Identity and Memory in Marina Lewycka’s Novel "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian"

Term Paper, 2016

11 Pages, Grade: 3,0


1. Introduction

Marina Lewycka’s (memory) novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian (2005) tells a story about two sisters – Nadezhda (Nadia) and Vera - who find themselves reunited against the common enemy Valentina, a 36-year old woman migrating from Ukraine, intending to enter their family by marrying their 84-year old father for specific purpose.

Lewycka uses memory, especially Nadia’s and Vera’s different perceptions of the past, to determine the sisters’ identities, which also serves as legitimization of their immigration to Great Britain. Selected close readings will show how both sisters developed two different self-concepts out of their memory and how this identification influences their attitude towards migration into a country.

As the novel contains various flashbacks through past telling, which again influences the different characters of Vera and Nadia, the question arises of how identity is shaped and to which extent a personal past memory plays a role within a process of forming a self-concept. This paper intends to answer these questions by looking at the theoretical constructs and definitions of identity on the one hand and memory on the other. It becomes even more interesting how these two constructs of memory and identity are linked, meaning identity being created through memory. Through analyzing selected passages from the book, I apply the theory on the characters of both Nadia and Vera to find out more about their different identities and search for possible reasons in their past. The concept of collective and individual memory (Assmann) will play an important role to give possible reasons for their different perceptions of the past, which thus lead to many conflicts throughout the novel.

Moreover I will shortly compare their migration into Great Britain after World War II with the current immigration of Valentina by comparing motives and their past in order to explain why Vera’s and Nadia’s immigration seems legitimized whereas Valentina appears as a parasite.

2. The Past in the Present

2.1. From Memory to Identity

Being the way you are, in terms of certain habits, attitudes, behavior and also being aware of this is essential to the construct of your own identity. Whenever one gets asked to describe his- or herself, the question “Who are you?” is not the easiest to answer. In order to find answers, one has to think about what exactly an identity is made of and what determines it. Certainly there are many ways how to define this social construct. “Identity is the socially constructed … complex of self-significations deriving from an individual’s membership in such collectives as class, race, gender, sexuality, generation, region, ethnicity, religion, and notion.” (Schick 19) Identity can thus be created by belonging to certain groups that fit into certain categories. It can even be possible to “possess various identities according to the various groups, communities, belief systems, political systems, etc. to which they belong“ (Assmann 113).

Abstract constructs such as personality, character and identity cannot be seen by staring into a person’s eyes or looked up by checking a person’s passport. The thinking about it itself brings it into existence, the desire of knowing what it is that makes you the person you are. “Identity is (a) representation, and the representation of identity, whether to oneself or to others, is in fact its very construction.“ (Schick 19) The reason for putting one’s own identity into question may derive from the concept of alterity, being different from others, not only as an individual, but also as a group of people. “Every identity differs from every other identity…” (Wolfreys 96). The aim to be different, not through separation from social norms or social exclusion, but through significant features that only one person carries in a particular kind of combination makes every person unique and thus recognizable. Recognition works by comparing one aspect over a certain period of time and thereby identifying some sort of “sameness”, a stability which defines this aspect as the one already known and not another one (Samuel Weber in Wolfreys 99).

Never the less, a person does not simply receive an identity or inherits it on the very first day. One has to learn and grow in order to develop it in a “fluid process”. (Wolfreys 97) This concept of development brings in the notion of time. Basically every single experience one makes every single day influences a person’s identity in some way, which can also differ according to its extent or quality of impact. Some lived experience or events would be more important or relevant to one’s character than others, but only by thinking about these events and their consequences, one can learn from experience. This brings another abstract construct into the formation of identity: memory.

Memory “enables us to form an awareness of selfhood (identity), both on the personal and on the collective level…This synthesis of time and identity is effectuated by memory.” (Assmann 109) The construct of memory can be divided into different levels that interfere with each other in a way that none could exist without the other and also that there cannot be separated clearly without overlapping. (Erll 5) Memory exists just like the construct of identity only by thinking, remembering things from the past through certain triggers, which can be a discourse to a person in a specific context or a special setting/place. There is an “individual memory” (Assmann 109) which only refers to a person’s inner subjective notion of time and events. On the next level there is the social interaction of the person within a social context creating a “communicative memory” (Assmann 109) shared by a group of people. The durability of this common knowledge is normally about 80 years, the approximate time span of three generations. The communicative memory can again be divided in a collective memory, which can be acquired through everyday interactions. There are no experts of the collective memory meaning older participants know more than younger ones, simply because of being closer to past events, maybe even by witnessing or knowing a witness. Whereas the cultural memory “is a kind of institution” (Assmann 110) which “has its specialists, both in oral and literary societies” (Assmann 114). The shared knowledge can only be acquired through various institutions like schools, the media, or the Church for example. Cultural memory is rather taught by special people – who received a special education in order to teach that knowledge - than just told and “it conveys to these people a collective, that is, cultural, identity.” (Assmann 110)

