Identity, as reflected in fiction
March 23, 2009 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Navel-gazing via literature: Tell me (arts-inclined new physician in an introspective mood) about novels or other literary works that deal with changes in personal identity, the processes which shape who we become, and the conflicts which arise along the way.

So in order to graduate from my residency program, I need to present a research project. I'm getting back to my humanities roots, and exploring (from a very personal, non-scientific point of view) medical training and the changes it produces in the trainee's sense of self. For the sake of background, most of the stereotypes are true: we start out young, idealistic and unformed, and through the application of countless sleepless nights and the constant fear of accidentally killing someone, we become . . . well, some version of a physician, with all the stereotypes and cultural implications of that title. Due in part to medical training's "fake it till you make it" culture, the changes aren't always smooth, and I don't think I'm the only one who has wondered where their old, sometimes dysfunctional, non-doctor-y quirks have gone, and whether they might later come back in unexpected ways.

Lots has been written about this in medical and sociological journals, but it occurs to me that this whole transformation thing is not at all unique to doctors . . . in fact, would it be unfair to say that nearly *every* good book deals in some way with issues of identity and transformation? Tell me which ones have particularly affected you, and how they changed your thinking about who you (or others) are.

[Full disclosure: excerpts from your selected books may appear in my (likely never-to-be-published) research paper, but you are not a research subject, and I will not quote you directly; this is more a brainstorming session to open my eyes to a literary world that I’ve been missing lately.]
posted by TheLittlestRobot to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The question instantly made me think of Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, a classic "passage through adolescence" novel. You can read the first few chapters via google books. Most of Hesse's other books would qualify as well.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 6:14 PM on March 23, 2009

There's always Middlesex which deals, in part, with how one's identity is medicalized or scientifically defined (along with countless other ways).

Jorge Semprun's The Long Voyage is a memoir-ish novel that occurs over the course of the narrator's train ride to a concentration camp, while flashing backwards and forwards in time. It can be read imo as a meditation no subjectivity and identity and the ramifications of profound trauma.
posted by scribbler at 6:18 PM on March 23, 2009

ON subjectivity... etc. etc.
posted by scribbler at 6:19 PM on March 23, 2009

Hesse's Peter Camenzind.

I agree with arcanecrowbar; most of Hesse's work.
posted by jgirl at 6:29 PM on March 23, 2009

Get your hands on the Raw Shark Texts pronto.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 6:37 PM on March 23, 2009

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie.
posted by availablelight at 6:44 PM on March 23, 2009

Seconding Hesse. Steppenwolf is very good and also quick read.

Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley is a great book rich in psychological and philosophical insights. Most of Huxley's books are well worth reading.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:34 PM on March 23, 2009

One book I read a few months ago (Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic) dealt with identity in an odd way.

In the book, one man, Jonas, wakes up to find that every living thing on Earth (other than plants) has inexplicably vanished. Not killed by plague or war, but simply disappeared. He wanders the streets of his hometown, Vienna, searching for others, broadcasting radio messages and leaving Post-It notes everywhere, trying to figure out what has happened to the world.

After awhile, the total social isolation gets to Jonas. He becomes determined to reconstruct his childhood memories, moving his old furniture out of his parent's apartment to his old home, rooting through the attic for forgotten possessions, etc. Unable to define himself in relation to other people anymore, he delves into his past to try to salvage some meaning, some form of identity and sense of belonging.

At the same time, the stress of the bizarre situation manifests itself in a horrifying way -- when he sleeps, Jonas literally becomes another personality, an inscrutable "Sleeper" that Jonas is only aware of by viewing recordings he made of his bedroom after becoming paranoid that he was being watched while he slept. In a world without other people, the Sleeper becomes another character, undoing Jonas's waking activities and performing cryptic actions for the camera.

