Searching for identity: The mutual projection of the ‘postlapsarian’ protagonist and his environment in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

23 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

0. Introduction

1. Quinn as part of other figures
1.1 Quinn’s fictional characters
1.1.1 Max Work
1.1.2 William Wilson
1.1.3 Other fictional characters – intertextual figures
1.2 Peter Stillman
1.3 Stillman sr.
1.4 Paul Auster

2. Quinn’s fall
2.1 Loss of control
2.1.1. Chance and reality

3. Quinn as part of the city
3.1 The city as a text
3.1.1. Quinn as an author
3.1.2. Quinn as a reader
3.2. Quinn as a ‘postlapsarian’ character

4. Is there a solution?

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

0. Introduction

This essay argues that Daniel Quinn, the protagonist of Paul Auster’s City of Glass,[1] has a multiple personality reflected by the other characters of the novel as well as by the city. Referring to De Certeau, I will deal with the city as a text which the subject tries to read and write in search of his own identity.

After displaying his relationship to the novel’s most important figures and the way in which his own personality is projected on them, I will show that Quinn himself is a fallen creature: he does not have an identity since the breach between “signifier” and “signified”[2] cannot be overcome, just like in ‘postlapsarian’ language.

1. Quinn as part of other figures

After the death of his wife and son Quinn feels lost and desperate. He is no longer capable of leading his former life; before the bereavement he used to be a poet, whereas he writes detective stories under the name of William Wilson now. He does not dedicate himself to this work as much as he formerly did to poetry, it is merely a means of earning money and does not take a lot or his time after all. Instead, he is occupied with himself most of the time avoiding contact to other people, pursuing his interests of music and art. Above all, Quinn enjoys wandering through the city aimlessly, trying to get lost.

When he is confronted with Peter Stillman on the telephone, he does not want to take the case at first, but when it rings for the third time[3], he can no longer resist his curiosity and picks up the phone once more, pretending to be Paul Auster, the detective. However, he does not yet know that the case will completely change his life and that he will become deeply involved in it. Subsequently he will need to face his own identity, or rather the lack of his own identity since: “Daniel Quinn, Protagonist in Austers erstem Roman City of Glass, ist im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes ein Mensch ohne eigene Identität.“ (Deggerich 45)[4] This is what I am going to analyze in the present paper.

1.1 Quinn’s fictional characters

When Quinn gives up writing poetry, after the deaths of his wife and son, he adopts a new identity for the first time: publishing his detective stories under the pseudonym of William Wilson is the first step in the process of losing his identity. Quinn himself does not exist anymore: “He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real.” (City of Glass 4).

In addition to William Wilson, there is another fictional character playing a significant role in the discussion of Quinn’s identity: this is Max Work, the detective of Wilson’s novels. There are incidents in City of Glass when the protagonist identifies himself with this fictional character. Max Work symbolizes the next step of evasion; Quinn subconsciously needs him to escape from reality. He attempts to ignore death and to suppress his feelings while creating a world of his own, where he slips into the role of other characters – without even noticing. Bernd Herzogenrath also emphasizes the importance of the fictional characters :

Searching for identity, Quinn in fact is split into a „triad of selves“(City of Glass 6): he writes his detective stories under the name of William Wilson, a pseudonym that, referring to a short story of the same name by Poe, denotes a ‘split personality’ in itself. Quinn does “not consider him self the author” of what he writes (…) (Herzogenrath 28)[5]

1.1.1 Max Work

As mentioned above, Max Work represents one crucial element in Quinn’s process of losing his identity. He is one of the most ‘unreal’ figures of the entire novel, Quinn creates him on what he knows about crime and detection from literature. Thus, he is a fictional character and shallow on all levels:

Like most people, Quinn knew almost nothing about crime. He had never murdered anyone, had never stolen anything, and he did not know anyone who had. (…) Whatever he knew about these things, he had learned from books, films, and newspapers. (City of Glass 7)

However, to Quinn he appears real. When he dedicates himself to the Stillman case, he often wonders what Max Work would have done (“Then he thought about what Max Work might have been thinking, had he been there.” (City of Glass 14)). This is explicit proof of Quinn losing control of himself. There is a gap between the “real” Quinn and the way he acts, which is dangerously becoming more intense as he immerses himself in the investigation; his split personality increases perpetually and he is no longer able to differentiate the real world and the fictional world.

