Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Identity and the American Novel

by Catriona Ellis

Some thoughts on the explorations of identity present in the minor characters of Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’

The exploration of identity is a preconception at the heart of the novels of Bellow and Plath. Whilst their protagonists, Moses Herzog and Esther Greenwood respectively undergo surprisingly similar transitions and realisations with respects to their essential selves, secondary characters such as Romana, Madeleine and Gersbach in ‘Herzog’ and Jay Cee in ‘The Bell Jar’ also present possibilities for the exploration of identity, be it through their individualism or the fluid and sometimes constructed nature of their characters.

Throughout both novels Esther and Herzog attempt to assert individuality in society, however both admire role models who embody individualism. In Bellow’s novel, Herzog respects Romana, his lover, who “teaches him that the instincts survive and that the private self endures”[1] and represents the contentment of an assertive individual in society. Although Herzog still requires an “act” (Herzog 183) and “swagger” (Herzog 183) in order to present himself socially, he aspires to assert himself in a similar, individualistic way. Meanwhile Plath shows that for Esther, Jay Cee, her boss, also appears to be an image of female empowerment: she is the editor of a respected magazine. Nevertheless, she can also be show to be “the masculine in female disguise”[2]; Jay exemplifies many conventionally male characteristics, such as the abbreviation of language into the harsh language of business, (“’Jay Cee here,’ Jay Cee rapped out with brutal promptitude” (Bell Jar 28)), the wearing of a “strict office suit” (Bell Jar 6) and through her forename, which is typically masculine. In this way, Jay has not managed to assert her individuality as a woman in American society to the level that Esther believes she has done because even though she is successful professionally, she has conformed to a male-dominated world and suffered a loss of identity accordingly. Thus, when Esther admires Jay for her professional success, she is actually admiring all that is masculine and conformist in her boss. Therefore although Esther appears to want to assert her own individuality, on a subconscious level she may also believe that as a woman “you must sacrifice your poor, niggardly individuality” (Herzog 93) in order to succeed in a male dominated world.

Accordingly, Plath and Bellow present the opportunities that can become available with the assertion of individuality, even if it is derived from a false-consciousness on the part of Jay Cee; Romana experiences success romantically and Jay achieves highly in the commercial world of publishing. However, other characters choose to construct identities, as opposed to asserting their essential individualities, in order to succeed socially; Madeleine and Valentine Gersbach both embody different personas, depending on the company they are in. Herzog describes how, for Madeleine, “conversation was a theatrical event” (Herzog 112), clarifying theatre as “the art of upstarts, opportunists, would-be aristocrats” (Herzog 112). The notion of conversation as “theatrical” implies falseness yet also fluidity with regards to her persona, leading to the conclusion that identities can be consciously constructed. The inclusion of the satirical “would-be” suggests Herzog’s disdain for Madeleine’s constructed aristocratic identity and the deception with which she is treating herself; Madeleine’s “theatrical” conversation has infiltrated her understanding of identity and she believes herself to be the construct that she created. Simultaneously, “theatrical” implies variability in Madeleine’s character, presenting Bellow’s exploration of freedom of identity. Likewise, Gersbach consciously hides his affair with Madeleine from Herzog, constructing two identities: that of the friend and that of the lover. Although his Christian name, Valentine, foreshadows the romantic part Gersbach plays in the novel, Herzog is initially unaware of his friend’s other character. Thus, both Madeleine and Gersbach create dual identities that they are able to adopt in different situations, confirming Herzog’s own proclamation that his acquaintances are “actors all” (Herzog 228).

To conclude, the secondary characters of Plath and Bellow demonstrate a capacity for both the manipulation of identity and the assertion of individuality. These characters offer fascinating explorations of the essential self that compliment the experiences of the protagonists by reminding the reader that almost every character is undergoing a transformation of identity continuously. Hence the preoccupations are presented as universal in that they prompt the reader to consider the notion that individuals are constantly adapting to pressures on their identities whether they are the protagonists of their own, or anyone else’s, stories, or whether they are secondary to the primary motive of a plot.

[2] E. Miller Budick, The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar (National Council of Teachers of English, College English, Vol. 49, No. 8 (Dec., 1987), pp 872-885) Accessed 7/7/2015

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