The Symbolic and Metaphoric Potential of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass"

Term Paper, 2008

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


I. Introduction

II. Ambiguous title “City of Glass”
A. Transparency of the city
B. Modernist skyscrapers
C. Mirroring of the city itself and its citizens
D. Other persons as doubles of oneself
E. Fragility of glass

III. Glass as a symbol of look alikes and pairs
A. Look alikes
B. Pairs

IV. Character’s crisis of identity as metaphor for the lost individual in the city
A. Stillman as “still man”
B. Stillman senior and junior psychologically disturbed
C. Stillman senior as his pseudonym Henry Dark
D. Daniel Quinn adopting four identities

V. Tower of Babel as metaphor for the fragility of New York
A. Myth of the Tower of Babel
B. Stillman’s theory of rebuilding a modern day Tower of Babel in New York
C. Fragility of New York

VI. Conclusion

VII. Works Cited

“The Symbolic and Metaphoric Potential of Paul Auster’s City of Glass

Lewis Jones once wrote in the Telegraph about Paul Auster that “his novels are labyrinths of enigmas, mysteries and riddles, thrillers with no endings, detective stories as told by Samuel Beckett, their premises endlessly shifting, in which the only knowledge is that nothing is, or can be, known.”. These qualities are also represented in his New York Trilogy published in 1987, that consists of the three detective stories City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, which are set in New York. All of them deal with the nature of identity and attach value to these mysteries and riddles typical of Paul Auster, for example by using symbols and metaphors[1] to cause certain reactions in the reader. Especially the postmodern novel City of Glass from 1985 makes use of numerous symbols and metaphors that can be found throughout the whole novel. In this way, many passages or even single sentences can be interpreted differently and consequently it is sometimes difficult for the reader not to be confused. By using the single symbols and metaphors of the title, of glass as symbol of pairs and look-alikes, the crisis of identity, and the Tower of Babel in his novel City of Glass, Paul Auster influences the reader and causes different effects, such as catching his interest, confusing him, or giving him a reason for thinking. In the following I am going to analyze the single symbols and metaphors and try to interpret the effects on the reader and the author‘s intentions.

When reading this novel for the first time, one may not recognize all the diverse symbols and metaphors that are added to the story. Starting with the title City of Glass, it makes allusions to ambiguous interpretations. First, glass could be understood as a symbol for the transparency of the setting New York. Because of the transparency of glass, one can see everything that is going on behind it, which could be projected on the city and its inhabitants as well “Against the pallor of his skin, the flaxen thinness of his hair, the effect was almost transparent, as though one could see through the blue veins behind the skin of his face.” (Auster, City of Glass 25).

Second, New York‘s image of being a city famous for its skyscrapers makes it look like a City of Glass “Like the glass curtain of the modernist skyscraper, to which the title makes allusion […].” (Little 149). Due to its face of glass, it implicates that there exists a countless number of windows in this city, which again refers to the transparency mentioned before “When the weather is good, I like to sit by the open window. Sometimes I look out and watch the things below. The street and all the people, the dogs and cars, the bricks of the building across the way.” (Auster, City of Glass 34/35).

For this reason, the city gets a mirroring surface that represents a third possibility of interpretation, namely of the city reflecting itself and the people living in it. When walking “[…] through the city of mirrors and doubles […]” (Krämer 106), people can see their mirror image in the mirroring surface of New York and thereby their identity gets reflected so to speak. This reflection of identities plays an important role in the novel and therefore I will come back to that later.

A further effect can be the reflection of somebody else‘s identity in oneself, so that other persons look like doubles or look-alikes of someone else “Stillman Sr.‘s role as Quinn‘s father figure doubles itself in the relationship between Stillman Sr. and his “real” son Peter […].” (Krämer 113). A person‘s identity being reflected in somebody else‘s identity makes them fragile, which is yet another symbol glass stands for.

The fragility of glass and consequently the fragility of the City of Glass can be interpreted as the inhabitant‘s identities being fragile as well. The huge number of New York‘s inhabitants can be seen as the responsible trigger for the individual perishing in the crowd and for this reason the individual‘s identity gets fragile and sometimes even replaceable. Due to this fragility, the adoption of other identities, invented as in City of Glass as well as real, can be very simple for single characters “A part of him had died, he told his friends, and he did not want it to come back to haunt him. It was then that he had taken on the name of William Wilson.” (Auster, City of Glass 5). Consequently one can say that the title presents several ways of interpretation. Therefore, the reader‘s attention is caught when first looking at this book and his curiosity is provoked to find out what the real meaning of the title might be. Furthermore, all the different interpretations and indications can be found again and again in the novel and make up some important parts of it , wherefore I will come back to some of them later.

As previously mentioned, one image glass is a symbol of is that of pairs and look-alikes. Because of its mirroring effect, pairs and look-alikes might arise as in Paul Auster’s City of Glass . Starting with the look-alikes occurring in the course of this detective novel, the name Peter Stillman becomes remarkably important, as it represents Peter Stillman senior on the one hand and his son, Peter Stillman junior, on the other hand “I am Peter Stillmann. […] For thirteen years the father was away. His name is Peter Stillman too.” (Auster, City of Glass 29/30). This name being represented twice causes a certain confusion. The author wants the reader to pay attention during his reading process for not getting confused by the ambiguity of this name. Another passage where this name gets involved in confusion is one scene at the station, when the protagonist Daniel Quinn does not know which of the two men who look alike is the real Peter Stillman he has to observe “Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped, took a lighter out of his pocket, and lit a cigarette. His face was the exact twin of Stillman‘s.” (Auster, City of Glass 98). Here, the symbolic feature of glass representing look-alikes becomes extremely clear. A third pair of look-alikes is Daniel Quinn as a double of Don Quixote, a character in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes “Quinn‘s story in City of Glass alludes to Don Quixote […].” (Auster, The Art of Hunger 271) . Since they have the same initials DQ, parallels can be drawn between them “In fact, the protagonist exists as Don Quixote‘s double from the first page on by having the same initials.” (Krämer 100). In addition to that, both of them are protagonists in parodies of their particular genre. Compared with “Auster‘s deployment of the “anti-detective story”” (Merivale 192), Cervantes wrote The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha as a parody of tales of courtly love “The Don Quixote-Dulcinea case is a certain type of parody […], a more general survey of the whole episode in its parody of courtly love.” (Iventosch 64/65). On the basis of this hint at Don Quixote, Auster tries to demonstrate Quinn‘s role being of an anti-hero, just like Don Quixote.


[1] I join the analysis and definition of symbols and metaphors of Gerhard Kurz “Metapher, Allegorie, Symbol”.

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The Symbolic and Metaphoric Potential of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass"
University of Leipzig
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Franziska Schüppel (Author), 2008, The Symbolic and Metaphoric Potential of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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