The Museum of Extraordinary Things Themes
by Alice Hoffman

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things Themes

Crisis of Identity

Throughout the story, the reader is introduced to a number of characters who, because of the extreme circumstances they are confronted with, are forced to adopt personas that do not correlate with the inner understandings they have of themselves. Coralie Sardie, a young woman with a birth defect that gives her hands a fish-like appearance, is forced to work in her father’s “Museum of Extraordinary Things” as an attraction. When her initial act as a human mermaid eventually falls out of fashion, she begins to swim up and down the Hudson River in order to trick New Yorkers into believing that she is a sea monster. She is presented to the world as a freak of nature, an oddity meant to ignite the fascination of gawking audiences.

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In reality, however, Coralie is ashamed of her webbed fingers. The freakish persona that she adopts for the purpose of her and her father’s livelihood conflicts with the inner recognition of her ordinariness. Coralie is a girl who loves nothing more than to quietly read a novel from her father’s library or have a conversation with the housekeeper, Maureen. When the public loses interest in the human mermaid exhibit, Coralie experiences an existential crisis. As a museum attraction, Coralie was something of significance in a society full of forgotten people. With her fame diminishing, she, too, began to feel like a nobody, even though this would mean a chance at a normal life that she had never before experienced.

Eddie Cohen also undergoes an identity crisis midway through the narrative. When his father seemingly tries to drown himself after losing his job at a textile factory, Eddie decides to cast off his Orthodox Jewish heritage and abandon the only family he has ever known. At first, he becomes a hired snitch of sorts for a local degenerate, Hochman, although he grows to despise this aspect of his life. In reflecting on this transformation, he says:

I had spied on men. I’d followed them like a shadow. I wrote down their trespasses and their sins. I made no sacrifices and held nothing dear, and in doing so I became one of those creatures I’d heard about, a dybbuk made of straw, with nothing inside.

Eddie is ultimately able to overcome this crisis of identity by adopting a new profession—photography—in which he feels he can express his true appreciation of the world around him.

The Essence of Humanity

The Museum of Extraordinary Things itself, as well as the many other freak show performances on Coney Island, serves as a powerful symbol of the hypocrisy and wretchedness that defines many of the more well-to-do people of New York. The inhuman, monstrous appearance of the individuals who sell themselves to the public is reflected by the similarly monstrous nature of the spectators who pay money to see them. This is evident, for example, in the many potential “suitors” who offer Coralie’s father large sums of money to sleep with her. Their desire has no connection with genuine love or attachment but rather stems entirely from her freakishness in and of itself, from a “depraved and wicked thrill” nurtured by the thought of conquering her bestial sexuality. The reader is left to wonder whether it is Coralie or the men who court her who is the real monster.

We can also see the contradictions of humanity in Coralie’s interactions with Raymond Morris, the Wolfman, who works for the museum for a brief period. By all accounts, Mr. Morris is the most well-read man who works for Coralie’s father, and perhaps one of the most intelligent men in the city. He thoroughly enjoys reading any literature he can get his hands on, can recite the poetry of Shakespeare by heart, and often quotes fragments from Poe or Whitman when engaging in gentle colloquy. He quickly captures the intense curiosity—and fear—of the crowds. When recalling her interactions with the Wolfman, Coralie states:

He was, without a doubt, our star attraction, though not because he was so fierce—although...

(The entire section is 1,156 words.)