Claire Messud’s novel, The Emperor’s Children, is a tip of the hat to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes and develops the concepts of vanity and invulnerability in Andersen’s story that epitomized American culture prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The majority of the story takes place in New York, which was the primary target of the virulent 9/11 terrorists precisely for it’s geographical embodiment of stature, wealth, opulence, and vanity. The “children” in the novel are the four main characters Marina, Danielle, Julius, and Bootie. They feel subjected to assuming roles in the competitive world of the elite, but inevitably come to expose the frailties of such a communal self-importance that promises to change them, the New York Empire, and conceivably American culture itself in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. However, Messud does not seek to demonize America nor even its perceived culture of vanity; rather, she seeks to illustrate how strongly the events of 9/11 shook the core of American Exceptionalism and the untouchable nature of this country that many American’s came to internalize. Though her story appears to transcend a political agenda, it is evident that Messud seeks to illuminate the nature of change and the necessity for true, internalized adaptation, particularly after 9/11.
Murray Thwaite’s manuscript is perhaps the best representation of static American ideals that went virtually unchanged since the country’s inception. Never before has a foreign entity attacked so viciously and so potently on American soil. Likewise, never before has Murray encountered opposition to his stature and work. Even the title of his work, “How to Live,” implies a self-assumed position of authority and the collective ideals that Americans have perpetuated among themselves here and abroad. When Bootie comes along and criticizes Murray’s manuscript, the seasoned writer and activist initially reacts harshly, but in the end, Murray understands that he must “reshape his endeavor” and will therefore “write…a better book because [of 9/11]” (461). Messud addresses the idea of a changing nation in the wake of the attacks and shows how personal, political, and communal change in America is–for better or worse–inevitable with the bursting of the proverbial bubble. But, as Messud points out, has anything or anyone really changed? Or have we just merely put on a new fascade with the hopes of appearing different and enlightened?
The majority of Messud’s novel focuses on the desires for economic and social elevation–a very Americanized version of progress and success. It is only in the final chapters that 9/11 is brought into the equation and the identity of these characters is self-assessed, though not in a political or cultural sense. Each one is still consumed by narcissism and change is only seen on a superficial level. The characters view themselves as changed individuals by asserting their self-identity, relinquishing it, or reinventing themselves. For example: Marina gets married, but refuses to accept her husband’s last name, wanting instead to hold onto what she considers her aesthetically superior maiden name; Danielle relinquishes her past by isolating herself from her former friends and lovers; Julius is literally “scarred” and becomes “more cynical”; and Booties–perhaps the most noticeably affected character–changes his name, occupation, and residence. Julius best describes the reason for these superficial changes in an all-encompassing way way, despite only referring to himself in context. According to Julius, the only change we see is external, and it’s only when you internalize that perceived change that it actually affects you. He says:
You don’t think of yourself as scarred. You forget. And you think you can just keep being your same self. But everyone sees you, and they see a changed person, and the ones who know the story see you as changed in a very particular way, which isn’t so nice. And then they remind you, over and over again, and then, I think, eventually you get changed, from the outside in, you have to absorb it, somehow (451).
America has been scarred by the effects of 9/11, and the collective conscience has changed. Just as the four characters have done, America has undergone the same dramatically superficial changes. Americans are either asserting themselves as patriots in ways they’ve never done before, or they are isolating themselves from the world, or they are critical of the system and become cynical activists, or they simply abandon their American identity and escape to live in an environment where they can resurrect themselves in anonymity. Each one of these changes, however, still reflects the same self-absorption that the author shows is merely a derivative of the ideology of American Exceptionalism that existed in pre-9/11 times just as readily as it exists now.