The Museum of Extraordinary Things

by Alice Hoffman
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Last Updated on January 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156

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 he’d been taught to shake the bars of the cage in which he was exhibited and to grunt rather than speak. It was when they [the public] looked in his eyes and saw how human he was that he terrified them.

Mr. Morris’s civilized behavior comes even to intimidate Coralie’s father, the Professor, who sees his intellectual equal in the Wolfman. The Professor at one point remarks to Mr. Morris that, had it not been for his grace, the Wolfman would have been cast out of society by now, or, worse yet, killed by the “civilized” inhabitants of the city: “Remember at all times, you are a freak of nature, and that alone is your distinction.” Whereas the public dehumanizes Mr. Morris because of his appearance, the Professor does so as a mark of superiority and defense. Only Coralie and Maureen appreciate the Wolfman for those traits that should be used to appraise one’s character—his intelligence, integrity, and compassion.

Transformation and Starting Again

Although both Eddie and Coralie undergo several transformations in character throughout the course of the novel, the reader is given a sense that their survival of the museum fire forges them anew and prepares them to enter the world as entirely different people from who they were before. When Eddie, Coralie, and Mitts (Eddie’s beloved pitbull) emerge from the water tank—the physical embodiment of Coralie’s old life—it is as if they have been reborn. Mitts can no longer behave as his free-spirited, energetic former self and now has a crippling fear of the water. Eddie, on the other hand, comes to drink eight glasses of water every night, associating it with the woman he loves and who saved his life.

The destruction of the museum and her father’s manuscript symbolically frees Coralie from her previous life, which belonged to a woman without a strong sense of her self or her destiny. In a farewell letter to Maureen, Coralie writes,

In my memories I have set my life in Brooklyn between pieces of glass, separate from my current existence, and this has enabled me to move forward. The past cannot tie me in knots, nor can it reach for me and cause me to drown.

All of the changes that have occurred in these characters’ lives culminate in this pivotal moment. Eddie, formerly torn between his rejection of the stifling traditions of his childhood and love for his family, is able to reconcile with his father. Maureen, whom Coralie hints was abused by her father at a very young age, is now able to free herself from this bondage and find her own happiness. And Coralie, once a girl who was bound to her father’s selfish, profit-driven satisfaction, has found her own satisfaction in a happy marriage and a new chance at life.

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