Space, Gender and Subjectivity in Paul Auster’s Novel "City of Glass"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0




The Female City - Mother, Wife & Lover

Identity, Subjectivity and Self in City of Glass




“I’m not really out to prove anything. In fact, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek. An imaginative reading, I guess you could say.”[1] This is what Paul Auster (the character) says to Daniel Quinn in Auster’s novel City of Glass about his essay on Don Quixote. The following paper on Auster’s novel City of Glass is not written tongue-in-cheek but it is adventurous nonetheless. Based on Linda Hentschel’s theory of pomotopical techniques of looking[2] I will concentrate my reading of Auster’s text on aspects orientated towards gender, space, self and subjectivity.

Hentschel ranks her theory between pornography, history of art and architecture, and theories of space, film and the medias. It is her aim to demonstrate how and why concepts of space in art and elsewhere changed during and after the 15 th century. The idea of space and subject experienced a clear genderization according to which space was feminized while the spectator shifted to a predominantly male position.[3] Hentschel maintains that the observer now faced/penetrated/looked at the space/picture the same as at the other (female) sex[4] and in order to describe this phenomena she introduces the term Raumsex [5] .

This gender-divisioning was mainly caused by two facts. For one it was necessary to rethink the nature and position of the now decentralized subject after the Copernican turn. Consequently the uprooting idea of the infinite space found its way into art and philosophical concepts. To supply the subject again with a firm hold in the world new forms of representation were thought of, which enabled the spectator to perceive himself as transparent, all-seeing “I” in perfect unity with the universe. In modem thinking only a body- space-unity represents a complete body. Within this unity, however, the subject itself signifies a sealed and separate entity. Aforesaid new forms of representation helped the male subject to see himself connected to the infinite space and securely situated inside it.[6] In art the spatial depth became a new level of narration.

A second factor in regard to this new kind of gender-division was rather an effect of the first. New techniques and apparatuses for looking were developed and served to confirm the gender allocation. The central perspective for example organized the pictorial spaces ahead and behind each other to create the illusion of depth and encourage fusion between picture and observer. While the central perspective draws the viewer into the picture by a reorganization of the spaces the Camera obscura even requires an actual entrance of the observer. Hentschel argues that all optical apparatuses and techniques are constructed in ways that oblige the observer to (literally) enter/penetrate the presented room. Due to the gendering of space as female and the viewing subject as male the concrete act of seeing came close to a sexual technique.[7]

The male body is regarded as closed, central and mobile body in a room/space[8] whereas the female body is considered as being porous and open to a room/space. The male position is to have room/space, the female position is to be room/space. On these grounds subjectivity and identity were constructed and roles defined. These concepts of space and gender are reiterated not only in new optical devices, like stereoscope and cinema but also in architecture and literature.

I am going to take up Hentschel’s ideas of space, especially in regard to the urban space, the city, and also her ideas of how subjectivity is constructed along these gendered lines. I will try to show that although the text challenges and destabilizes ideas and concepts like rationality, language and body, it keeps to a common gender model. Women as characters are visibly absent from the text. If they appear they do it marginally and only to trigger off some action, staying passive themselves (like Virginia Stillman and Siri Auster). The text tells about different kinds of manhood. All main characters are male and I think exactly this setting can only be made (perhaps even unconsciously) in contrast to its constructed female Other. So femininity becomes visible not primarily in the form of characters but in form of particular concepts.

I suggest that the city in City of Glass, which is New York, serves as metonomy for different concepts of woman, for example the mother, the dead wife and the lover. Daniel Quinn, the main character of the novel incessantly walks the city but instead of reinforcing or even establishing a subjective position in the vast metropolis he fails completely and dissolves within the urban space. As such he is not only the absolute anti-subject but he is also an example for what may happen to a man when he changes his position from having room/space to being room/space.

The first part of this essay will concentrate on Quinn’s relation to New York, how it changes from ‘oceanic’ feeling to utter desire and how it always depends on his relation to women. The second chapter focuses on ideas of identity, subjectivity and self in the novel.

The Female City - Mother. Wife & Lover

Daniel Quinn, the main protagonist of City of Glass, is introduced to the reader as somebody who once did have a purposeful life, including being a happy husband and father and who once had an important job in writing poetry, critical essays and plays. This is all gone when the story starts, and the reader is left with a desinterested dummy, how Quinn describes himself (p. 6), with somebody, who has lost everything, his wife, his son and his purpose in life and who stays alive rather in spite of himself. He supports himself by writing mystery stories, whose mysteries are always brilliantly solved by Max Work, who has over the time become Quinn’s alter ego and idol.

His aversion against consciously thinking of himself and his miserable life is drowned during his endless walks through the city:

Nearly every day, rain or shine, hot or cold, he would leave his apartment to walk through the city - never really going anywhere, but simply going wherever his legs happened to take him.

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with a feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within. [...] Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of the body.” ( City of Glass, p. 4)

Entering the city, the vast space of steps and streets, makes Quinn forget and calms him down. He wants to escape from himself and to loose himself in giving himself up to the city and its movements. The city has a life of its own, it is a living entity, which Quinn desires. Not only to merge with but also to get to know it. The city opens up to him and he reduces himself “to a seeing eye” and moves through the maze of streets almost like a camera, whose film is destroyed afterwards. The reader never gets acquainted with what Quinn actually saw on his excursions.

Reading the city as female whom Quinn joins in his solitude and despair means to employ certain concepts of woman (and man too as a matter of fact) which have been established over the time and which do not necessarily have anything in common with women as such.

