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The Idea of Collective and Individual Identity in The Dead, Daddy, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale

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This essay will focus on the ideas of collective and individual identity and how they are presented in ‘The Dead’ (1914) by James Joyce, Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, ‘Daddy’ (1965) by Silvia Plath and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. The idea of identity, in general, is a central theme in all of these texts. Gordon Marshall (1998) describes identity as centred on two distinct areas, namely the psychodynamic and the sociological. An example of sociological identity would be gender identity as a largely social construct, born of patriarchy, whereby outside societal influences demand behaviours associated with traits of the particular gender. On the other hand, psychodynamic aspects, as pointed out by Freud, arise from interiority which create personal traits and tendencies in forming individual identity. However, Foucault (1982) challenges the extent to which a person possesses an inner self that goes into forming a person’s identity. Rather, he identified the self as being defined by an ongoing discourse involving shifting perspectives of oneself, within a power network, relative to others. Similarly, Freud, in identifying the id, the ego and the superego as components which interact to form the self, places emphasis on the crucial role of outside influences, including the values of family and wider society (de Oliveira Moreira, 2008). Therefore, though each perspective might differ in degree, both the sociological and psychodynamic aspects recognise the influence of the collective in the formulation of individual identity. This essay will examine the way that, in all four texts, aspects of living up to societal and familial constructs of identity produce a negative impact upon the sense of individual identity.

Before World War One, Dublin was in the situation where many of its people were searching for national (collective) identity, as part of the move towards independence from Britain. This issue is explored in ‘The Dead’. However, as Mark Corcoran (2011) states, ‘I will argue that Dubliners goes deeper than metaphors for a war of independence or the search for a collective national identity. I will argue that Joyce identifies, through everyday examples, the root structures in society which contribute to a crisis in identity’. Corcoran is pointing to wider and deeper structures arising from cultural factors which reach beyond the sense of nationhood. From the confusion arising around collective identity in relation to commonality of belonging, Corcoran is arguing that this also had an effect upon people personally, upon their personal identity. This is a problem for the central male character in the tale, Gabriel Conroy. Joyce explores the uncertainties around identity for those caught in an ambiguous situation where, though identifying as Irish, they are through language and culture British or, at least, possessing an aspect of individual identity heavily influenced by British values and culture. Gabriel has plans to travel and, when questioned by Miss Ivors as to why he will not stay to learn more about his own country, he responds, ‘I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!’. The repetition of the word ‘sick’ infers a sense hatred for his own country, conveying to the reader that he is not only mentally, but physically repulsed by it. However, this response is possibly hyperbolic. He more likely reflects upon complexities and contradictions implied in the wider context of the tale, whereby Gabriel’s status is tied up, on the one hand, with the dominant power, given his position as a university lecturer, and the stifling cultural and religious expectations as a married Irish Catholic, on the other. The way his identity might be viewed by many on the Nationalist side is expressed through the derogatory term of ‘West Briton’, which causes Gabriel to feel ill at ease, as it possibly encapsulates the ambiguity of his own sense of individual and collective identity when confronted with Miss Ivors’s notion of Gaelic identity in relation to Ireland.