On the question of how memory is generated, there are various answers, especially when it comes to “the illusion … of a … lost past” (King 11). Memory can “articulate the complex relationship between past, present and future” (King 11) which is of particular interest to the creation of identity through memory and therefore to the discussed topic. There are two main theories, which try to explain the way in which we remember, also with a psychological type of view. There is the concept of memory as archaeological excavation stating that “nothing in the past is lost, that all experience is ‘filed away’ somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered by the remembering subject” (King 15) implying “the burial of aspects of the past in the unconscious, as if behind closed doors” (King 13). So memory is not just about the remembered past if talking or thinking about it but also about “forgotten” things in a repressive manner. Repression of memories of the past can be the result of traumas or “bad” memories, i.e. from bad experiences in the war. The second theory called Nachträglichkeit, especially referring to childhood memories, assumes that there is a process in which childhood memories need to be “actively reworked [through] reinterpretation and reinscription of the scene, taking place over time in the development of the subject” (King 18). The same process - it requires for a person to form his or her self concept, the own identity, it also needs to “refresh” or even discover childhood memories, not just to remember them, but to understand the context and relations of events and experiences, which then again influences the forming process of an identity. Hence the process of remembering the past an the process of forming an identity goes hand in hand in a cyclic way.

Literature itself owns a special function when it comes to remembering things from the past, because it is the medium which communicates a person’s/character’s memory to the recipient.

“… it portray(s) how individuals and groups remember their past and how they construct identities on the basis of the recollected memories. They are concerned with the mnemonic presence of the past in the present, they re-examine the relationship between the past and the present, and they illuminate the manifold functions that memories fulfill for the constitution of identity. Such texts highlight that our memories are highly selective, and that the rendering of memories potentially tells us more about the rememberer’s present, his or her desire and denial, than about the actual past events.” (Neumann 333)

A person needs his or her memory in order to answer the question posed at the beginning “Who are you?” because it enables us “to tell a coherent story of our life – obviously based on our memories of it – seems synonymous with our concept of identity.” (King 23). “John Locke, who maintained that there is no such thing as an essential identity, but that identities have to be constructed and reconstructed by acts of memory, by remembering who one was and by setting this past Self in relation to the present Self.” (Erll 6) In order to understand the different perceptions and attitudes of the protagonist Nadia and her sister Vera, who represent highly different characters in the book, their individual memory within their collective memory plays an essential role for their identification as Vera being the War Baby and Nadia being the Peacetime Baby.

2.2. War Baby and Peacetime Baby

“I am forty-seven years old and a university lecturer, but my sister’s voice reduces me instantly to a bogey-nosed four-year old.” (Lewycka 9) We, as the readers of Marina Lewycka’s novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian perceive everything through the eyes of the protagonist Nadezhda, as she is the homodiegetic narrator in the novel, therefore we focalize through her eyes out of a first-person narration. The reader immediately sympathizes with Nadia’s character while at the same time only learning about her thoughts on a matter. Thus all descriptions of situations and also the statements of other characters, i.e. her sister and counterpart Vera, is reflected and filtered through Nadia’s perception and therefore to be seen critical. At the same time she displays her inner conflict referring to at least two identities she inhabits: her grown-up personality on the one hand and her daughter personality (2) by which she is constantly downgraded by her older sister Vera, at least this is how we perceive the situation. “You see the trouble with your generation, Nadezhda, is that you’ve just skated over the surface of life. Peace. Love. Worker’s Control. It’s all idealistic nonsense. You can afford the luxury of irresponsibility, because you’ve never seen the dark underside of life.” (10) says Vera to her sister. The fact, that she calls her sister by her full name has an almost parental appearance in a moralizing way. Vera blames her sister for being younger. Nadia at the same time allows this degradation and almost gives the impression as if she blames herself for being younger and therefore not having to witness the war. “I grew up with no knowledge of the darkness that lurks at the bottom of the human soul.” (273) Nadia is missing an essential part of the past, that has shaped her whole family, but herself. The reason for her being different from her sister results from their individual memory, which is different according to their experiences. Nadia tries to fill this gap through learning about the past within a communicative memory of her dad and her sister, because both are able to tell her about it. Never the less it will never become her own individual memory, which will stand between her and the rest of the family.

