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.

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Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe

The Face of Another Book Cover The Face of Another [1964] – ★★★★★

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut). 

After enjoying The Woman in the Dunes [1962] over the summer, I have now read The Face of Another by the same author (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders). In this story, which is narrated through three notebooks (diaries), we are told of a scientist who gets facially disfigured while conducting an experiment in a laboratory, and struggles from then on to fit into the society with his disfigured face. He manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real face, but soon finds out that his problems have only just began as his personality also starts to change. There is something from Frankenstein [1823] in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [1886], something from The Invisible Man [1897], something from Steppenwolf [1927], and something from Franz Kafka and Ernesto Sabato as well, resulting in this novel being a psychologically and philosophically delicious journey into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind.  Continue reading “Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe”