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Two Sides of the Same Coin

Claire Romaine's picture

                When does friendship begin? When can you say that you’ve made an acquaintance?  It might be after a dinner conversation, or even a long walk back to the dorm from classes, but what really marks the start of any kind of relationship is names.  Knowing another person’s name is what differentiates them from a person seen across the hallway or a face you recognize in a crowd, as if knowledge of names equates to familiarity and knowledge of another’s identity.  In NW by Zadie Smith, names are critical to understanding the identities and personalities of the characters.  In particular, the dichotomy between Keisha and Natalie as two different aspects of the same individual causes an incredibly complex identity crisis that drives much her story in the novel.

                It would be easy, but not particularly accurate, to say that the division between ‘Keisha’ and ‘Natalie’ is as simple as differentiation of her past from her present.  ‘Keisha’ is her childhood name, and the one used by her mother, her cousin Layla, and even Nathan Bogle, who went to school with her.  ‘Natalie’ on the other hand, she has only used since she became adult in college.  Yet, if she was truly trying to sever ties with her past, it would make more sense to stop communicating with her family and change her last name, which she does not do even when she marries. The difference between ‘Keisha’ and ‘Natalie’ cannot be reduced to such a simple contrast of past versus present and even poverty versus wealth cannot encapsulate the dichotomy between the names.  While ‘Natalie’ is the name used when she meets Frank when she particularly notes “the gaping socio-economic difference” (246) between them, she goes by ‘Natalie’ when she is still incredibly poor and before she ever gets involved Frank.  Moreover, even after she has a relationship with Frank, she is not immediately wealthy.  In fact she spends an unspecified amount of her time as a lawyer and as ‘Natalie Blake’ in an under-paying paralegal job because of her supposed “indifference to money (or, at least, as far as the public representations of [this quality] were concerned)” (288).

                Her interest in society’s perception of her leads to the suggestion that ‘Keisha’ versus ‘Natalie’ might really be a division between private and public personas.  However, even though ‘Natalie’ is used largely in her public career as a lawyer, she also uses that same name amongst her family and close friends, namely Leah, which are arguably the most intimate and private of relationships.  Moreover, ‘Keisha’ is used just as much publicly as it is privately.  It is even the name that she uses on the internet, which is devoid of any kind of privacy whatsoever.

                Clearly the difference between ‘Keisha’ and ‘Natalie’ is more complex than mere financial or social circumstance.  It is also not as simple as either ‘Keisha’ or ‘Natalie’ being the true self, the most accurate depiction of her personality.  Each name represents a separate aspect of her identity that she cannot seem to reconcile.  ‘Natalie’ is some strain of who she thinks she should be.  As Michel says about her name change, “It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have.’ And it’s the same with names” (71).  Keisha/Natalie takes the name ‘Natalie’ in attempt to fulfill the role that society expects her to play.  Because of her personality and ability to relentlessly follow through on any task, she was always expected to succeed. Such a goal becomes so ingrained in her that not only does everyone else expect this of her, but she demands it of herself.  Keisha/Natalie never has a passionate desire to become a lawyer, rather it is the drive to have some sort of accomplishment that spurs her on.  Indeed, taking the name ‘Natalie’ seems to be part of the process of “professionalization” (238) that leads to success, but ‘Natalie’ is not just a professional façade.  ‘Natalie’ and her dedication to her work, are as much an integral part of Keisha/Natalie’s character as ‘Keisha’ is. 

‘Keisha’ is the aspect of herself that she has always tried to escape; It is a major part of her that she believes has only ever held her back.  From her poverty to her race to her sex, ‘Keisha’ is what has always hindered Keisha/Natalie in her pursuit of a different kind of life.  Even in the present day it is the name she uses in an email address, “” (353), for soliciting others for three-way sexual encounters, which prevents her from normality.  The ‘Keisha’ aspect is what she thinks is holding her back from a proper, productive life.

It is not ‘Keisha’, however, that is the problem because ‘Keisha’ and ‘Natalie’ are both parts of a single person.  It is her inability to reconcile these two distinct aspects of her personality that leads to the two separate names and to the underlying issue in the novel.  Keisha/Natalie is unable to understand herself; as she says it “the longer she spent alone the more indistinct she became to herself” (321).  Keisha/Natalie’s identity crisis drives her every action in the novel in her seemingly useless attempts to resolve it, and to find some meaning within her life as something other than a “forgery” who is “making it up as [she] goes along” (221).  Being unable to understand herself, Keisha/Natalie is unable to react as others might to the strains and drains of everyday life.  Rather, she seeks out dysfunctional solutions like internet sex arrangements and toying with the idea of suicide.

Where so many novels end with some kind of hope, or at least change from the beginning of the book, Keisha/Natalie’s story ends with the solidification of the identity crisis she has struggled with throughout.  Much like the other characters and plots within the book, Keisha/Natalie is left in perpetual stagnation, unable to become any more than what she already is: confused.



Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. Print.