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Personal and Social Identity as Depicted in Gail Goodwin’s A Sorrowful Woman

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    Personal and Social Identity as Depicted in Gail Goodwin’s A Sorrowful Woman, David Henry Hwang’s Trying to Find Chinatown and August Wilson’s Fences

                An identity of person whether defined by himself/herself or by the society is crucial to an individual’s growth, development and survival in life. Identity is linked to culture, heritage, morals, and principles which makes known to everyone to what kind of person he/she is. In literature, the identity of the characters and the identity of the readers who reads the lives of those characters are important since it would determine whether the literary work’s entire point would be appreciated by the readers—and whether the message would come across. But if the personality of the reader is so different from that of the identity of the characters in the book, then would not there be the possibility of confusion or worse, apathy towards the literary work? As quoted by Graham Allen and Roy Sellars in The Salt Companion to Harold Bloom, Harold Bloom wrote: “We want to be kind, we think , and we say that to be alone with a  book is to confront neither ourselves nor another. We lie.” (xxii).

     If the great literary critic, Harold Bloom asserts that within literature, there is the certainty that an individual finds himself/herself within its pages then there should be at the very least, a minute amount of truth in it.  As what was quoted above, people usually think that reading is a form of escape from reality and it provides the diversion from the issues that the reader faces in his/her “real life”. But Bloom says that this is a lie and indeed, what he says is the absolute truth for literature does not completely provide a form of escape from reality, instead, it lets the reader face a reality that is partly fictional but is still very genuine. For example, when a reader who has absolutely no experience with marriage reads Gail Goodwin’s A Sorrowful Woman, what could happen is that he/she would be uninterested and unimpressed over the woes of Kate. But the woes of Kate are very real and are experienced by many women who are in a suffocating marriage. Though a reader may not associate himself/herself with the character of Kate, this does not mean that he/she would formulate his/her own opinions regarding the psychological and emotional issues that women face in terms of their marital situations. A reader would able to know himself/herself on whether he/she is actually a believer of the patriarch or that of an advocate of women’s rights. The inability to relate to the plot, the characters or the theme of a literary work does not translate into a reader’s lack of experience, background knowledge regarding the literary elements within in the work; instead, it should also be considered that a reader may also have the ability to form judgements, opinions and suppositions in the unfolding of fiction making him/her discover his/her identity.

    The identity of the reader is not just the only thing which should be of concern as the identities portrayed in the literary works are also of crucial point. The differences of David Henry Hwang’s plays, August Wilson’s play, Gail Goodwin’s short story does not just lie in the difference of genres but also in the difference of plot and theme and yet the personalities of the characters are surprisingly alike. In Hwang’s book, Trying to Find Chinatown has different plays that tackle different themes from love of strangers to the more morose societal issues concerning racism, slavery and religious feuds and yet, the characters are all concerned about trying to find their purpose and identities amidst the turmoil around them. Wilson’s Fences on the other hand, depicts familial matters such as duties and responsibilities of the members and still, the family members are all seeking their identity through their persistence in trying to fulfil their dreams even if it puts down the other members of the family. Goodwin’s short story, A Sorrowful Woman focuses more on one character as the plight of the wife is illustrated and the melancholic musings of hers is the proof that she lacks identity as a person and is instead functioning according to the people around her. These literary works are all alike in the sense that the characters are in the process of trying to discover or fulfil who they are based on what/who they think their identities are. While the plots ended in more tragic and dark undertones for the protagonists it does not mean that they have an unhappy ending as they successfully realize who they are in the end.

    The tragic conclusions of the plots of the literary works (Goodwin’s the Wife loses her family as she withdraws from them, Hwang’s Woman in The Sound of A Voice commits suicide while Wilson’s Troy dies in the end with his family ripped apart by his infidelity) can only be explained by the characters’ inability to have a personal identity aside from their societal identity. A person’s identity would always be influenced by what happens around society—that is, societal issues, prejudices and judgements all make or break a person into who or what he/she is. However, this does not mean that society is the only factor which can influence a person as there are many other aspects in life that can make up a person’s whole identity such as relationships, religion, politics, etc. While personal identity can indeed be influenced by the society it does not mean that a person’s worth is solely based on his/her worth as a member of the society. However, being part of society still makes a mark in the person’s identity as he/she is often judged according to his/her gender, culture, background, history, occupation, family, age, etc. Gender is probably one of the most obvious factor which determines a person’s identity as what Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice would prove when the Woman felt ashamed for being too strong that she beat the man in swordplay. In the accounts of history and literature, women has always been depicted as the underdog, the weaker and lesser sex which probably created the mentality that women will always be that way when compared to men. Because of this circumstance, the women (whether fictional characters or actual personalities themselves) are unable to explore their identity as women since they only focus on their identity as a companion or subordinate of men. This created literary works that centered on the oppression of women or their attempts to overcome that oppression—and it seems that no matter what happens, women will always be the oppressed or struggling to overcome it. Thus, what women fail to do is create a personal identity for themselves while still having a societal identity that supports that personal identity. A good example of having both a personal identity and a societal identity and that of just having a societal identity is in Goodwin’s story and Wilson’s play. This is in when the Wife in A Sorrowful Woman feels weighed down by her role as a wife and as a mother while having no identity as A Woman. She is not oppressed but she feels oppressed because of her gender since she is placed into a role that has specific functions, duties and obligations. In Fences, Troy’s identity as a father and husband is destroyed when he banishes his son from their home and when he commits adultery and yet, this does not destroy him since being a father and a husband are just some of his roles as a man and is not his sole identity. But then again, Troy is a man and men usually have such concrete notions about themselves.

    In conclusion, identity, whether personal or societal are important to both fictional characters and genuine personalities as it embodies the totality of the person. Identity allows individuals the capacity and capability to stand on their own without needing much support, flattery and assistance from others. Most of all, identity allows differences in opinions, personalities and traits—and would not the world be a dull place if personal identity isn’t so personal after all?

    Works Cited

    Allen, Graham and Roy Sellars. The Salt Companion to Harold Bloom. Cambridge, Salt Publishing, 2007. Web.

    Goodwin, Gail. “A Sorrowful Woman”. Dream Children. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Print.

    Hwang, David Henry. Trying to Find Chinatown. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. Print.

    Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Plume, 1986. Print.


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