Crisis of identity is a very common theme in most postcolonial literature. The term “post-colonial”, according to Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin in The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post- Colonial Literatures, “points out that the term is resonant with all the ambiguity and complexity of the many different cultural experiences it implicates from the moment of colonization to the present day”. This explains the continuity of binaries which leads to a sense of displacement in identities. These binaries are set in order to distinct qualities in the process of ‘othering’ which eventually leads to a hierarchical position which disintegrates people. Thus for the purpose of this essay, postcolonial literature can be defined as literature that deals with the problems of defining physical and emotional confrontations of identity that is caused by dispossession, cultural fragmentation and sense of dislocation that leads to the crisis of identity. The focuses of this essay will envelope the crisis of identity that is dealt by Ondaatje in Running in the Family and Mr Biswas the protagonist in A House for Mr. Biswas.
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Running in the Family by Ondaatje is a semi autobiographical novel where he addresses the issues of struggle in grasping his identity. Ondaatje’s narration is a blend of facts and fictions as “imagination is tied to the actual landscape which paints the memory of the past to fill in the missing pieces” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000). Rushdie explains this in his Imaginary Homelands:
This implies the journey of self discovery in entangling crisis of identity. Imagination plays a vital role to deal with fragments that are lost forever. Imagination fills in the gaps of missing pieces of history in order to give a better understanding of the whole issue of identity. “This is a postcolonial text as it brings insight into the realm of struggling towards grasping identity and a sense of belonging” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000). Ondaatje, a long time resident of Canada, attempts to reclaim and reconnect his past by travelling back to Sri Lanka in order to gather information about his family and his relatives to have a better insight of his own identity. Due to his distance, the memories of his family has the appearance of “frozen opera” so Ondaatje returns to homeland “to breathe life into these memories and touch (his family) into words” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000) where Ondaatje physically begins his journey entangling his identity. Ondaatje reconnects with the characters that feed his knowledge of the past for example Aunt Phyllis. Ondaatje is fond of Aunt Phyllis because she was always close to his father, Mervyn Ondaatje. This indirectly implies that Ondaatje is interested in understanding his father, in his search of identity. In Running in the Family he states, “The morning has been spent with my sister and my Aunt Phyllis trying to trace the maze of our relationships in our ancestry” (Ondaatje, 10). Ondaatje battles in establishing the relativity of the stories to his own identity. Ondaatje is unable to find the connectedness of these stories which sometimes seems like an exaggeration, in order to entangle his crisis of identity.
This implies that the stories that are retold to him are memories that are added with imagination, judgements and merely individual perspective of an event that took place. All these information doesn’t seem to help Ondaatje in gaining a better insight of himself. This continues Ondaatje’s crisis of identity.
In Running in the Family it becomes progressively clear that Ondaatje’s effort in tracing his family is in fact a desire to reconnect to his father, Mervyn Ondaatje. His lack of understanding about his father and his father’s absence has created emptiness in him. “He left for England with his mother after their parents’ divorce and his father who remained in Sri Lanka has died from his absence” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000). Ondaatje recollects his childhood memories about his father’s drunkenness and before he was ten his parents are separated. Ondaatje feels the urge to detangle the mystery of his parent’s relationship. This can be traced in Running in the Family novel where he states:
This implies that Ondaatje questions the complicity of his parent’s relationship, where he tries to figure out why his parents’ marriage broke. “Ondaatje hears about his father’s violence and drunkenness, about his mother’s dramatic flair, about his parent’s arguments and about the circumstances enveloping their divorce” (Peter, 2010). Ondaatje realizes that hearing all these stories from other people about his parents doesn’t really tell him what he wants to discover or how it relates with his journey in entangling his own crisis of identity. Ondaatje is unable to veil the real situation and it remains as a mystery. Ondaatje is unable to fill up the missing pieces of his identity but Ed Jewinski, a biographer of Ondaatje writes “for the young poet there was now a sense of new tradition being formed, a new vigorous and vital outlook of the world” (31), one that was linked but different from the British tradition that he knew (Carol Elizabeth, 2000).
