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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The Folklore Book Tag

I spotted this tag on Clemi’s Bookish World, and though I am not a Taylor Swift fan (or maybe I am and just don’t know it yet), I decided to post the tag because the questions are interesting. My answers somehow ended up to be more French than intended, and I omitted the category: “Peace: A book character you’d die for because you love them so much” because I could not decide on just one. I am tagging everyone who is interested in doing this fun tag.

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The Tenant (Le Locataire chimérique) by Roland Topor – After finishing this psychological, existential book, I really did not know what to make of the ending – but it is definitely thought-provoking. The book astutely explores alienation and the search for identity in a big city as the main character begins to realise that his neighbours may have nefarious designs upon him. The film of 1976 is equally good.

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