The Vanishing Half Themes
by Brit Bennett

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The Vanishing Half Themes

The main themes in The Vanishing Half are race and racism, the formation of identity, and recurrence and progress.

  • Race and racism: The novel considers how the categorization of race is both arbitrary and damaging, given the insidious effects of racism.
  • The formation of identity: Many of the characters in the novel create and shape their identities. In some cases, this process is based on falsehoods; in others, it is authentic.
  • Recurrence and progress: With its fifty-year span, the novel shows how some aspects American culture remain stagnate while others exhibit signs of progress.

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Race and Racism

It would be impossible not to count racism and its destructive effects as central to the novel. The novel’s tragedy of familial estrangement is precipitated by Stella’s having turned her back on her mother, her sister, and other people of color in general. The entire Vignes family has also been traumatized by the lynching of the twins’ father, Leon, which the two were forced to witness. The trauma of this event is a principal factor shaping the lives of those who have experienced it. Though Stella has created a false world for herself and has built her life on lies, her fundamental motive for doing so is arguably self-protection.

At the same time, The Vanishing Half questions the way humanity as a whole has conceptualized those very differences upon which prejudice and discrimination are based. Is race, in its usual reference to supposedly distinct and exclusive segments of humanity, a real thing at all, or is it simply a social construct based on falsehoods? Stella reflects that all she has had to do to become “white” is to act white. The range of skin color among the characters in the story is a demonstration that a continuum of color exists among people and that there is really no clear rationale for the division of people into races. 

Racism and alleged racial differences can be seen as just one instance of the human tendency to exclude or marginalize Otherness. Reese’s transsexuality is another type of divergence from the norm, and the discrimination against gay and trans people that occurs in societies throughout the world is a clear analogue to racism—and one which Bennett draws attention to. Just as racial categories are called into question, “male” and “female” are not the totally exclusive categories they were once thought to be, and transsexual people such as Reese demonstrate that sexuality can be seen as a kind of continuum between male and female.

The Formation of Identity

In The Vanishing Half, many of the central characters engage in the process of creating their identities. Perhaps the most notable example of self-creation is that of Stella, who “becomes” white. She becomes a rich man’s wife and the 1960s equivalent of a society woman. At one level, her act of identity formation is false, but the novel examines whether her transformation is really so different from the way other characters create new lives, such as Kennedy’s becoming an actress and then a real-estate agent or Jude’s becoming a doctor. From one perspective, Stella’s transformation is indeed different, because it is based on a lie, a huge cover-up. But in some sense this isn’t Stella’s fault. Racism is what has compelled her to erase her past and disown her family. It also compels her to victimize other people, such as the Walkers, by falsely befriending them out of guilt and then effectively causing them to be driven from her neighborhood. 

Reese’s creation of a new identity is, perhaps by contrast, an affirmation of what he has already known is his nature. He knows he is already a man, so he becomes one, despite society’s potential objections. From a broader perspective, both Reese and Stella are forced to confront limiting norms and navigate according to strict but meaningless binaries. Humans have long attached values and hierarchies to identities, whether racial, ethnic, sexual, or...

(The entire section is 940 words.)