We’re delighted to be a stop on Anne Goodwin’s blog tour celebrating her new book, an anthology of short stories titled Becoming Someone. Anne has written a guest post for us on concepts of identity, a subject she explores in her short stories, but here she looks at classic novels. Over to Anne…
We turn to novels for all kinds of reasons, but I particularly appreciate how they hold up a mirror to ourselves. As human nature evolves at a slower pace than fashion and technology, even fiction from long-dead authors can provide fresh insights into the human condition today.
With an anthology of short stories on the theme of identity on the brink of publication, I’ve been reflecting on how some of my favourite classic novels provide perspectives on our ideas about who we are. I’ve chosen nine to share in this post, but could have probably found ninety-nine.
Jonathan Swift’s satire is perceived, almost three centuries on from first publication in 1727, as anything from a fairytale for children to a political roman à clef. But it speaks most strongly to me as a reminder that who we are and what we are, and what we take for normality, is largely dependent on context:
Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.
In Lilliput, Gulliver is a giant; among the Brobdingnag people, he’s small. But in both cases, he’s still the explorer who set sail from England and was shipwrecked on those shores. Our identities are both internally and externally driven; sometimes, when our self-concept clashes with how others see us, identity feels fragile as we struggle to bridge the gap.
In Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic, I’m less inspired by the famous romance than by the eponymous heroine’s self-respect and assertion. Despite her disadvantages of class and gender, and her lack of friends and connections, she perceives herself as the wealthy Mr Rochester’s equal, and refuses to renounce her moral standards on discovering he already has a wife:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? … it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, – as we are! … I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
Jane is confident in who she is, regardless of how others might judge her, and a shining example of a secure identity two centuries on from her creator’s birth.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated gothic novella, first published in 1886, is often regarded as being about the battle between good and evil, but it’s also about the universal struggle to manage more subtle contradictions within ourselves:
I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.
It’s a story that’s repeatedly reimagined, for good reason, and there’s a medical Dr Jekyll in one the short stories in my anthology who creates a Mr Hyde to rebalance his responsible and irresponsible sides. We all have multiple identities which conflict and cooperate with each other to varying degrees.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde’s story of the man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty was considered scandalous when it first appeared in 1890, but isn’t there a bit of Dorian Gray in all of us when we compromise our values for a more comfortable life? Haven’t we all made choices that could backfire on us in some dim and distant future time? Or taken advantage of opportunities denied to others less fortunate than ourselves?
Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.
A positive self-image is shored up by denial and delusion for all of us to a degree: research has shown that depressed people are actually more realistic in their assessments than those who aren’t depressed. Fiction provides a route to reflect on the less admirable aspects of our identities by shedding light on the parts we try to hide in the metaphorical attic of the mind.
First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s best known novel is a darker version of “Cinderella” or a less assertive Jane Eyre. The unnamed narrator might escape poverty in marrying a wealthy aristocrat, but she’s continually overshadowed by his deceased first wife:
I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.
We don’t only deny the negative aspects of our personalities; sometimes we allow ourselves to be eclipsed by others because we consider ourselves undeserving because we lack the courage to embrace our full selves. Sometimes the shadow of another person is so large and dark we can’t even see who we want to be.
The Member of the Wedding
First published in 1946, Carson McCullers’ novel focuses on a pivotal moment in a girl’s life when she is no longer a child but not yet an adult:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.
Belonging can both ground and constrain us, and it’s painful to be left behind when someone close to us chooses to change. The popularity of the coming-of-age narrative, in both novels and short stories, reflects our preoccupation with that transition, when we detach ourselves from former securities and certainties to become ourselves.
A Jest of God
Margaret Laurence’s 1966 novel explores how duty and caution can confine some to the shadows so that they don’t seem to have an identity at all. Rachel has sacrificed her own desires for the sake of her mother, while her older sister has broken free:
My great mistake was in being born the younger. No. Where I went wrong was in coming back here, once I got away. A person has to be ruthless. One has to say I’m going, and not be prevailed upon to return.
We might fear, like Rachel, facing the selfish parts of our personalities when we cut the ties that bind. But failing to do so results in stagnation and breeds resentment in our relationships with those we seek to please. Sometimes it’s our internal villain and not the hero who makes us whole.
The Color Purple
Alice Walker’s 1982 modern classic confronts racism, sexism and abuse, while managing to be testimony to the human spirit:
All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.
Childhood is the foundation of identity, and a secure beginning has a stronger chance of building a secure adult. But even with Celie’s disadvantaged childhood, life throws up opportunities to fight for a better future than our origins might predict. If we dare to believe in ourselves, and don’t get knocked back too much, we can choose a more comfortable and congruent identity than the one bestowed on us in chapter one.
Peter Ho Davies’ 2016 novel isn’t old enough to be considered a classic, but it does span 150 years of Chinese-American identity. Dipping into the lives of four characters of Chinese heritage who have shaped and been shaped by American history, the novel ends with an American writer, John Ling Smith, travelling to China to adopt a baby girl. John’s character illustrates how external forces can impact on our identities, whether we conform to stereotypes or reject them:
things you couldn’t do if you were Asian-American: play ping-pong, play piano, wear glasses … wear a camera round your neck, ride a bike, drive an import, grow a moustache (or, if female, streak your hair)
Whatever our cultural heritage, others will make judgements on the basis of our appearance and how we present ourselves, on our accents and dress. However close that comes to how we perceive ourselves, it’s integral to our identity. There’s a little bit of Gulliver in everyone, navigating an alien land.
I had fun selecting these nine novels to explore the multifaceted nature of identity, although I’m sure, on another day, I could have picked a different set. But I hope I have reminded you of some of your own favourites, and perhaps sparked your interest in my anthology.
Whether or not you choose to read the book, I’d love to host you at my Facebook launch party where, the more people participate in the fun and games, the more I’ll donate to a reading charity.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity launches on Facebook on November 23rd, 2018, where the more people participate the more she’ll donate to Book Aid International. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a particular interest in fictional therapists.
Find Anne’s website here and on Twitter she is @Annecdotist.