Whereas William Wilson remained an abstract figure for him, Work had increasingly come to life. In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist. Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise. (City of Glass 6)

It feels comforting to be this close to another person. Work and Wilson even serve as substitutes for the friends Quinn lacks: “(…) Work had become a presence in Quinn’s life, his interior brother, his comrade in solitude.” (City of Glass 6, emphasis mine).

However, it does not only seem as if Quinn gained more self-esteem (if one can speak of something like self -esteem at all, when speaking about a split and fractured self); it is also convenient for him to slip into another character whenever it seems helpful. Quinn decides to be Work, Wilson or Auster as he pleases:

It was not precisely that Quinn wanted to be Work, or even to be like him, but tit reassured him to pretend to be Work as he was writing his books, to know that he had it in him to be Work if he ever chose to be, even if only in his mind. (City of Glass 9)

The name ‘Max Work’ might be deliberately chosen by the author. It could imply that work plays a crucial role both in the main character’s life and in the novel itself. Quinn “works” very hard as a detective, he puts so much effort into his attempt to find a solution that it even turns into an obsession; the fact that he tries to find and read clues where there are none reveals this madness. The whole sense of his life is at the point of the novel working as a detective and finding a solution to the ostensible crime. We will later see how this resembles his search of an identity.

1.1.2 William Wilson

The name ‘William Wilson’ refers to a short story by Edgar Allan Poe[6]. The intertextuality the author establishes here is particularly interesting in understanding the novel. Poe is considered to be the inventor of the traditional detective story containing a crime and indications such as evidence that lead the detective to a solution. The author Paul Auster, however, tries to subvert this conventional genre by playing with his reader’s expectations. His work can be regarded as a somewhat “anti-detective story” (in contrast to traditional crime fiction, as there is no such solution and the detectives in Auster’s works rather search for themselves than for a criminal). Thus, it is of special interest that William Wilson, a pseudonym for the author of Quinn’s crime fiction, is inherent in the title of one of Poe’s detective stories.

In conclusion, we can say that so far Quinn is a detective in a three-fold manner: on the first level he is Max Work, the fictional detective, on second level he is William Wilson and on a third one he is Paul Auster, who is actually not a detective in reality at all, while he is considered as such by Peter and Virginia Stillman.[7]

William Wilson is another figure giving him the opportunity to establish a distance to his self, being Wilson allows Quinn to write and live anonymously. Moreover, it liberates him from any constraints to take responsibility: “Because he did not consider himself to be the author of what he wrote, he did not feel responsible for it and therefore was not compelled to defend it in his heart. William Wilson, after all, was an invention (…)” (City of Glass 4)

This alludes again to the split within his personality as well as to the split with other people. Quinn likes being alone (at least he believes that). He does not enjoy being with other people and hardly has any friends. Consequently, he does not actually participate in the real world. Instead, he indulges more and more in adopting other personalities: “It was then that he had taken on the name of William Wilson. Quinn was no longer that part of him that could write books, and although in many ways Quinn continued to exist, he no longer existed for anyone but himself.” (City of Glass 4). Adopting other identities is a way to transcendent or even escape from every day life.

William Wilson serves as a substitute for the author Quinn. Being an author is the only thing Quinn has kept of his former life. From all the characters appearing in Quinn’s life, whether real or fictional, Wilson is the one linked most to reality; through Wilson he writes, earns money and to a certain extent participates in a “normal” life, whereas all the other characters make Quinn flee into his own artificial world – a world of fragments and signs.

