To be or not to be - The question of identity in selected postmodern American short stories

Term Paper, 2001

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. What is postmodernism?
2.1 The term
2.2 The dominant of postmodernism

3. The Question of Identity in postmodern American short stories
3.1. “Lost in the Funhouse” – a story of initiation
3.1.1 What is initiation ?
3.1.2 “Lost in the funhouse”
3.2 “Saint Marie” – Identity influenced by religion
3.3 “A wife’s story” – identity change as result of cultural change

4. Concluding thoughts


1. Introduction

In his famous soliloquy of Act III, Scene 1, of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, reveals his inner struggles and his search for identity and meaning. Confronted with and utterly disturbed by family and political problems concerning the crown of Denmark, questions, believes, social conventions and personal convictions are pressing hard on him and leave him searching for meaning and identity, trying to find for the right way through and the right way out.

To be, or not to be, that is the question -

whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

or to take arms against a sea of troubles,”. (III,1)

The question of “to be or not to be”, which is in essence the question of identity, is a widely discussed and fundamental theme of life, a topic many authors have written about and many producers have made the central theme of Hollywood movies.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss question of identity in postmodern American short stories. It will include a presentation of postmodernism in its contrast to modernism. Three short stories from different American authors will be discussed in regard to conflicts and development of identity. Special attention will be paid to the story of initiation.

2. What is postmodernism?

2.1 The term

It remains uncertain when and how the term “postmodernism” emerged, yet most scholars agree that it emerged in the late 1950s and early 60s. The 60s are said to be the background for postmodernism for the consciousness of people greatly changed in that decade. The artists and thinkers of the eighties were ideologically being formed at that time. This new paradigm affected not only literature but many other fields such as philosophy, history, psychoanalysis, art and architecture to name only some. This new movement was birthed out of certain “cultural tendencies, a constellation of values and a repertoire of procedures and attitudes”[1]. Postmodernism is an artistic tendency as well as a social phenomenon – a result of the change of the mind of Western people and also a catalyst resulting in further change of the mind.

It is a difficult endeavour to define the word “postmodernism” itself and numerous attempts have let to misunderstandings, contradictions and false definitions. It is important to bear in mind that the prefix post- carries three meanings which do indeed contradict but are each essential for the understanding of the concept of postmodernism. The Latin word post means “after” and “anti”, but can also carry the meaning of “a continuation of”. Generally one tends to define postmodernism as the movement which follows modernism understanding postmodernism as the movement coming after modernism. In this sense the focus on posterity, however, is insufficient. Postmodernism as (historical) consequence of modernism, a successor so to speak, sees Postmodernism as a continuation coming from and not after it. Others who call postmodernism “anti-naturalism” see the movement as an anti-movement surpassing and suppressing the first. In this sense postmodernism is a reaction against modernist literature.

It is not possible to arrive at one definition of postmodernism that is if it is either “after”-modernism or “anti”-modernism. It is neither nor, it carries meaning of all of them. This might be dissatisfactory to some but it is the only way to do justice to the term and allow it the widest range of definition possible. To my understanding this, however, is exactly what postmodernism tries to achieve and establish: a pushing of boundaries and a challenging of firmly set limits

Postmodernism can be called the presence of the past, yet not in a sense of a mere return of the past but rather a critical reworking, a rethinking and redefining of it. Postmodern literature in one sense still works within conventions, however, in order to subvert them. In a mass culture which is influenced by mass media and characterized by mass consumerism, postmodernism challenges this uniformity, which in the context of the essay I dare to equalize with the uniformity of character and thus a loss of individuality and identity. This process of forming a uniformed Culture has ultimate influence on the individual: The “I” as subject is no longer one coherent entity but has become a “ME” of a homogenizing system. Postmodern writing becomes a kind of writing which itself is an experience of limits but also challenges boundaries and limits. As I said before, the roots of postmodernism are in the 60s, the emergence of a new consciousness among young people questioning the values and virtues of the past generations. Challenging institutions and conventions led to a new conviction: everything is fluid and can’t be framed and defined as in the years and centuries before. No one can tell where the limits and what the limits are. Simple and unproblematic merging isn’t possible anymore.

In this sense postmodernism challenges these boundaries and limits of modern art and literature. However, postmodernism doesn’t understand itself as the movement which now is superior to its precedent but rather works within the conventions of it as said before, within the boundaries so to speak in order to find them. Limitations for the postmodern artist thus have become a way of finding and opening new doors.

2.2 The dominant of postmodernism

Postmodern features are usually organized as being opposed to certain and typical features of modernism. However, it is not so much the disappearance of elements or the dissolution of them but rather a shift of the elements and their components. McHale calls it a shift from an epistemological dominant to an ontological dominant. This statement leads to my final introductory point of this essay.

The dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological that is being primarily concerned with knowing and understanding issues leading to questions such as “How can I interpret this world of which I am part of?, What is there to be know?, Who knows it? How do they know it?”[2]. The dominant in postmodern fiction, however, is an ontological one thus concerned with life and its development. Question asked are “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it? […] What is a world?”[3]

These are the kind of questions which the characters in the selected short stories are concerned with: their identity is at stake and seen from different backgrounds they have to deal with the fact that they are individuals in a world that influences them greatly.

Hutcheon puts it nicely: “Postmodernism may not offer any final answers, but perhaps it can begin to ask questions that may eventually lead to answers of some kind.”[4]

This I will explore in the following selection of American short stories in regard to identity issues of a juvenile, an Indian woman and an Asian immigrant to the States.


[1] Hassan, 274

[2] McHale, 9

[3] ebd., 10

[4] Hutcheon, 262

Excerpt out of 18 pages


To be or not to be - The question of identity in selected postmodern American short stories
University of Cologne
Postmodern American short stories
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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435 KB
American, Postmodern
Quote paper
Lars Berghaus (Author), 2001, To be or not to be - The question of identity in selected postmodern American short stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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