience. This Scotsman is, by all accounts, already a confirmed glutton.
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