words that make a difference: Moments of identity crisis in the early British and African-American novel

Gwen Girsdansky, presenter at the 2011 National Conference on Undergraduate Research

As a writer with a strong journalism background, I'm constantly questioning the human condition. This curiosity overflows from journalism into literary studies and creative writing, and focuses my attention on identity.  During the examination of the novel as a form in English 265, my first literary criticism class with Dr. Karol Cooper, I sought to explore the emergence of the tripartite identity.

In my essay, "Narrative Chronology and the Destabilization of Identity in the Novels of Daniel Defoe, William Wells Brown and Charles Chesnutt," I claim:

 "Identity is not one stagnant fixture, but rather it is put into motion by catalysts, which appear in the novel as events. These events forcibly move the narrative forward, pushing the character from one role to another through minute rhetoric. This allows the novel as a form to break down the meaning of identity by forming three distinct identities, generally universal to each protagonist, which they transition through a collective group."

At Dr. Cooper's encouragement, I submitted an abstract of the paper to the Second Annual New Critics Conference at SUNY Oneonta, and the 2011 National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Ithaca College. Both of the abstracts were accepted and Dr. Cooper taught me another aspect of theory development: presentation. We are encouraged not only to explore and apply established theories, but to take risks and create our own. Through infusion of other theories and by developing our own, it gives us respect and deeper understanding of the theory process.  

The novel itself is a mirror to reality, and to suggest that events are the keystone to identity, I believe, instigates internal reflection. The novel as a form forces retrospective reflection into reality, and I hope my essay will initiate further self-investigation of motives and quests.