Identity Crisis as Literary Theme Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literary criticism concerns itself not so much with the reconstruction of plot as with the study of themes, characters, and the use of techniques. From Greek playwright Sophocles’ Oidipous Tryanos (c. 429 b.c.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1729) to African American writer Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), the identity crisis has demonstrated its power as one of the main thematic concerns in literature. Tragedy becomes ineluctable when characters are unable to extricate themselves from the conflict between who they are and who they are supposed to be. Conversely, characters’ awareness of their true selves is essential to the eventual achievement of self-actualization. In American literature, especially contemporary American literature, an identity crisis is frequently occasioned by conflict. Conflict between a person or group and another person, group, or natural force is what drives one into change.

Society and the Identity Crisis

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature is often born in protest, in rebellion. The previous generation, the other continent, the other race seeks to impose upon the new generation an outdated set of rules; the new culture, to exist, must overturn the old culture that can no longer serve. Being fully aware of the dialectical relationship between individual and society, many contemporary American writers are antithetical to society’s propensity for materialism and commercialization and are suspicious of tradition’s valetudinarian impact. In their works, characters’ sense of self and their acceptable role in society constitutes a major conflict, which possesses the potential for tragedy.

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) concerns the narrator Holden Caulfield’s struggle to identify his relationship with society. Holden, a teenager, is well read and perceptive. He has been kicked out of four private prep schools, partly because he does not want to “play the game according to the rules.” It is true that Holden’s self-righteousness blinds him to his own weaknesses and limitations. His negative feelings about society eliminate any possibility of compromise. Social pressure that is directed toward molding him into who he does not want to be equally contributes to the emotional stress he has to endure. An identity crisis takes its toll; Holden suffers a nervous breakdown and is sent to a mental hospital.

In Walker’s The Color Purple, a group of characters suffer confusion about their true identity and their designated roles in society. Their confusion precipitates the creation of not only personal but also social tragedy. Harpo and Sofia are a happy couple. Harpo is not as physically and emotionally strong as Sofia. Given a choice, he would be happy to be who he is, but Harpo’s father tells him to be the man of the house and take control. Harpo and Sofia’s resultant conflict eventually leads to the separation of the two. The reader learns that Harpo’s father, Albert, had a similar experience. Listening to his father turned Albert into a victim of moribund traditions.

Culture and the Identity Crisis

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

To celebrate the diversity of American society is to recognize literary voices whose power is generated by writers’ deep identification with their race and gender. Such voices call readers’ attention to the uniqueness of experience. In an attempt to democratize American literary voices, many contemporary American writers of color want to reclaim their sense of history and identity by exploring what has been lost in scholars’ subjective reconstruction of history. Their works portray characters’ struggle in search of their ontological as well as cultural identity.

Japanese American writer John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957) describes a person’s struggle to balance two cultures. Ichiro Yamada is a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American. His confusion about his identity is revealed in his imaginary conversation with his mother in which he laments that there was a time in which he believed he was the peach boy, born to an old woman and a Japanese warrior. There was also a time in which he was only half Japanese because “one is not born in America and raised in America and taught in America and one does not speak and swear and drink and smoke and play and fight and see and hear in America among Americans in American streets and houses without becoming American and loving it.” Ichiro refuses to join the military during World War II, partly because of his loyalty to his parents and partly because of his resentment of the mistreatment Japanese Americans have experienced. After he is released from prison, his search for his...

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Tragedy and Identity Crisis

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Conflict has always been an important subject in literature. It has a direct bearing on writers’ thematic concerns. In much American literature, tragedy is closely tied to characters’ confusion about their identity. Their emotional sufferings are frequently occasioned by their inability to overcome the crisis. T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” uses the dramatic monologue form to depict a person’s wavering between wanting to be himself and the familiar comforts of an emotionally closed, drawing-room life. Prufrock is a middle-aged man who feels attracted and repulsed by a room symbolic of highbrow society. He oscillates between a reality filled with “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells” and a room in which “women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” The narrator’s problem is not that he does not know who he is, but that he lacks the courage to be who he is. The conflict between his true and false identities vividly portrays a modern tragedy: not one in which the hero dies but one in which the hero lives an unheroic life. The poem ends with the narrator’s capitulation: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) is another modern tragedy. The main character Willy Loman has been unable to resolve his identity crisis throughout his life. Willy’s sometimes contradictory behavior underlines the intensity of the war within himself. It reveals the conflict between...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Barrow, Craig. Gender, Race, and Identity. Chattanooga, Tenn.: Southern Humanities Press, 1993. Ties together the study of gender and race identity.

Dixon, Melvin. Ride out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987. A unique study of the connection between culture and individual identity.

Frosh, Stephen. Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and the Self. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991. A perceptive analysis of the dialectical connections among the individual, culture, and society.

Massey, Irving. Identity and Community: Reflections on English, Yiddish, and French Literature in Canada. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994. A comprehensive study of identity related issues in Canadian literature.

Schier, Helga. Going Beyond: The Crisis of Identity and Identity Models in Contemporary American, English, and German Fiction. Tubingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 1993. One of few works that focuses on the study of identity crisis and provides a global perspective on the issue.

Singh, Amritjit, Joseph T. Skerrett, and Robert E. Hogan. Memory, Narrative, and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994. A collection of essays that examine identity issues in African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and Native American literature and cultures. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Wright, Lee Alfred. Identity, Family, and Folklore in African American Literature. New York: Garland, 1995. Takes a historical look at how African American writers use folklore and literature to deal with identity crisis.

Zeineddine, Nada. Because It Is My Name: Problems of Identity Experienced by Women, Artists, and Breadwinners in the Plays of Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Braunton, Devon, England: Merlin Books, 1991. A study of identity crisis in drama, especially in contemporary American theater.