Consistency/Inconsistency of Identity Construction

A particularly noteworthy aspect of the narrator, even within the very first chapter, is his attempt to escape explicit classification, a purposeful, calculated muddying of his own interior. In the first line of the novel, he proudly confesses his identity, or rather, the multiple identities that he dons like masks; he is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds” (1). The narrator thrives on this duplicity, a variability reminiscent almost of a constantly revolving moon, half of which is always hidden from view in darkness. Even the side that is visible constantly shifts, ever-changing. The narrator remarks upon his own burgeoning obsession with inconsistency soon after in relation to Emerson’s writing, ruminating, “What had smitten me then, and strikes me now, was that the same thing could be said of our motherland, where we are nothing if not inconsistent” (12). In a land historically and currently marred by geopolitical and cultural volatility, a certain connection is evident between a narrator who refuses to cement himself into, or commit to, one identity, one pair of face and mind, and a nation that fails to stabilize itself, torn asunder by foreign and native forces alike. The inconsistency that the narrator seems to embrace within himself can be traced back to the trauma of repeatedly being called a “bastard,” and his bitterness rears its ugly head when he states, “I should have been used to that misbegotten name by now, but somehow I was not. My mother was native, my father was foreign, and strangers and acquaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood, spitting on me and calling me bastard, although sometimes, for variety, they called me bastard before they spit on me” (19). From when he was young, the narrator was repulsed by the word “bastard,” a term connoting a blend of elements that should not have been blended, a combination which has resulted in a repugnant monstrosity. The narrator flees classification, a claim to a single identity, because there exists no whole, pure “self” that he can ascribe himself to. Although it may seem like he seeks different faces and minds, the inverse is true; he simply cannot bear to commit to one identity, because the identity that awaits him is one of pain, shame, and filth, an identity better left unclaimed. Therefore the narrator has and continues to construct himself haphazardly, inconsistently, refusing to dwell too long on one mask lest the mask become skin. This mindset is particularly evident when he recalls, “My mother called me her love child, but I do not like to dwell on that. In the end, my father had it right. He called me nothing at all” (21). The narrator believes that he is nothing, a void, without his inconsistency, which begs the question of whether we as readers should analyze him as one character or many. A mastermind of espionage and subterfuge?  Or an oriental “self” and occidental “other,” or perhaps oriental “other” and occidental “self,” trapped within the same tormented mind and body?

1 Comment

  1. I totally agree with your analysis and I too was conflicted in how I should characterize the narrator. I think it’s not just that he doesn’t want to pin himself down in one identity, but also that he can’t. When the Department Chair asks him to make a list comparing his “Oriental” qualities to his “Occidental” qualities, many of the ones he list are in direct conflict with one another (“prefer to follow…yet yearn to lead”). And a few are relative based on other people (short [for an Occidental]… tall [for an Oriental]). I think the narrator’s fluidity in his traits actually makes him more like a real person. Real people can’t often be described by just a few, definite adjectives. Someone can be both optimistic and pessimistic, depending on the situation. And oftentimes real people don’t know quite how to characterize themselves. Am I really all that neat? Or have I just trained myself to be? Sometimes I love talking to others, but sometimes I want to be alone, so am I outgoing or an introvert? Why do we even feel the need to label ourselves with these traits? The narrator’s rejection of labels is, I think, refreshing from what we usually see in novels and in the real world.

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