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
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 The previous generation, the other continent, the other race seeks to impose upon the new generation an outdated set of rules; the new culture, to exist, must overturn the old culture that can no longer serve.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
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...
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