1.1.3 Other fictional characters – intertextual figures

Besides William Wilson alluding to Poe, the author establishes further reference to characters from other literary works creating intertextuality, which is typical for the period of post-modernism. One of them is Don Quixote. It is not by coincidence that the protagonist of City of Glass possesses the same initials: D.Q.

There are only three situations when the protagonist refers to himself as ‘Daniel Quinn’. One is when he meets Paul Auster, one when he presents himself to Stillman sr. for the first time and another occurs after he has bought the red notebook; there, he is naked and therefore can be regarded as “truly himself”. The red notebook contains poetry in a larger sense: poetry consists of signs and all of Stillman’s moves, which Quinn writes down into his little book are signs to him, these are clues he has to read. Those clues reveal a secret message to him: THE TOWER OF BABEL. Thus, the content of the red notebook can be referred to as poetry. As we know, Quinn used to be a poet before the death of his wife and son. Back then, he was still Daniel Quinn, with a whole and healthy personality. That is why he puts his real initials into the notebook. However, at the same time it feels peculiar to him to be writing his own initials, which reveals that he has already lost his own identity.

When he meets Paul Auster, he introduces himself as ‘Daniel Quinn’ since this is the situation reminding him most of his past. Auster and his family thus serve as a mirror for Quinn’s own life; of what it would be like if he had not suffered this stroke of fate.

When he meets Stillman sr. for the first time he does not actually present himself as Daniel Quinn, his true self, but merely uses this name to hide the identity that he has adopted at this point: being in the middle of the investigation he is Paul Auster, the detective, and thus has to hide this identity. Therefore, the use of his real name is of no great significance here.


[1] Auster, Paul: City of Glass, in: Auster, Paul: The New York Trilogy, London: Faber and Faber, 1992, 1-133.

[2] Cf. De Saussure

De Saussure, Ferdinand: Grundlagen der allgemeinen Sprachwissenschaft. Leipzig: De Gruyter, 1931.

[3] Concerning the significance of the number 3, compare Ackermann

Ackermann, Christiane: “’It flies off in so many little directions at once’. Das Subjekt als Hyperstruktur in Paul Austers City of Glass”, in: Andreas Lienkamp, Wolfgang Werth, Christian Berkemeyer (eds.): ‘ As strange as the world’. Annäherungen an das Werk des Erzählers und Filmemachers Paul Auster, Münster: LIT, 2002, 99-119.

[4] Deggerich, Georg: “Watching the Detectives, Identitätssuche und Identitätsverlust in Paul Austers New York Trilogy”, in: Andreas Lienkamp, Wolfgang Werth, Christian Berkemeyer (eds.): ‘As strange as the world’. Annäherungen an das Werk des Erzählers und Filmemachers Paul Auster, Münster: LIT, 2002, 119-131

[5] Herzogenrath, Bernd: An Art of Desire. Reading Paul Auster, Amsterdam / Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1999.

[6] Poe, Edgar Allan: “William Wilson”, in: David Galloway (ed.): Selected Writings. Poems, Tales, Essays and Reviews, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

[7] While speaking of names and intertextuality it is interesting that those are not arbitrary at all. They have not been chosen by chance as it is often claimed in the novel. Of course one has to bear in mind the difference between text-internal and external levels. However, it is interesting that arbitrariness is a crucial issue in the novel, but it does not really exist. Even on an internal level: Quinn claims that no word in a detective story is selcected by chance they all have a meaning, leading the detective or rather the reader to a solution. Analyzing this in more detail would go beyond the scope of this paper, though.

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Searching for identity: The mutual projection of the ‘postlapsarian’ protagonist and his environment in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass"
University of Cologne
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Searching, Paul, Auster’s, City, Glass
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Rafaela Breuer (Author), 2005, Searching for identity: The mutual projection of the ‘postlapsarian’ protagonist and his environment in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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