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Reviewing The Color Of Water By James Mcbride English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1652 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In both The Color of Water by James McBride and The Assault by Harry Mulisch, the principal figures in the novels share a similar plight for self-discovery through the revelation of their pasts. While both James McBride, relaying his story autobiographically, and Anton Steenwijk are confronted with internal conflicts regarding their struggle to understand who they really are, they each take a different approach to cope with the mysteries of their pasts. As James McBride utilizes investigative reporting to discover his mother’s heritage and finally overcome his racial ambiguity, Anton Steenwijk seeks to conceal the haunting memories of his childhood. Through James McBride’s personal account of growing up in a biracial family and Harry Mulisch’s fictional story about the life of Anton Steenwijk, both novels present the central theme of the discovery of the past to their readers, and in doing so, they are able to characterize the internal conflicts in which James McBride and Anton Steenwijk must overcome.

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In uncovering the mysteries of the past, both James McBride and Anton Steenwijk seek to reach self-actualization, desiring the understanding of their true identities. However, while James McBride takes a more assertive approach in exposing his mother’s Orthodox Jewish background, Anton Steenwijk reluctantly uncovers the haunting details of his family’s massacre piece by piece through the recollections of individuals he encounters throughout his life. James McBride openly yearns for the uncovering of the mysterious part of his past, while Anton, contrastingly, wants to conceal the mysteries surrounding the murder of his family due to the horrific nature of the assault. Anton’s search for self-actualization is hindered by his incapability to confront the tragedies of his childhood. Anton seeks fulfillment in life through normalcy, in an attempt to neutralize the chaos of his past. Going through his life in a dream-like state similar to the state he places his patients under as an anesthesiologist, Anton struggles to achieve self-actualization because instead of living life to his fullest capability, he spends it in a fog, trying to conform to a normal existence which he believes might counteract the abnormalities of his childhood. While the suppression of his past acts as the anesthesia, making Anton “unable to express [the] pain” of the assault, he “[is] nevertheless changed by it” (Mulisch 80). Anton is too concerned with trying to fit into society, acting as if the past never happened, to address his inner turmoil and thus find who he truly is. James McBride, on the other hand, employs his investigative expertise as a journalist to discover his mother’s background, seeking understanding of the present and future by first coming to terms with his past. However, James McBride’s journey to self-discovery early on in his life is constantly hindered by his mother’s secrecy. Discouraging James’ feverish curiosity for understanding, James’ mother attempts to protect her children from the pain of her upbringing by refusing “to divulge details about herself or her past” (McBride 21). All throughout his childhood, James is met with responses like “mind your own business” and “you’re a nosy-body” when attempting to pry information out of his mother regarding her heritage (McBride 268). Although hindered by his mother’s reluctance to divulge the secrets of her past, James McBride’s search for self-actualization is much more successful than Anton’s, as McBride is able to not only face the mysteries of his past but openly embrace them.

While both James McBride and Anton Steenwijk seek to fit into society despite their personal insecurities and inner turmoil, the repercussions of their mysterious pasts vary in effect. Following the discovery of the deaths of his parents and older brother, Anton turns to emotional indifference in order to cope with the magnitude of losing his parents, his brother, and his home all in one night. Allowing his family to escape from his memory and retreat “to a forgotten region of which he had only brief and random glimpses… a dark region of cold and hunger and shooting, blood, flames, shouts, prison cells,” Anton seals off all remnants of his life before the assault “somewhere deep inside him” (Mulisch 57). He devotes himself to constructing a ‘normal’ life, acting as if the ruthless murder of his family never happened. However, as each new detail of the assault is uncovered through encounters with different characters in the novel, Anton finds himself slipping deeper and deeper into emotional aloofness, comforting his inner turmoil with reassurance that the past is dead and gone. The night of the assault Anton not only lost his family but also a little piece of himself and the innocence of childhood. Anton is left internally conflicted by the mysteries of his past, questioning why his parents paid for someone else’s crime and were the guilty truly innocent. Similarly, James McBride faces internal conflict concerning his lack of understanding for why things are the way they are as he constantly questions his mother for the reason behind why she doesn’t look like him. Facing an identity crisis, James McBride struggles with his insecurities concerning the racial inconsistencies between his mother and himself. Unable to satisfy his thirst for self-discovery through his mother or come to terms with the racial oddities of his family, James McBride creates “an imaginary world for [himself]”, believing “[his] true self was a boy who lived in the mirror”, as an outlet for his emotional frustration and an escape from his “painful reality” (McBride 90). This boy in the mirror symbolizes the person James is unable to be and everything he is unable to have. James unleashes his frustration and anger onto the boy living in the mirror because “unlike his siblings, he has no opinions” (McBride 90). Although James McBride’s mother meant well in her attempts to shield her children from the truth, it is these very mysteries which plague James with racial insecurity and emotional sensitivity throughout a majority of his life.

The different approaches that are utilized by Anton Steenwijk and James McBride in The Assault and The Color of Water to uncover the mysteries of their pasts, as well as how both are subsequently affected by their discoveries, helps each author establish the personal growth that their protagonist or they themselves have obtained through their individual journeys into the great unknown, their pasts. When all the clues to Anton’s past finally piece together to solve the puzzle of the night in which his family was tragically massacred, forming the climax of the novel in the final chapter, Anton is finally able to come to terms with the reality of fate. With the discovery of the existence of the three Jews taking refuge in the Aartses’ home the night of the assault, the final mystery regarding the events of his family’s death, Anton is finally able to put the horrific tragedy of his childhood to rest. Anton finds solace in knowing the truth behind why “Ploeg’s body had landed” in front of his family’s doorstep and that “in spite of everything, Korteweg had been a good man” (Mulisch 183). However, Anton still finds himself questioning the interchangeability of guilt and innocence, still facing internal confliction despite knowing everything about the assault of his family. The truth brings Anton a sense of closure, although not all of his emotional indifference dissipates with his discovery of the mysteries of his past. James McBride’s self-discovery, on the other hand, culminates with his trip to his mother’s hometown in August of 1992, representing the final step in his investigation into his mother’s heritage. Although James McBride spends years prying information out of his mother about her troubled family history, it is not until his journey to Suffolk that all the mysteries of his mother’s past come together into a sudden revelation of understanding and appreciation. When James McBride finally looks back onto his mother’s Jewish history, the struggles she overcame, and the sacrifices his grandmother made for the sake of her family as he walks along the roads of his mother’s hometown, he finds that his own humanity has awaken “rising up to greet [him] with a handshake” (McBride 229). As “the uncertainty that lived inside [him] began to dissipate” and “the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt” left him, James McBride finally finds acceptance of who he is and an appreciation for how he came to be that way (McBride 229). As a matured adult, James McBride reflects back on his imaginary alter ego in the mirror as a symbolic representation for the obstacles he has been able to triumph over. Shedding his racial ambiguity, James McBride finds a deeper love and understanding for his mother through his insatiable desire to know the truth.

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In order to know where one is going, one must first understand where one has been. Emphasizing the importance of the past, both The Color of Water and The Assault illustrate journeys towards self-discovery through the uncovering of the mysteries of the past. As events develop “out of the past in the present on their way to an unknown future”, both James McBride and Anton Steenwijk find themselves asking the very same question the Greeks ask themselves when speaking of the future – “What do we still have behind us” (Mulisch 151).


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