Recent psychological theory illustrates that ‘Through the process of self-categorization (social identity theory) or identification (identity theory), an identity is formed’ (Stets and Burke 2000: 224) In order to scrutinise the panoramic act of constructing identity, it is important to look at individual identity in relation to and separate from social identity. I will review McDonagh’s The Pillowman and Ford’s the Good Soldier, two texts that construct and de-construct identity effectively. Both these texts present circumstances; social; spatial; temporal and environmental which are central in the formation of identity. This essay will scrutinise this polysemic concept by linking key academic texts that present different views about identity, relating them to the rich depiction of characters within the texts written by Ford and McDonagh.
The Good Soldier shows how the construction of identity can be an expansive and infinite paradigm, when viewed through the impressionist lens of Ford. Whilst the Pillowman demonstrates how identity can be turned into a dangerous, violent weapon to limit the human experience when universally defined and subject to legal categories devised by unilateral bodies in McDonagh’s post-modernist text. In the Pillowman, the totalitarian state illustrates effectively how imposing identity into moral absolutist categories is a violent and unnatural methodology. In the modern world, identity politics can reduce the human experience through oversimplifications and generalities. The idea of an individual having a digital identity that can be used against them in a dystopian scenario to obliterate the nuance in their perspective is echoed effectively in the way that Katurian’s fictional essays are used against him to prove a point about his identity and castrate him of his claim to subjectivity. In the period that Ford was writing The Good Soldier, Woolf wrote that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’ (Kakutani [Woolf] 1996: 1) In other words the modern era changed the importance of identity. This novel was written through the lens of anxiety about an unknown global future which placed newfound prominence on the ephemeral of thought rather than the material of action. This naturally became central to character creation which can be identified in the impressionist style of Ford’s writing.
Ford straddled tradition and innovation in his writing, mirroring the state of the world he was writing in. He presented a disillusioned protagonist in need of self-justification, struggling to determine his identity in ‘the midst of an epochal transformation’. (Levenson 1984: 377) In some of Ford’s critical writing he presented the notion of ‘justification ’ (Levenson 1984: 373) to do with characterisation. Justification relies on a steady bedrock of consistent societal factors in order to explain characters motivations. These changes described by Bauman as the start of ‘Liquid Modernity’ profoundly affect the social bonds which were being ‘wrenched apart by forces antithetical to belonging’ (Lee 2011:652) fracturing the steady bedrock of generalities needed for effective justification within Ford’s text. ‘Dowell’s disillusionment follows the arc of modernism.’ He goes from ‘Victorian characterization: the individual conditioned by circumstance’ to a new idea of character common in modernist narrative, ‘the self-estranged from circumstance and no longer comprehensible in its terms, confounding familiar motives, beyond the reach of social expansion.’ (Levenson 1984: 376) There are no potentially violent barriers encroaching on identity in the Good Soldier to rival those in The Pillowman. Instead the parameters on the process of ‘individuation’ are enshrined in the ‘self-categorisation’ of inherited ideology driven by religious and class distinction. The phrase ‘good people’ (Ford 2010: 28) is a useful indicator of how social convention can camouflage the contradictions inherent within identity. For example, Leonora’s catholic upbringing and ‘ladylike’ ideals conflict with her innermost passions and desires. Dowell questioned her decision to individuate apart from her socialisation when wondering if she had lost herself or if ‘having let loose the bonds of her standards, her conventions, and her traditions, she was being, for the first time, her own natural self.’ (Ford 2010: 203) Dowell’s confusion about the ‘natural self’ and how it relates to what it surrounds is considered in a different light in The Pillowman.
‘Self-categorisation’ in The Pillowman is more than an existential quandary, it is a matter of life or death. This text can be read in light of the concept of the ‘other’. An idea Sartre touched on in Being and Nothingness: ‘In making me the object of his projects, the other alienate me from myself, displaces me from the subject position and constitutes me as something.’ (Crowell 2017: 3-7) In the Pillowman, the ‘other’ is the totalitarian state and the characters of Ariel and Tupolski. For Katurian, his own identity is entangled in the act of being a writer yet not in what he is writing:
‘The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story. Or was it ‘The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story? Yeah, it might have been’ ‘The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story. I can’t remember but anyway, that’s what I do, I tell stories. No axe to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever.’ (McDonagh 2003 :7)
He attempts to prove to his interrogators that there is no social or philosophical message that underscores his writing. He believes that he works within a creative vacuum. His identity is bound up in how he sees his life and how he decides to frame it in relation to other people. Katurian is not trying to prove who he is in his writing, he believes he is not central to his fiction, and this is actualised by McDonagh in the end of the play. Katurian’s fiction transcends his life and is not burned in the aftermath of his execution. Throughout the play, he struggles to prove his identity is separate from his fiction. Katurian talks about the line between fiction and non-fiction, the multifarious nature of identity. Bringing to light the sometimes multiplicity of individual identity. In doing so the play is dialogic, it portrays the struggle to prove the complexity of identity by using different voices. In making a writer the protagonist in the narrative, McDonagh was able to represent ‘psychological richness’ (Hawkes 2012 :328) within the text, akin to the multifariousness of identity.
