Identity is not something that can simply be explained in a few words. There is a variety of factors that can make up someone’s identity – family, friends, culture, environment, hobbies, interests, and gender are just a few. Many people use these factors to self-identify. For example, someone might refer to themselves as a parent or a son/daughter, a Christian or an atheist, a woman or a man. Some may identity with their profession or a certain organization. However one chooses to present themselves, it is certain that someone’s identity cannot be contained in just one word, even though a stable identity (or set of identities) can be a source of solace and stability. It is safe to say that people are at their most secure when they are comfortable with identity, but what happens when certain factors of one’s identity are taken away?
This is what happens to the character Daniel Quinn in Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Within this story, the theme of identity is woven throughout the story in a brilliant way. It is apparent that the concept of identity is Daniel Quinn’s biggest struggle from the very beginning, and it lasts until the end of the story; at which point he is a completely changed person. Quinn’s identity is comprised of a few different factors: Father, husband, and writer. The story begins after his wife and son have passed away due to an unstated cause, and lands on a version of Daniel Quinn that appears to be lethargic, hopeless, and without purpose. This serves as proof that if we lose these key factors of ourselves, we can possibly lose the very core of our identity. Daniel Quinn’s true identity appears very skewed right off the bat – “A part of him had died” (3). He walked around his apartment naked, and his life was void of meaning.
Quinn is granted the opportunity to assume a brand new identity when he begins receiving the calls from Virginia Stillman. She asks for a man named Paul Auster, a name that Quinn hadn’t heard before. Having nothing better to do, Quinn accepts the assignment and introduces himself to Virginia Paul Auster. Quinn’s own life was not enough for him at that point – pretending to be the “detective” Paul Auster allowed him to turn into someone else, and served as a distraction from his real life.
At the very beginning, the concept of Daniel Quinn having many self identities is introduced: “He now wrote mystery novels under the name of William Wilson. Quinn no longer existed for anyone but himself” (3). This story takes place in New York City, which was described as “a labyrinth of endless steps” (4). By depicting the maze and the fingerprint side by side, it is implied that these two are connected: the fingerprint is a widely known symbol of identity. By comparing it to a maze, Quinn’s identity is established as something very complicated; something that consists of many twists and turns. Throughout the rest of the graphic novel, the complexity of identity is shown through different symbols.
When Quinn first meets Peter Stillman, Peter enters the room in some sort of a daze, and it soon becomes clear that Quinn is not the only one who has a strange relationship with his identity: “I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name” (16). He goes on to say: “I am new every day. I am born when I wake up in the morning, I grow old during the day, and I die at night” (18). This brings back the idea that the definition of identity throughout the story is fluid; the characters seem to take on a different identity than what they originally started with.
Quinn’s internal identity struggle is personified when he is in Grand Central Station and is forced to make a decision: Which “Stillman” does he follow? One version of Stillman is old and haggard, while the other appears put-together and wealthy. This can represent the multiple versions of Quinn’s identity: Quinn, William Wilson, and Paul Auster. When there are multiple versions of one’s true self, how do you choose between them? Each meeting that Quinn has with Mr. Stillman creates a pattern: After the first time Quinn introduces himself, Stillman seems to forget who he is everytime. Each time they meet, Quinn is given the opportunity to take on the identity of someone else. He first introduces himself as Quinn, then as Henry Dark, a character in a book that Stillman wrote, then as his son, Peter Stillman. Each name that Quinn uses allows him to get a new perspective on the older Stillman.
In an interview, Paul Auster was questioned about his methods in writing. “In order to write the book, I have to inhabit that person [the protagonist]. That person is not me. He sometimes resembles me or shares certain of my attributes, but he is not me. Therefore, it’slike being an actor. You take on another personality, another role. […] I’m living the life of the book through this imaginary being that I’ve become” (Hutchisson, James M.). This suggest that while writing City of Glass, Paul Auster took on the role of Daniel Quinn. Within City of Glass, Daniel Quinn took on the role of Paul Auster. Identity is something that never stays the same, and can never stay the same. No matter what attributes of one’s identity stay the same throughout a certain period of time, identity is always changing.
Hutchisson, James M. Conversations With Paul Auster. University Press of Mississippi , 2013.
Conversations with Paul Auster, by James Hutchisson, contains biographical information about Paul Auster as well critical commentary. It covers much of his writing; his books as well as some screenplays. Throughout the book, Auster discusses his thoughts on his work so far. This is a reliable source because the information that Hutchisson provides comes directly from Paul Auster himself. Throughout the interviews between Hutchisson and Auster, Auster provides insight into his thought process for writing. An example is the quote that I used where Auster talks about how while he writes, he usually tries to embody whatever character he is writing about. This helped support my theme of identity, because Auster suggested that in order to create a successful point of view, he has to take on the identity of his fictional character.
Anft, Michael. “The Big Question: What Makes Us Unique?” Johns Hopkins Magazine, 8 Dec. 2010.
The article “The Big Question: What Makes Us Unique?” by Johns Hopkins Magazine goes over the concept of the core of our identity: our DNA. It is a reliable source of information because it is all provided by Kathleen Burns, assistant professor of pathology at the School of Medicine. She touches on the fact that (not including identical twins) no two people in the world have the same genetic makeup. This provided me with a better understanding of the “core” of people’s identity: it helped me to understand identity on a biological level, rather than just a personality level. This supported my claim that identity is a very complex subject that cannot be explained in a few words.