Themes in Literature

Literary Identity


The nature of textual creation from a blank page— of all creation, really—is an exercise in identity politics: Each entity fashioned depends on inclusions and exclusions. Thus, literary texts achieve selfhood via the delicate balance of their various constituent parts; just as humans are products of their DNA, so are literary texts the result of the countless phenomena occurring between their covers. They are unique entities, themselves possessing a sort of identity to which we, as readers, bring our own experiences and resultant identities, therewith interacting to produce a distinct and original product: our individual, respective interpretations of a text. Hence, literature serves as a conduit not only to the world in which an author writes but also to our very selves. Naturally, this idea of self—of who we are—plays an important role in the dissection of literature as it is very active during our consideration of texts. Examining this interaction further, literary theorists and critics add another wrinkle by advocating myriad different critical approaches by which to dissect a given document.

Marxists focus on the manner in which societal institutions determine consciousness, and, therefore, identity: New Historicists view the text as a representative product of a certain time and place; psychoanalysts seek the unwritten text, interpreting the significance of absence; and many, many more urge their respective techniques for interrogating literature, which is, after all, a function of identity formulation. Regardless of approach, however, one thing is clear: English letters have, throughout the years, approached questions of identity in myriad different ways. The texts that constitute the genesis of Western literary studies pose questions of identity via their rootings in conflict. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Beowulf (Anonymous)—the cornerstone documents of the field wage war with nearly every word. And while bloodshed presents itself often in these seminal works, on a more abstract level, it is the struggle that has prime significance.

The drawing of battle lines and national boundaries affords both the author and the reader the opportunity to choose sides—to ask: Where do I stand? With whom am I? And concurrent to consideration of these spatial and philosophical concerns is the broader question of, simply, who am I? Along with battle, another way humans attempt to define themselves is through religion, and this has certainly been demonstrated in literature. Of course, the significance of the Bible itself cannot be overstated, but neither can the subsequent works of fiction that sought to allegorize Christianity for the purpose of providing direction and, concurrently, identity to their readers. Texts such as William Langland’s Piers Plowman and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress feature “everyman” protagonists struggling against the pressures of temptation and sin in a post-Fall world, whereas religious ecstasy is sought in the poetry of George Herbert and Robert Herrick. Thus, whereas conflict for one’s selfhood can, as demonstrated by Homer and others, present itself externally, strife can nevertheless rage within as well, and religious commitment has played a major role in this issue. Identity as a product of one’s relationship with the Almighty aside, temporal matters persist nevertheless.

As geography, racial identity, and religious fervor organized cultures into nation states that legitimized themselves across Europe, people began to focus on their immediate surroundings in order to establish a more stable sense of self. Enter William Shakespeare, whose examination of British (and greater European) court life in many of his plays closely inspects not merely how we have come to occupy our places in society, but the economic, political, cultural, and social repercussions of the manner in which we have arranged ourselves. That is, the army of Rome or God aside, identity can also be derived from one’s societal position. In the 17th century, however, the poet John Donne, called this entire social framework into question with his own metaphysical take on existence and identity. As the Renaissance, during which Shakespeare and Donne wrote, ushered in various scientific and technological innovations, the speed of life increased, and this acceleration eventually resulted in the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century. The romantic period, led by William Wordsworth, sought to counter this movement grounded in commercialism, doing so by harkening back to simpler times, places, and lifestyles.

The rebellion against ever-expanding industrialization romanticized the simplicity of yesteryear, and in favoring the rustic cottage over urban bustle, reactionary romantics promoted an identity based on the pastoral and the past—an identity, they maintained, that was worth resurrecting. Romanticism in the United States prospered as well, as authors looked to the past to answer a fundamental question plaguing the new nation: Just what—who—is an American? Unlike Britons, whose country had demonstrated sovereignty for more than half the years since Christ, Americans had problematic issues with which to contend: They were, after all, a nation born of Great Britain but liberated with the help of France; a place rooted in equality, yet devoted to slavery and class divides; and a state inspired by a yearning for religious freedom that already sported a less-than-tolerant record on tolerance. These early obstacles to a cohesive identity demanded consideration, and the country’s early literary endeavors did not disappoint. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s interest in history facilitated his own approach to this enigma, producing introspective tales such as The House of the Seven Gables, and Herman Melville’s fictive microcosms endeavored to inspect the American identity as well (Moby-Dick, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Billy Budd, Sailor, and Benito Cereno come readily to mind).

