The theme of alienation and lost identity, so common to Abe’s work, is the focus of his novel The Face of Another. In a laboratory accident, a chemist sustains facial disfigurement so severe that he never appears, even at home, without bandages. In time, because of his lack of communication with his wife, he decides to get a lifelike mask in an effort to recover what he believes is his lost identity. A plastic surgeon agrees to make a mask, but he reminds the chemist that the mask, however perfect technically, will impose a new personality on him.
The novel contains numerous ironies. For example, it is precisely because of the unfortunate disfigurement, causing the chemist to wear a mask, that he is able to discover that one’s face is not, in fact, one’s real identity. The normal face, in fact, is as unreal as the mask, for it can conceal a self that is as ugly as a face that the mask might conceal. While it is true that initially the mask affords the chemist a new and more confident independence, he soon realizes that there is a negative side to having the mask as well. His need for a more normal relationship with his wife spurs him to test her love for him by trying to seduce her while wearing the new mask. He arranges for a clandestine meeting with his wife in a house other than his own, and the novel actually begins with an account of his waiting for her arrival. Meanwhile, he has been keeping notes in his diary of events related to the mask and his reactions to them, and he leaves the diary at home where his wife can find and read the entries. It turns out, however, that his wife was never deceived at all. She does not show up at the planned rendezvous. Instead, she leaves a note for her husband to find when he returns home, accusing him of being totally selfish in trying to manipulate her. She suggests that he needs a mirror, not her. The chemist refuses to accept her evaluation. He believes that thinking of oneself is always a result, not a cause, defending his belief by pointing out that it is the outside world that passes judgment on a person’s value and “guarantees him the right to live.” As the book ends, the chemist dons his mask and goes out into the streets.
A central message of the novel is that a mask is false and can no more be a person’s identity than can the face with which that person is born. Ironically, however, using a...
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