Whilst Gabriel struggles with his sense of personal and collective identity, it could be argued in ‘Daddy’ that the speaker’s individual identity was stolen as a child and the speaker therefore ponders, in her adult life, upon her childhood. She says ‘black shoe/In which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years’ (line 1-5). The imagery of herself ‘like a foot’ encased in a shoe, conveys the feeling of being trapped and limited in movement. This idea of entrapment can be related to identity in that she was trapped as a child and even, perhaps, as an adult; the speaker appears to feel unable to find a way to grow and create an identity of her own. However, another way in which this can be explored and viewed is by the application of Corcoran’s (2011) wider perspective that collective identity impinges on the individual. Therefore, as well as an uncertain individual identity, the speaker’s lack of secure family life has restricted her sense of collective identity. The main reason clearly being that of her father. The way in which Plath describes her father figure is vivid and, as Browne (2008) relates, ‘These father figures are examined through a mythical imagery that acts to place the significance of the memory of the father into the lives of Kinsella and Plath’ (p.54). What Browne is saying here is that the way Plath describes her father is both child-like and dream-like, the first readily apparent reason being calling her father ‘Daddy’ throughout the narrative which gives the impression that she is still not over her haunting childhood. He is also described as a vampire, as in ‘If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two-/The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year’ (stanza 15, lines 1-3). Throughout the whole narrative, it is clear that the speaker holds an idolization for her father. However, she also holds resentment. The speaker says, ‘if I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two’ perhaps suggesting the speaker could be referring to both of these personas from which she views her father, hence the reference to a vampire as at first glance, it is not known that someone is a vampire. Furthermore, the context and nature of the language conveys the possibility that her father was a Nazi. Therefore, describing him as a vampire could be a metaphor for his ‘thirst’ for blood, or his sick thirst for mindless killing. Nevertheless, legend holds that vampires are immortal, which could in the poem be a representation that in the mind of the speaker, the enhanced, myth-like memories around her father never die. A further contextual piece useful for examining ‘Daddy’ around the effect of childhood events and upbringing upon individual identity, is Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963). This text explores the life of the aspiring poet, Esther, who experiences lack of fulfilment in an internship as a guest editor as Ladies Day magazine in New York City while struggling with issues of identity and social norms. The Bell Jar focuses upon the theme of potential negative, collective familial influence upon individual identity, but extends this wider to look at the impact of wider society. Ultimately, patriarchal power inherent in the family implied in ‘Daddy’, where the speaker says, ‘You stand at the blackboard, daddy/In the picture I have of you’, is starkly illustrated in the novel when Esther attempts to take her own life and is then forced into hospital for psychiatric treatment.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is set in a future dystopian theocracy where religion has triumphed and society is organised around the service of a small elite. Gender identity is at the centre where women are assigned to named subservient roles, including the handmaids whose single task revolves around child bearing. They are stripped of individual identity to the point where they lose their original names and are, instead, each assigned names, beginning with ‘Of’, which implies belonging to a powerful male. The females enrolled for the purposes of conception also wear the colour red, a symbol of the female reproductive system. However, they also wear white wings, white being a symbol of innocence. Lal (2018) links this situation to contemporary ideas in some parts of the world around the surrogacy industry, where surrogate females are told that in helping infertile couples into parenthood, they are angels. However, she claims that the reality is that the surrogates are bullied into fulfilling the role. Likewise, in The Handmaid’s Tale, the women are forced to live in a world where their only purpose is to reproduce, thus diminishing their individual identity. The white wings are a direct contradiction, amounting to denial, of any prescribed identity as angel or innocent, suggesting that the women are a part of a society where they are being exploited and are forced to see their situation and its context through a crude, dominant construction of innocence. An example of the way in which this is presented occurs in chapter 23, when Offred plays scrabble with Arthur. He becomes curious, by her reticence, in relation to her perceived lack of characteristics which define her individuality. In turn, she views the interactions with the commander as a source of exploration, trying to find her sense of self. By this, she as an individual is offering a form of resistance of the type identified by Foucault in a socio-cultural system constructed for the benefit of a dominant elite (Foucault, 1980, in Howell, 2019). Moreover, Offred becomes aware there is much more to her given purpose than what she has been led to understand. In this regard, she observes:

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could make it run, push buttons, of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping (p.95).