The romantic mindset also fostered the American transcendentalist movement, which radically challenged contemporary religious thought by proclaiming that divinity presided in each and every person. But times change, and violent conflict and its pursuant debilitating recessions tend to alter the way a citizenry views itself. Therefore, transcendentalism, with all its hope and possibility, gave way to the prostitute- and drunkard-ridden slums of the realists Stephen Crane (The Open Boat and The Red Badge of Courage) and Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie) and the harsh reality of 19th-century London we find in Charles Dickens. In a few deft literary strokes, humans went from Gods to insignificant specks. War, however, need not always precipitate humility. Whereas the Civil War rattled America’s literary girders, the interwar period of the 20th century inspired the dynamism and innovation of the modern period. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Langston Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, and others rewrote national myths, questioning the very notion of patriotic allegiance itself. Coping with a dramatically and rapidly changing world left them eager for new ways to artistically express an ever-morphing self they sought to articulate. Hence, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway seems lost in both his adopted home on the eastern seaboard and back in his native Midwest in The Great Gatsby, thereby anticipating J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden Caulfield ambles, stupefied, through a New York City that, while geographically holding true to his home, nevertheless seems odd, off—different.

In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner’s Compsons and McCaslins even seem out of place in their own Mississippi homes, which have been in their respective families for generations. Modernists entertained new approaches to a newly emergent self, which, although complex (as in Ezra Pound’s epic, and fittingly, unfinished, Cantos), at least presupposed that definable identity could exist. For the postmodernists who followed, this was not necessarily a given. The postmodern age, in which most would agree we now live, takes nothing for granted, rejecting the notion that an underlying absolute truth inevitably exists. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, for instance, features a central character named Tim O’Brien who is not necessarily the author (but is not necessarily not the author, either); claims that the most far-fetched tales are “real,” whereas those that sound the most believable are pure invention; includes stories of soldiers in Vietnam that have nothing to do with war and accounts of men in Minnesota that have everything to do with conflict; and even defies simple generic classification as either a novel or a short-story collection. Toni Morrison’s Beloved deconstructs the objectivity of time, agency, and place.

Burgeoning magical realism, as found in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude routinely presents seemingly supernatural events as quotidian, based on the idea that assumption—of fixity, of consistency, of identity—is ultimately quite dangerous. Attempting to capture something as ambiguous as identity via a literary medium is truly an exercise in frustration, for as words are committed to paper, and therefore rendered static, identity has consistently proven dynamic. Authors continually attempt to pin down the moment, to speak a word for the present; hence, as history unfolds and we continue to evolve as a species, works change over time—not only in the styles employed in their composition but also in the manner by which we approach them. That is, while a text’s words may never change, we do, and hence the interaction between text and reader is, like our identities, ever-evolving. Tomorrow, a breakthrough development in space exploration or biomedicine may change how we interpret a novel finished yesterday, thereby altering our estimation of just who we are and what our place or our role—our identity—is. Thus, as long as works of literature and humankind coexist, they will continually seek new ways to define themselves—and each other.

See also Alvarez, Julia: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; Angelou, Maya: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Aristophanes: Frogs, The; Bellow, Saul: Adventures of Augie March, The; Bradford, William: Of Plymouth Plantation; Cisneros, Sandra: House on Mango Street, The; DuBois, W. E. B.: Souls of Black Folk, The; Eliot, T. S.: “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The”; Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man; Equiano, Olaudah: Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; Erdrich, Louise: Bingo Palace, The; Grass Günter: Tin Drum, The; Ibsen, Henrik: Doll’s House, The; Kesey, Ken: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Kincaid, Jamaica: Annie John; Kingston, Maxine Hong: Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book; Kozinski, Jerzy: Painted Bird, The; Kundera, Milan: Unbearable Lightness of Being, The; Lessing, Doris: Golden Notebook, The; London, Jack: Call of the Wild, The; White Fang; Mistry, Rohinton: Fine Balance, A; Momaday, N. Scott: House Made of Dawn; Way to Rainy Mountain, The; Morrison, Toni: Bluest Eye, The; Pirandello, Luigi: Six Characters in Search of an Author; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Fall of the House of Usher, The”; Potok, Chaim: Chosen, The; Roth, Philip: American Pastoral; Rowlandson, Mary: Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson; Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children; Shakespeare, William: King Lear; Stevenson, Robert Louis: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The, and Treasure Island; Wiesel, Elie: Night; Wilde, Oscar: Picture of Dorian Gray, The. David Visser

4 thoughts on “Literary Identity

  1. John Hodgman=Genius wordsmith…McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Welcoming Remarks Made at a Literary Reading, 9/25/01.:

  2. Very interesting argument abt Arab literature + the West from coming this weekend. Editing now. Stay tuned.

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