On Saturday, I sent an email blast to my friends and family detailing my first week abroad, showcasing photos of the St. Andrews beachfront. As I expected, few people responded, but those that did sent heartfelt messages offering their prayers and sharing excitement for my semester in Scotland.
My friend Christina, however, sent me the following text messages:
“Ok since when do you say grub” and, after an admittedly snippy reply from me, “I’m trying to push you to be your genuine self.” Christina and I moved the conversation forward, but I remained fixated on that single word: genuine.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 cult classic “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — a novel centered on appearances and the concept of the true self. In the novel, Gabriel Utterson, a well-known lawyer, attempts to uncover Dr. Henry Jekyll’s relationship to a detestable, suspicious man named Edward Hyde. In a letter addressed to Utterson, Jekyll reveals that he concocted a potion to separate his evil self from his upright self, meaning that Hyde is not a different man, but a manifestation of the worst components of Jekyll’s being. Simply, Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same.
While most discussions of the novel focus on its depiction of the demon within and its greater theme of the battle between good and evil, I am more intrigued by Stevenson’s conception of separate selves and Jekyll’s willingness to isolate certain facets of his personality. For Jekyll, his separation of self was a solution to the bothersome duality of man, a chance for his personas to act freely without restraint.
In some ways, I can relate to Jekyll’s desire to segment himself. I sometimes think my study abroad experience would be easier if I could easily turn parts of my personality on and off. As I sat in the lecture hall for my first orientation lecture surrounded by hundreds of exchange students who somehow seemed to already know each other, I wished I could shun my shyer, nervous self. I wanted to unleash the bubbly self-assuredness I often reserve for my closest friends. When I went out for drinks with fellow Hoyas, I wished I could dial up my spontaneity and coolness while subduing my insecurity.
In neither of these scenarios did I want to completely eradicate components of my personhood. I like who I am. But I can’t deny that in new environments, the thought of playing up different personality traits or deviating from my norm is enticing. For the first time in my life, I am living in a foreign country — where hardly anyone knows me — for five months, and I am presented with the opportunity to reinvent my identity. I can pack my Georgetown self away with my luggage and keep it hidden until my plane touches down in Washington on June 1.
When Jekyll first transformed into Hyde, he told Utterson he felt “younger, lighter, happier in body,” yet he also knew himself to “be more wicked, tenfold more wicked.” His words predicted his demise. While Jekyll’s segmentation made him happy for a short time, eventually his darker side took over and he was unable to find his true self again.
Although an extreme example, Jekyll’s quest to create two equally genuine versions of himself reminds me of the perils of compartmentalizing who I am. The prospect of reinventing my image for a semester and letting my alter ego live my life is tempting, but I can’t turn my back on the person I’ve spent 21 years crafting.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said I’m not making some changes. At Georgetown, I’m a notorious overachiever, busying myself with work for the newspaper, classes, a part-time job and the Campus Ministry. While at St. Andrews, I’m decidedly pumping the brakes. I plan to return to my roots by performing in a community orchestra, improving my physical health through daily runs and deepening my faith by seeking Christian fellowship.
Jekyll was a genius, but he was always disgusted with a part of himself. Although there will still be days when I want to lock my awkward quirks away in a box, I like who I am and I want to present that person to the people I meet abroad. Always being genuine isn’t easy, but if my friends and family continue to recognize and love the girl sending them email blasts each week, I’ll know I’m succeeding.
Kathryn Baker is a junior in the College. Novel Ideas appears in print every other Friday.