There are at least two concepts at work in the quotation above. One may be manifested in the idea of “regressus ad uterum”, which generally is believed to be a search for an original place of security that is usually located in the motherly womb.[9] The other concept refers to the city as feminized space which can be visually penetrated and controlled. Both aspects seem divergent because one requires passivity and the other activity, but this, I think, only confirms the general inconsistency of Quinn’s character.

According to Freud it is an illusion to believe that the oceanic feeling, which I see closely connected to the idea of “regressus ad uterum”, of an indissoluble unity between inside and outside is the primary and original subject position.[10] It is also delusive to assume the other extreme of a wholly disconnected subject because at times almost everybody displays gaps within the allegedly solid ‘I’:

Das Verschwimmen von Ich und Anderen zeige sich in Phasen der Verliebtheit genauso wie in hysterischen und schizophrenen Momenten, wenn das so genannte Eigene fremd und das Fremde zum Eigenen wird.[11]

Daniel Quinn, however, occupies this position throughout his life (City of Glass, p. 48), but his schizophrenia gets even worse after his wife and son have died, when he is shifting almost effortlessly from one identity to another.

The attractive sensation of blurring the “I”-boundaries with the external space, thus securing a firm position is rather an effect of a suppressed helplessness of the subject.[12] The same can be noticed in Quinn:

Quinn was used to wandering. His excursions through the city had taught him to understand the connectedness of inner and outer. Using aimless motion as a technique of reversal, on his best days he could bring the outside in and thus usurp the sovereignty of inwardness. By flooding himself with externals, by drowning himself out of himself, he had managed to exert some small degree of control over his fits of despair. Wandering, therefore, was a kind of mindlessness. (City of Glass, p. 74)

Again it is stressed how important it is for Quinn to be “on the move”. It would not do to just sit somewhere and receive the city and get drowned by it. He has to move through it in order to control himself, in order to reestablish his subjective boundaries. Or as Judith Butler puts it:

Die Begriffe ‘Innen’ und ‘Außen’ haben nur dann einen Sinn, wenn sie sich auf eine vermittelnde Grenze zurückbeziehen, die um Stabilität bemüht ist. [...] Wenn die ,Innenwelt’ kein Topos mehr darstellt, wird auch die innere Fixiertheit des Selbst und sogar der innere Schauplatz der geschlechtlich bestimmten Identität suspekt.[13]

Quinn is still interested in maintaining a stable self and in remembering who he is (City of Glass, p. 49). But again we can perceive a double movement. Quinn’s daily excursions through the city avail on one hand his masculine position of being in the room/space and so confirm his ‘wholeness’ but at the same time he moves to the female position of being room/space by opening up to and getting flooded by “externals” and by flooding the outside with his “inwardness”.[14] It is remarkable that later when he stops walking around, thus gradually giving up his masculine position, ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ dissolve.

To read the city as female[15] is also maintained by the text itself. To describe the city as inexhaustible labyrinth with endless steps and winding streets which always disclose and close themselves again may correspond to a visual pornotopia[16], a mysterious depth. But Quinn’s seeing eye is not permitted to rest on this topia because “the world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long” (City of Glass, p. 4). For Quinn the city represents a continual stimulation of walking through it and looking at it. His, however, is a unique way of seeing it. Peter Stillman, whom he has to observe, considers New York for example as one great junk heap, as a city of chaotic dirt and broken things (City of Glass, p. 94). Quinn’s New York is also a city of chaos, which he controls not by naming its dirt and rubbish like Stillman does, but by walking it and looking at it until all different places of the town become one place to the eye (City of Glass, p. 4). Or, on the other hand, by looking at it through the narrowed perspective of his invented detective Max Work (City of Glass, p. 9). Quinn’s city is not one of dangerous chaos which destabilizes him. To him it is a motherly place of security and protection from himself and the past.

Chaos in Greek mythology denotes the condition within the body of the world goddess before the construction and after the destruction of a universe.[17] As such it corresponds to Quinn’s own condition of loss and destruction but it also bears a chance of renewal or even rebirth. By walking aimlessly he attunes himself to the urban movements and hence he remains a fixed part of the indifferentiated elements of Chaos, because he himself has become indifferent.

The hole his dead wife and son have left in his life is satiated with the city itself. Not parts of it or people moving through it, but it is a whole individual entity receiving Quinn and substituting what he has lost by filling the gap with meaningful nothingness.

And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere. New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again. (City of Glass, p. 4)


[1] Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy. City of Glass. London: Penguin Books, 1990. p. 116.

[2] Linda Hentschel: Pornotopische Techniken des Betrachtens. Raumwahrnehmung und Geschlechterordnung in visuellen Apparaten der Moderne. Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 2001.

[3] Ibid., p. 8.

[4] Ibid., p. 10.

[5] Ibid., p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p. 26.

[7] Hentschel, p. 12.

[8] Occasionally I have to use both, room and space, because Hentschel’s use of „Raum“ refers to the actual room as material reality and to space as more general term.

[9] Hentschel, p. 40.

[10] Ibid., p. 41.

[11] Ibid..

[12] Ibid..

[13] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

[14] 4 see also Hentschel, p. 35.

[15] When I refer to female or woman it is always in regard to its construction within patriarchy and not to what I think it is or should be.

[16] see also Hentschel, p. 72.

[17] Barbara G. Walker: Das geheime Wissen der Frauen. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1983, p. 140.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Space, Gender and Subjectivity in Paul Auster’s Novel "City of Glass"
University of Potsdam
New Women in the 19th Century
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Raum, Geschlecht, Linda Hentschel, Gender, American Literature, Auster, Stadtwahrnehmung
Quote paper
Antje Peukert (Author), 2002, Space, Gender and Subjectivity in Paul Auster’s Novel "City of Glass", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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