Mr Biswas who is a journalist working in the Port of Spain is fired just before his death because of his health condition. Mr Biswas goes through the crisis of identity as the story progresses. “I’m going to get a job on my ownâ€¦I am going to get my own house too” are vows by Mr Biswas in his longing for self satisfaction and freedom that preoccupies his 40 years crisis of identity. Mr Biswas feels a sense of alienation with the family and society he was living in. This can be traced since the birth of Mr Biswas, who was born with six fingers which is perceived as a deformed identity. This can be traced in A House For Mr Biswas:
All this implies that since the birth of Mr Biswas, he is made responsible for the superstitious belief that alienates him from the family and the society he was living in. He was perceived as the unlucky one and the one who could barely succeed in life. The attending midwife also predicted that Mr Biswas with his uncommon finger “will eat up his parents”. Mr Biswas grew up in poverty which leads him to malnutrition, lack of attention and restricted mobility to go near ponds and rivers. This symbolically implies restrictions that are placed throughout Mr Biswas life that are eventually broken. “Mr Biswas experiences prejudice and ridicules throughout his life” (http://www.allreaders.com/topics/Info_3184.asp). Mr Biswas was even held responsible for the death of his father because of his childhood predicament by the midwife. His father, Raghu thinking his son Biswas has drowned, dived in the pond to save his drowning son who is indeed standing some distance from the pond. Mr Biswas was held responsible for the incident that happened because less precautions that is taken by Raghu himself. This creates a feeling of an outsider in Mr Biswas which contributes to the crisis of identity. “Mr. Biswas is totally against the traditions of his family. He neither identifies with India nor with the people of Port of Spain. This lack of identity makes him miserably rebellious….he struggles whole of his life for an identity….” (Dhawal Kumar, http://www.allreaders.com/topics/Info_3184.asp).
Mr Biswas doesn’t just fall in with the flow by practicing religion in a way that is practiced by the Tulsi family. He feels a sense of hypocrisy in the way the Tulsi family practices religion. They send their sons to Catholic schools to learn hymns and they preach themselves as being good Hindus. Mr Biswas stands up to his own ideologies and beliefs even if he was secluded and not accepted by the family and the society he was living in. This implies the struggle and alienation is faced by Mr Biswas in his crisis of identity.
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Ondaatje, in dealing with his crisis of identity inserts a representative set of derogatory quotes about Sri Lanka from Lear, Lawrence and Woolf. “For Lear, the Ceylonese is odiously inquisitive and bother- idiotic, savages who grin and chatter with one another” (Solecki, 56). “For Lawrence, Ceylon is the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are an experience- but heavens not permanent ones.” “While to Lear, the countryside is picturesque, Woolf insists that all jungles are evil” (Ondaatje, 78). Ondaatje strikes back towards all this derogatory quotes by saying “I sit in a house in Buller’s Road. I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner” (Ondaatje, 79). “This statement captures the insider- outsider dilemma that plagues the diasporic individual in his relation to his original home- he belongs and yet does not belong” (Carol Elizabeth, 238). This implies, Ondaatje feels a sense of pride and appreciativeness towards his homeland where he fells a sense of anger when foreigners picture his homeland in derogatory terms. The foreigner here can also be viewed as colonizers. In his crisis in search of identity he still feels a sense of protectiveness towards his homeland.
Ondaatje also talks about Aunt Dolly and the frailty of her condition and his gentle embrace towards her. This implies symbolically the approach of embrace towards his homeland by taking baby steps to implore and explore his past. “The ambivalence and confusion in searching for his identity and sense of belonging is translated into uncertainties of the traveler returning to his homeland” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000). The writer doesn’t pretend that he understands everything. There is only “glimpses, snatches of history and voices that fill space” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000).
Ondaatje announces that “what began it all was the bright bone of dream I could barely hold onto” (Ondaatje, 21). “This dream turns out to be the dream of a lost childhood where layers of past overlapping the present”. “This is conjured up in several memories piled upon each other. Unfortunately these layers of memories fail to solidify” (Solecki, 77). Most of his fragments of memories fail to answer the questions he has about his identity so the crisis of identity preoccupies.
In A House for Mr Biswas as discussed by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin in the Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post- Colonial Literature in the thematic parallels the “construction or demolition of houses or buildings in post-colonial locations is recurring and evocative figure for the problematic of post- colonial identity in works from very different societies”. This symbolically implies that the demolition of an old building implies rejecting the identity of the colonizer into building a new building which means constructing a new identity. Building a new identity and rejecting the old is what has been done by Mr Biswas. Mr Biswas struggled to live up his own choices from the controlling Tulsi’s family. Mr Biswas finally owns his own house and he feels his crisis of identity resolved. Even the house is in an imperfect condition; Mr Biswas looks through the imperfection. The condition of the house stated in A House for Mr Biswas;
The crisis of identity in Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is an ongoing process where the realization for self identity continues. “It is Ondaatje’s diasporic background that determines the themes in his works. True of the diasporic sensibility with its narrative dislocation, Ondaatje’s need to articulate home and identity is textualized into the very fabric of his writings, which inturn makes his works highly textured and complex” (Carol Elizabeth, 2000). Elements of myth, imagination and judgements are parts and parcel of Ondaatje’s ongoing search for his unresolved identity crisis. On the other hand in A House for Mr Biswas his crisis of identity is resolved through his perception by owning the house. The house becomes a paradigm shift in Mr Biswas life where it demolishes the old identity of the restrained, into a new identity of independence and self driven path of living his life. The story builds up his crisis of identity and finally resolves it with Mr Biswas death as closure.
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