Who is the Sleeper? Is it really Jonas? His subconscious? An alter ego? A supernatural entity related to the mass disappearances? There are no hard answers, and the nature of the character and of the wider world are mused on extensively by Jonas. Some sample passages:

Now Jonas had returned and the walking stick still belonged to him. Much had changed since the last time he saw it. He had left school and done his national service, had girlfriends and lost his mother. He had grown up and started on a life of his own. The Jonas who had last touched this stick had been a child, an entirely different person. Yet not so different, for if Jonas searched his inner self the self he found was the same as the one he remembered. Twenty years ago, when he'd said "I" with this stick in his hand, he'd meant the same person as he was today. He, Jonas, was that person. He couldn't escape. Would always be that person. Whatever happened. Never anyone else. Not Martin. Not Peter. Not Richard. Only himself.

and [describing the Sleeper]:

Jonas couldn't interpret the look in those eyes. He saw no hint of kindliness or friendliness. Nothing that might have inspired confidence or conveyed intimacy. But he also saw no anger or hatred. Not even dislike. The expression was one of cool, calm condescension and a sort of emptiness that clearly related to himself. It became so intense that he noticed he was displaying signs of mounting hysteria.

You can see more at Google Books, which has a sizable preview available as well as full-text search.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:44 PM on March 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

Woolf's Orlando.
posted by steef at 8:02 PM on March 23, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--James Joyce
posted by doncoyote at 11:18 PM on March 23, 2009

One of my favorite novels of all time is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It fits what your asking for nicely I think, and is really a work about memory and time, the way the past haunts objects, buildings, places, people. It is also very much about faith and where that comes from, why we do or do not need/have it, what it does for and to us. The ending to me was almost so ill-fitting that it became exquisite, perfect, like it was so wrong it became exactly right. Divine flaws and human forgiveness!

Also what comes to mind is the Odyssey, but even better, there is a slim volume of poetry by Louise Gluck called Meadowlands. It is a re-imagining of the Odyssey, set in suburban New Jersey amidst a crumbling marriage. It is heartbreaking and gorgeous, I think probably her best work. Everyone and everything is changed by the time Odysseus returns from his journey.
posted by snizz at 1:54 AM on March 24, 2009

Barbara Vine's The Blood Doctor tells the story of a hereditary peer discovering his identity, examining bloodlines, infertility, the reformation of the House of Lords at the turn of the millenium and Queen Victoria's haemophilia. It's not literature, but I thought it very well-written and totally engrossing.
posted by goo at 2:00 AM on March 24, 2009

I suppose you're talking about the Bildungsroman genre.

I can't honestly think of a book that has affected my identity that much in adult life but while I was a teenager I was greatly impressed by Maugham's The Razor's Edge. I lived in a fairly homogeneous society where the people I knew pretty much had similar goals and lifestyles and I was about to face my own adulthood and it seemed that there should be more to it. So, as wikipedia puts it, it was great to read:

"The novel starts its story through the eyes of Larry’s friends and acquaintances as they witness his personality change after the War. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while the more materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune."
posted by lucia__is__dada at 2:51 AM on March 24, 2009

If you're a person becoming a physician and looking for fiction about people becoming physicians, you want Vincent Lam's short story collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.
posted by roombythelake at 6:38 AM on March 24, 2009

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I could go on about this text for-ev-er. I suggest you just read it. It is the ultimate Bildungsroman novel (in my opinion, at least.)

It draws heavily upon themes presented in Notes from Underground, The Communist Manifesto, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Eliot's poem The Wasteland, Lacan's essay on the mirror stage, and naturally, Freud...among countless other texts.

Invisible man on wikipedia.
posted by slograffiti at 9:02 AM on March 24, 2009

I'm not sure if this is entirely in your baliwick, but Philip Dick's A Scanner Darkly involves shifts in personal identity that are entirely unknown to the character in question, Bob Arctor, a drug user who is also an undercover cop spying on the household in which he lives. But the drug he takes splits his consciousness into two seperate personalities, neither one of which knows about the other. Reading this book produces a very odd sensation. The real "meaning" of the novel is open to several interpretations.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:13 AM on March 24, 2009

A housewife trips on pool furniture, cracks her head, and dies. She wakes up in the body of a rich African-American daughter a little over a year later, whose consciousness seems to have passed on in a drug overdose. She starts to try to clean up the girl's life. The book very much deals with identity and the questions you're asking: This Body, by Laurel Doud.
posted by WCityMike at 5:01 PM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

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