Early on in The Good Soldier, the narrator, Dowell, questions the very idea of identity: ‘For who in the world can give anyone a character? Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own? One cannot be certain of the way man will behave in every case – and until one can do that a ‘character’ is of no use to anyone.’ (Ford 2010 :104)
Dowell finds fathoming the identity of others and the self to be futile. Throughout the novel he writes retrospectively, time works to his benefit to help him fashion an argument. Therefore, it is useful to read his character with an understanding of the spatial-temporal element of his construction. The story is told in a way that projects Dowell’s memories into the space that the reader traverses and his perception of time forms the configuration of the narrative. This has a specific effect on the reader, entrapping them in his worldview by showing the minutiae of his perspective: ‘this novel’s slow building up of multiple perspectives (of time and space – from Philadelphia to Brindisi – and from varying levels of knowledge, or consciousness) reproduce in art what living is like.’ (Haslam 2010 :18)
This hall of mirrors is the reality of fiction, in that it is formed from the one consciousness of the writer. Ford himself reflected on this phenomenon common in impressionism. ‘For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’ (Ford 2010: 263) This gives an insight into the opaque nature of Dowell’s identity. Ford could be seen as attempting to illustrate through the impressionist style, how identity is constructed from the subjective point of view of the self. From the subjective point of view, identity is experienced at times as seemingly infinite, intangible and fluid. This is near impossible to portray in a traditionally uniform narrative form.
In the Pillowman, the only ‘real’ space that we get to know the characters in is the interrogation room. Otherwise we are taken to places involved in characters storytelling – written and spoken, imagined and remembered. This limits the readers ability to know the characters in different textual settings, the construction of their identity is limited in part to one extreme environment and in another part to subjective memory and imagination. Similarly, both novels also present non-linear time sequences. Dowell’s narrative is based on his memories and his transplanting of different timeframes. In the Pillowman, time is treated as elastic and some scenes venture into a different time frame in order to widen the narrative. John Berger wrote: ‘What separates the story-teller from his protagonists is their experience of time. (The storyteller is) powerless to take them out of it, yet he himself is beyond their time. The meaning of the protagonists’ story ‘belongs to the story-teller’, who is beyond their time.’ (Dickens [Berger] 2018 :172-173)
Taking this perspective into account, time and space are useful tools to present identity as something that can never exist in a vacuum. Simultaneously the opacity in attempting to understand the identities of others. We do not ‘know’ Dowell outside of the limited first-person perspective and his motivation to tell us his story and we do not ‘know’ Katurian or other characters in The Pillowman outside of their purposeful storytelling and extreme reactions in the interrogation room.
In both these narratives we can see how human beings are fundamentally ‘self-interpreting animals.’ (Taylor 1985 :45) Characters try to alter their external circumstances in order to change the way they and others see their identify. Ariel, through his job, Tupolski although absent, in still being invested in the care and protection of his ‘fellow man’. (McDonagh 2003 :89) Michel through his enactment of fiction and Katurian through his meticulous creation of a body of work. All four men narrate stories that tie in with their narratives about themselves, in an attempt to construct a new identity. They are all trying to re-interpret an early event that impacted their identity. Ariel was raped by his father, Tupolski’s son drowned while fishing on his own, Michel suffered childhood abuse and torture and Katurian killed his parents. Looked at another way, Katurian and Michel who can be seen as doubles. In childhood, they existed in a duality of light and dark. Katurian had the love of his parents and Michel was tortured by them for the gain of Katurian’s writing. In adulthood, Katurian fictionalises violence and torture and Michel enacts it. They both deal with the trauma inherent in their life through fantasy, as does Tupolski and Ariel in less apparent, verbal ways. Fantasy can help a traumatised individual ‘imagine the world in itself, outside of our subjective horizon’ (Žižek 2014: 23) This is one way that self-individuation can materialise in an intolerable social environment. Self-interpretation in The Pillowman is seen a coping mechanism, a way to transcend the limitations, horrors and violence of reality. In order to create an identity that expands beyond the worst things that have happened to a human being.
Comparably, throughout The Good Soldier Dowell is searching for new ways to self-interpret. His convoluted way of writing about human behaviour relays his inability to reconcile ‘the saddest story ever told.’ (Ford 2010: 1) with his identity. ‘The saddest story’ is the past few years of his life and the failure to which he could control all that was happening around him. The construction of this meticulous narrative is a tool to decipher between ‘the conventions of social behaviour’ and ‘actual human fact.’ (Schorer 1948: 128-129) In telling this interpretation of a story he is attempting to re-frame who he is in relation to those around them by putting it all down on paper. ‘The narrator’s view’ in its biased, subjective narration ‘is not so much the wrong view as merely a view, although a special one.’ (Schorer 1948: 128) Therefore, it has been seen, in both these texts that creating narratives about one’s identity against social milieu is common. Re-interpreting this continually as way to self-define in an attempt, as futile as it might be, to create a solid internal identity that does not disappear when confronted with the external.
To conclude, McDonagh’s and Ford’s constructions of identities illustrate the fluidity of the construct. Within these texts characters encounter insurmountable external pressures which alters their identity in a way that reflects the reality outside of fiction. Ford’s dialogic style shows the changes in the outer world and how they affect the individual identity of characters. Whilst McDonagh, displays how engineering our identity as much as we are wanting to try, is for the most part not in our immediate control. These texts present the identity of human beings in a constant state of flux, re-defining continuously in relation to social identity. Ford and McDonagh show that self-definition may be futile, yet, the search for it remains at the core of the human experience.