Book Review · Literature

Identity in Literature

‘Identity’ refers to “the collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known”[1], in other words, what makes a person unique or distinctive. ‘Identity’ as a theme can be a somewhat problematic concept, however, because authors and poets often construct complex and unfathomable characters. Writers will often construct characters who perform a false identity; villains such as Shakespeare’s Iago, for instance. A person’s identity can be determined by their self-conception as well as their social presentation; how they behave within civilisation. Thus, it is important as a reader to contemplate the contextual background of a literary text because it is this that determines what would have influenced the norms of behaviour and therefore, a strong indication of why an author, poet or playwright would construct their characters in the way that they do. Furthermore, the construction of identity may be influenced by stereotypical views of a characters gender or culture, for instance, and writers often choose to complicate their plot-lines by transforming a character’s identity over the course of the text.

Identity is a strong premise in many literary texts, possibly because a writer must always construct several identities in order to achieve interesting characters. In William Blake’s poetry, for instance, he exploits his romanticist views and expresses his concerns with individualism by constructing identities which highlight his ideas. Throughout his works “the representation of various cultural myths and identities”[2] are used to exemplify his disapproval of circumstances which he held strong opinions about. Another example of a text exploring identity as a theme is Seamus Heaney’s epic poem, ‘Beowulf’, where the characters are presented as especially concerned with the establishment of their own identities, which Heaney constructs on the basis of two key elements; ancestral heritage and individual reputation. In the Nineteenth-Century, realist novel, Silas Marner, by George Eliot, the theme of identity is explored in a different manner. The protagonist lives as a social recluse because he does not conform to the idyllic identity which the community constructed. Thus, Eliot focuses her novel on Silas Marner reconstructing his identity as an outsider.

During the Romantic Era, writers used their works to express their varying social concerns but in an elusive and multifaceted manner. The importance of the child was one of William Blake’s central interests and he thoroughly demonstrates this in his collection of poems titled ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. In one poem from the collection, titled ‘Infant Joy’, Blake not only focuses on the gift of life but also deals with the lack of identity that comes with a new-born child. The new-born could be seen, metaphorically, as a blank canvas because of its lack of experience. Thus, it allows Blake to construct an identity purely on his ideals, rather than something which has been influenced by its encounters. Therefore, it is possible that Blake is arguing the idea that to be a child, particularly without a name or label, is to be without burden and innocent of impositions of social structures such as religious institutions. Blake allows the baby to construct its own identity, which is shown through the phrase “Joy is my name”[3]. The fact that the baby choses the name “Joy”,  a synonym of happiness and exultation, is a reflection of Blake’s vision for the human spirit to determine our own state of bliss, rather than relying on and allowing society to modify and taint us.

Unlike Blake in many of his works, George Eliot avoids romanticising labourers and instead depicts a realistic portrayal of nineteenth-century, village life. Eliot constructs her protagonist, Silas Marner, as remote and isolated for fifteen years of his life, stating that “he invited no comer to step across his door-sill”[4] which highlights the fact that being alone is his choice. After being falsely accused of theft, Marner’s faith in God and in humanity is crushed so he resorts to practising his trade serenely. To begin with, Silas Marner lacks any sense of identity due to being an outsider to the social structure and misunderstood by the villagers but over the course of the novel he is able to slowly find himself; particularly with the arrival of Eppie. The process of loving another human-identity and receiving love in return is what reconnects Marner into the community.

In his epic poem, ‘Beowulf’, Seamus Heaney presents the literal interpretation of identity by discussing who his characters are and where they came from; their patriarchal history, for instance. In medieval Scandinavia, family lineage was a vital influence on an individual’s identity and due to the fact that Beowulf comes from a long line of royalty, he is highly respected. This concept is explored throughout the poem and it is evident that characters cannot be introduced without a mention of their family lineage. For example, even in the opening stanzas the reader is introduced to a father figure; Shield Sheafson before Heaney presents a second character, Beow, who is established with the line “Shield had fathered a famous son”[5]. Heaney’s construction of Sheafson as the ideal hero, prior to introducing his son, highlights the poems obsession with ancestral heritage.

Heaney constructs an identity for his characters, not only based on their family lineage, but also through the enhancement of their reputation. The characters attempt to create a solid positive representation of themselves, often by boasting of their achievements and exploits. The lines “Anyone with gumption, / and a sharp mind will take the measure / of two things: what’s said and what’s done”[6] highlight the importance of every action in medieval Scandinavia; what they say is equally important as what they do, forever developing their status. This desire to be renowned is perhaps a method of ensuring that one’s individual identity will remain, even after death; an understandable concept during that time considering that Christianity claims that although the body dies, souls live on and enjoy the presence of God. Furthermore, for a warrior who is frequently in battle, it is only instinctive to think of death and what may happen after. The construction of identity as two prevalent entities is encapsulated in the lines “he was the mightiest man on earth, / high-born and powerful”[7].  This line emphasises the on-going idea that Beowulf is a valued warrior as a result of both his family lineage and his competence.

Across several forms of literature, the theme of identity is prominent because characters work as the basis to a text and shape the plot. No matter what point in history a text was written, it is always important for readers to scrutinise a character’s identity and consider why they are the way they are and why they behave the way they behave, thus grasping a more thorough understanding of the overall content.

[1] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/identity

[2] http://classicsnetwork.com/essays/william-blake-as-an-illustrator-of/253

[3] http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/infant-joy/

[4] George Eliot. 1993. Silas Marner. (Wordsworth Classics) p. 5

[5] Seamus Heaney. 1999. Beowulf. (Faber and Faber Limited) p. 3

[6] Seamus Heaney. 1999. Beowulf. (Faber and Faber Limited) p. 11

[7] Seamus Heaney. 1999. Beowulf. (Faber and Faber Limited) p. 8

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