10 Novels That Explore Identity

“At what precise moment…does an individual cease to be the person he…believes himself to be?…If [both] arms are gone, I say: myself and my two arms…If they had to take out my stomach, my liver, my kidneys – I could still say: myself and my organs. But, if they cut off my head, what could I say then? Myself and my body, or myself and my head? [The Tenant, Topor/Price, Black Spring Press, 1966: 58].

There are so many great books that grapple with the issue of identity, from classic sci-fi – Wells’s The Invisible Man [1897] and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968] to fun foreign-language choices, including Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella [1962]. Below are 10 books that discuss the issue of identity in a narrative context. For the purposes of this list, I define “identity” in terms of being a purely existential matter, rather than one based on any national, cultural, racial or gender identification. This list is also in no particular order, and I have taken care not to include books which I mentioned in my two previous, similar-themed lists “Double Trouble”: 7 Books That Focus on Identical Twins and “Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles.

I. The Late Mattia Pascal

This 1904 novel by Novel Laureate Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author) tells the story of a man who sees his chance to start life anew when he finds out that he was mistakenly pronounced dead. However, his prospects turn out to be not as promising as they appear on the first glance. The book is ironic and philosophical, and, for a similar theme, see also Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert about a man searching for his past identity.

II. The Tenant

The Tenant is a 1964 French-language book (translation is available) by Roland Topor about a man renting an apartment in Paris. The man soon notices strange behaviour of his neighbours and starts to suspect the worst concerning the near-death of the previous occupant of the apartment. This is a very good psychological horror story that emphasises the loss of identity and apartment claustrophobia. It was also made into a 1976 film.

III. The Face of Another

This 1964 book by Kōbō Abe may not reach the heights of The Woman in the Dunes, but it is still one-of-a-kind reading experience that delves into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind. The story is about a scientist who gets disfigured while conducting an experiment and manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real human face. It turns out that his troubles have only began. The book was made into a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, and I can also recommend a similar-themed film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) [1997].

IV. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

“I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” Can this list be without this famous classic by Robert Louis Stevenson? In this story, paths cross between one respectable man Dr. Jekyll and one evil man Mr. Hyde, but not in a way one may suppose. The conundrum seems unsolvable, until the unimaginable is presumed.

V. The Bell Jar

This 1963 semi-autobiographical novel by Sylvia Plath captures the struggle to find one’s place in society and assert one’s identity like no other book. Esther Greenwood is supposed to be a high achiever, who has recently been awarded a journalistic internship at a magazine firm in New York City. However, she finds it increasingly hard to understand the goals and wishes that everyone around her is convinced she should have. This is a truly great book that resonates in today’s society like no other.

VI. No Longer Human

I have read a number of books by Japanese author Osamu Dazai, and I think No Longer Human is his masterpiece. Through the clash between traditional values and increasing westernisation of the modern world, Dazai portrays alienation of a man from the society around him. That man starts to believe that he is no longer qualified to be viewed as “human”. The book is depressing and fascinating in equal measure.

VII. The Scapegoat

In my review of this book, I said that it puts that “haunting spell on the reader, with its penetrating character study, delicious suspense and brooding atmosphere“. Daphne du Maurier’s story about two look-alikes may not be entirely plausible, but it is narratively gripping and psychologically-curious nonetheless. This is a story of an Englishman John who reluctantly takes the place of seemingly wealthy but troubled Frenchman Jean de Gué. To say more will be to spoil the reading experience.

VIII. The Black Book

Many of Orhan Pamuk’s books grapple with the issue of identity (what else one should expect from an author whose debut focused on doppelgangers?), but this one is a stand-out. The Black Book is a complex, multi-faceted story about a man who seeks to uncover the mystery of his wife and friend’s disappearance. While doing so, our protagonist starts assuming the identity of the disappeared man, a columnist, and things start to become rather strange. Incidentally, I am now reading Pamuk’s latest release Nights of Plague and enjoying it.

IX. Frankenstein

There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.” This seasonal classic by Mary Shelley is about a scientist who creates a creature in a human image in his laboratory. The creature is loathed and rejected by society, facing an identity crisis, and the book poses some curious identity questions. To what extent should we be responsible for things we produce? Frankenstein stood the test of time since its main proposition is both disturbing and endlessly fascinating.

X. Fight Club

The First Rule of Fight Club [is] You Don’t Talk About Fight Club. Male identity explored, modern world angst exposed, consumerism laid bare, authority questioned. This is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a book with “a twist” and numerous thought-provoking passages. Here, our unnamed narrator, who suffers from insomnia, meets one enigmatic man Tyler Durden, and together they establish an underground fighting club. David Fincher’s film of the same name with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton is equally good.

5 thoughts on “10 Novels That Explore Identity

  1. What an interesting list! I’m especially intrigued by the books by Topor and Abe… also, a dear friend of mine started his literary journey with No Longer Human, so that one has been on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful books! I can’t believe that I’ve read three of them – The Bell Jar, Frankenstein, Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde! I loved the film adaptation of Fight Club, though I haven’t read the book. Thanks for sharing 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting list, identity is such a fascinating topic. You have made me even more keen to read The Bell Jar. Frankenstein is a great recommendation – it took me by surprise how much there is to this novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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