It is difficult, almost impossible, for the reader to learn about Vera in an unfiltered way, meaning to perceive her thoughts, opinions, attitudes on a matter through her eyes. One becomes acquainted to know her mostly through Nadia’s and also through her fathers eyes (Nikolai). “You see, this Vera, she is terrible autocrat. Tyrant. Like Stalin. She is always pestering me. Must do this, must do that.” (55) It is not just towards her younger sister Nadia, that she puts herself into a superior position, even in front of her father, it seems as if the two have switched roles. Vera is constantly addressed as “Big Sis” by Nadia, when talking about her. “Big” indicates the superior position Vera inhabits compared to Nadia, not just because of her age, but because of her behavior. “Sis” as an abbreviation for sister immediately calls to mind the word ‘boss’ and carries an evil notion, also because Vera is convinced that the evil lies within the human nature (254).

The conflicts and discussion both sisters have to solve throughout the novel emphasizes their relation, whether it is a political argumentation, a decision to make in their dad’s case or a conversation of the past. Just to show one of many discussions they have, where Vera triumphs over Nadia or at least has the last word on a matter up to a certain degree.

“ ‘But really I blame you, Nadezhda,’ she adds. ‘You stopped him going into sheltered housing. None of this would have happened if he had gone into sheltered housing.’

‘Nobody could have predicted it’ ‘Nadia, I predicted it.’ Her voice rings with Big Sis triumph.” (118)

Also when it comes to family heritage, there are a few things, like their mothers locket (9) and a photograph (212) that Vera possesses although Nadia doubts that their mother exceptionally promised it to Vera. It thus seems as if Vera just took what she thinks is her belonging.

“ ‘Don’t be so spiteful, Vera. We should be allies, but you just can’t bring yourself to be civil to me, can you?’

‘Yes, well he’s another idiot. Mother and I were the practical people in the family.’

See how she claims Mother’s legacy? It’s not just the cupboard full of tins and jars, not the gold locket, nor even the money in the savings account she’s after: no, it’s the inheritance of character, of nature, that we fight over.” (119)

Vera is insulting her father being “another idiot” of the family, which implies that Nadia must be the other one, while at the same time splitting the family in two parties with herself and her mother on the one, and Nadia and her father on the other, almost as if they were fighting against each other. The rhetoric question Nadia poses while directly addressing the reader again shows how the reader cannot even escape Nadia’s opinion, which makes it hard not to sympathize with her side.

“There are ten years between Vera and me – ten years that gave me the Beatles, the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the student uprising of 1968, and the birth of feminism, which taught me to see all women as sisters – all women, except my sister, that is.” (239)

There is a clear difference between both sisters, which refers back to the past. It almost appears as if a whole generation lies between them. In fact it is just a ten-year time span, but during a significant change in history: Vera witnessed the war, while Nadia was born afterwards. Neither Nadia, nor Vera could have influenced their birth date, but the fact that Vera suffered from the war and therefore shaped a different identity out of her memories, justifies their relationship until this very day, where the novel is set. As long as Vera as well as Nadia do not understand the fact that neither one of them could have changed the past and simply accept this matter, none of them will receive the chance to develop an identity that is appropriate to their current situation towards each other. This attitude clearly fits into the concept of a communicative memory, where knowledge is acquired through interaction. Nadia’s father and her sister Vera both know more about the past and the war than Nadia herself does, simply because of their age which thus motivates Nadia to dig deeper into the past in order to learn about it, with clear purpose to get rid off her “daughter image” of being the one who does not know things, all triggered by Valentina who “exploded into our lives … bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.” (1) It is during the process of coping with Valentina, that every member of the family (the father, and both sisters) can “update” their self concept by leaving the past behind and moving onto the present situation, where both sisters work in academic jobs and their father has become an old person who needs to be taken care of.

Vera clearly separates herself from Nadia through her attitude concerning political matters and also in coping with Valentina. One could argue that people are different because of various reasons and even if they share the same parents, were born and raised within the same family and grew up in the same house, these common features do not necessarily mean, that two characters develop in the same manner. “See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries?” (241) The reason for their diversity or alterity is their different perception of the past, especially during their childhood. Lewycka expresses this alterity by telling the same past events from different perspectives in different versions, i.e. the graveyard escapee story (234 f.). The reader gets Nadia’s version first – which developed out of a communicative memory through story telling – before receiving Vera’s version, which is based on individual memory because of her being closer to it, because of her age. They all share a communicative memory which contains the immigration from Ukraine into Great Britain during or after the Second World War. They are aware of their roots up to different degrees. Their parents do still identify with their mother country, while Nadia and Vera see themselves as Britons and their children do not even see themselves as immigrants, which they aren’t because they were born and raised in Great Britain having Ukrainian roots without having a real connection to the foreign country.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Identity and Memory in Marina Lewycka’s Novel "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian"
Saarland University  (Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen)
Proseminar Britische Literaturen und Kulturen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Identity, Memory, Sisterhood, Legitimization, Marina Lewycka, Tractors, UK, Ukraine, British Novel
Quote paper
Shanna Große (Author), 2016, Identity and Memory in Marina Lewycka’s Novel "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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