The Physics of Identity

Our identity is our social imprint, our ability to distinguish our likenesses or differences to those around us. It is our personal knowledge of who we are, and what we are. Our personal identity affects what we do, what we believe, and how we go about living our lives. The identity is the essence of a human being. In the books The Grapes of Wrath and Invisible Man, written by the authors John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison, both play with the idea about identity and what it would be like to not to know your true identity in the world.

In the Grapes of Wrath a family is tragically forced to leave the land that had been theirs for several generations and embark to a place that they barely knew. The narrator goes on and talks about the people that decided to stay and keep on farming even though their will or connection to work was gone. Their sense of who they were and what they lived for was gone, along with all their friends and family. Through their devastation Steinbeck shows that when you take away a peoples connection to the things they surround themselves with, they lose the connection to themselves and their identity is lost as well.

In the Invisible Man Ralph Ellison shows how loss of self and of personal identity can cripple you and make you blind to the obvious. The nameless narrator and protagonist of the story constantly tries to do what others want him to do and be what they want him to be. He tries to hold himself back for others, and allows himself to be used by those people over and over again. In the epilogue the nameless narrator says “I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own.” It is at this point he realizes that he hasn’t been true to himself and to what he believes and that he made himself invisible by losing his identity. The narrator then goes on to say that his identity is the key to his freedom.

The identity concept that the Steinbeck and Ellison use is very creative. It brings up the question as human beings what are we without our identity? What distinctions can we make between ourselves and others if we don’t feel that we have any differences between us? What are we without the things we surround ourselves with? What are we if the only self identify we recognize is one made up of the misconceptions of others?

Steinbeck and Ellison both show that if you let exterior elements dictate who you are, your identity can be lost. If you let other’s words dictate what type of person you should be, as the brotherhood dictated the identity of the nameless narrator, your true identity can be lost. If you let other’s actions dictate who you become, such as the government taking the farmer’s land in the Grapes of Wrath and the farmers losing their sense of self, your true identity can be lost. Steinbeck and Ellison through their books, write that you let others dictate who you are, and that only if you force yourself to believe in yourself can you let your own identity shine. Your identity is what you make of it.

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