Television and Identity in Literature Analysis

Television and Suspicious Fascination

In literature as in other areas of modern discourse, the relationship between television and identity is ambiguous. This ambiguity reflects America’s suspicious fascination with technology and the mass media. Since the initiation of regular network broadcasting in the mid-1940’s, television has been presented in literature as determining and undermining individual identity. Sometimes literature simply reflects the integral role that television plays in mainstream American culture. John Updike’s quartet of Rabbit novels, for example, illustrates the passage of time by depicting the initiation of three American generations into the television culture. In Rabbit, Run (1960), Updike’s hero Harry Angstrom studies The Mickey Mouse Club with a religious awe. Years later, in Rabbit at Rest (1990), he watches in fascination as his granddaughter demonstrates her mastery of the remote control. Even ethnic identity is drawn into mainstream television culture. A recurrent image in Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) is the appearance of the novel’s two Cuban protagonists on an episode of I Love Lucy.

Television creates a communal myth, a reassuring way of understanding the world. Through television, each person participates in a larger cultural identity. Partaking of America means partaking of television, which is why the presentation of the American Dream of happy home and family is so...

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Television as Sublime Oracle

As writers describe the difficulty of maintaining individual identity in the television age, they often present television as a source of mysterious signals whose meaning takes on a sense of sinister, incomprehensible mystery. A character may be unable to decipher these signals, and the result is a feeling of conspiracy or chaos. Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 (1967) notices a series of bizarre connections while watching television and fears that “it’s all part of a plot.” The character of Lee Harvey Oswald in DeLillo’s Libra (1988) loses himself in television as he receives sinister instructions from it: “He felt connected to the events on the screen. It was like secret instructions entering the network of signals and broadcast bands, the whole busy air of transmission. . . . They were running a message through the night into his skin.”


Suggested Readings

Coppa, Frank J., ed. Screen and Society: The Impact of Television upon Aspects of Contemporary Civilization. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979.

Himmelstein, Hal. On the Small Screen: New Approaches in Television and Video Criticism. New York: Praeger, 1981.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium Is the Message. New York: Bantam, 1967.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Tichi, Cecelia. “Television and Recent American Fiction.” American Literary History 1, no. 1 (1989): 110-130.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.