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This shows that Offred originally believed that her body was an extension of herself, now she does not even consider herself as an individual. Rather, she is a dehumanised product composed of flesh. She compares her body to a ‘cloud’ to represent how breakable she is and that she lacks the solidity of ‘being’. She also compares her uterus to a pear, which she implies as being the central part of the body and the thing that is keeping her alive. This is illustrated through the image of it pulsating, just like a heart, the actual organ that keeps people alive.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale (1965), Brave New World (1932) is set in a future dystopia. Conversely, however, religion has been eradicated. Whilst The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the effects upon individual identity of the abuses of religion, Brave New World implies its absence is one factor in the lack of moral guidance (Attarian, in Bloom, 1996). The novel addresses Huxley’s own disillusionment with society and politics, and focuses mostly on the loss of individual identity which has been subsumed into that of the collective. Attarian claims that Huxley wrote it at a time when he was moving towards an acceptance of the existence of God. From a Freudian perspective, individuals in Brave New World lack appropriate moral guidance from outside which would work through the ego and the superego to restrain the id’s selfish drive to personal pleasure, which Huxley claims is essential to form an identity that is responsible and fully human. Throughout the novel, the saying ‘everyone belongs to everyone’ is repeated to emphasise the idea that scientific advance, alongside eradication of religion and abuses of concepts of socialism completely consume the individual through a totalitarian system of government. The separate and unequal caste system, which is introduced early in the novel, has a huge impact on individual identities. This is because all people in the novel come from test tubes and are created by a ‘perfect’ combination of accurately engineered genes which are set to fulfil certain roles according to the resultant, pre-set intellectual and physical characteristics.

Thus, all of the texts discussed present identity as a central theme. Though set in different contexts and time periods, all address the notion of individuality and how constructed concepts of the collective impinge on this. ‘Daddy’ (1965) addresses the effect of immediate familial impact upon individual self, whilst The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Brave New World (1932) take to the limit the extent to which a sense of collective identity can be engineered and abused for the benefit of the few. However, the subtlety and contradictions inherent in the way that notions of the individual and the collective interact can be seen in the discussion around Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’. Maybe paradoxically, the texts imply and illustrate that an individual’s self-perception is tied in with that of the collective which, on a basic level, implied in ‘Daddy’ and ‘The Dead’, gives a sense of belonging. All texts, however, illustrate to one degree or another, the negative impact upon the sense of individual identity of uncertainties and abuses around the power of the collective.

In my essay, I decided to focus on the idea of identity in both collective and individual terms. The fact that we were able to conjure up our own question played a positive part in terms of the fact I was able to pick a topic around something that particularly interested me, more so the texts which I enjoyed the most. I was particularly interested in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), so my choice of topic originated from the discovery of the theme of identity within the novel. I then further realised that this theme can be applied to other texts we have studied. I do not normally enjoy the study of poetry as much as novels. However, due to having to include ‘Daddy’ (1965) I had to analyse a poem in detail, especially in terms of my topic. This, I believe, sharpened my poetic analytical skills and heightened my interest. Therefore, for future reference, I will be able to apply poetry to my work more confidently. ‘Daddy’ also inspired me to look into more of Plath’s work, including The Bell Jar (1967).

The way that the first part of the assessment for the 20th and 21st century literature module was set out was very useful for me. I liked the fact that as our first piece for assessment, we were able to form our own question, gather our primary and secondary sources and then make a plan. This made the actual essay much easier to complete. However, having to come up with a total of fifteen secondary sources, originally sounded quite daunting as this was not always something I feel confident in. Nevertheless, it turned out to be an ideal way to prepare me for my final year and my dissertation. It also made me understand further the impact that gathering my own sources has on my work and how reading more articles and using critics within my essay can improve the work impeccably. Looking forward, this is something which I will definitely take more time and effort to do in my assessments. Nevertheless, this was not completely new to me as this approach was also practised in the literature review in the module ‘Romanticism’. Therefore, it gave me a further chance to practice these skills in to the second semester.

The studies from the module ‘Theory into Practise’ was able to furthermore help me complete my essay, as it gave me confidence to apply theory to my work. I chose the concept of ‘dreams’ as my topic in the module, where I focussed solely upon Freud and his ideas surrounding dreams. As a result, I had the opportunity to understand Freud as a critic and research into his other theories, which included identity, making it easy to apply his ideas to this essay.


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The Idea of Collective and Individual Identity in The Dead, Daddy, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from
“The Idea of Collective and Individual Identity in The Dead, Daddy, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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