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The True Essence of Natalie/Keisha Blake

lksmith's picture

            How does one define their own identity? Is it by the way that they wish to be seen and the person they want to be or is it something more than that? In “NW” by Zadie Smith, Natalie (formerly Keisha) struggles with these questions as she moves through her life trying to find who she really is.

            In existentialism it is though that a person defines their essence through their actions rather than being governed by some greater human nature. Every action a person does is a part of that identity, even if it is done unconsciously. (Crowell) In her youth, Keisha had already begun to feel the identity crisis that would plague her adulthood. Around the age of ten she realized “In the child’s mind a breach now appeared: between what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as other seemed to understand it.” (Smith 208) She alone saw the inner workings of her own mind, though that is not what defines her identity, or, more accurately her essence. In the existentialist perspective the way in which others understood her essence was much closer to her identity because that view was based much more heavily on her actions rather than her private thoughts.  

            Keisha realization that others see her in a different way that she sees herself also ties to the existentialist idea that “existence precedes essence.” (Crowell) In this situation it is clear that Keisha does in fact exist, however, the true nature of her essence within that existence is the matter to be debated. She understands herself in a way that others do not, just as they understand her in ways that she cannot see. It is because she noticed this difference that Keisha struggles so much with her identity, with this in mind she tries to meld herself to become the person she wants others to see her as, even though that is not who she really is. Later on in her life, Keisha decides to change her name to Natalie as a way of leaving behind her former self and creating a new personality to show to the world. At this time she is on track to become a successful lawyer and she want people to see her as such. This method of erasing the past to make way for the future proves to be a struggle because many aspects of the way that she thinks remain the same, namely that she is not the person that people see her as or the person she is trying to be. When she is not having the success she had hoped for in her job “she told herself a story about legal ethics, strong moral character and indifference to money. She told the same tale to Frank and Leah, to her family, to her fellow trainee barristers and to anyone who inquired after her future.” (Smith 288) This action of faking her own hopes and dreams to protect herself from judgment and failure tells a great deal about her personality. It shows that she is insecure in herself because rather than going through with what she actually wants, she spends all of her time and effort trying to custom design her own essence into a manufactured perfection. Through the existentialist perspective, this constant remodeling of herself to fit into one specific pattern is her true essence because those are the actions she has chosen to take.

            As Natalie continues to progress through her life, her confusion over her own essence continues to torture her. The more uncomfortable this feeling becomes for her, the more she reverts back to her former self, both in actions and in name. Finally at the end of the book she completely loses sight of Natalie, the new person she has created, and fall back entirely on Keisha. The novel concludes with Keisha and her lifelong best friend Leah turning in Nathan, a former classmate, for a murder that he may not have even committed. As Natalie she would not have done this because in her self-designed essence, Natalie is a good person who defends those who are helpless and cannot defend themselves. However, in her youth Keisha experienced a traumatic event involving Nathan that was the foundation of her and Leah’s relationship. Remaining true to this stronger essence, Keisha teamed up with Leah to seek closure after what had happened so many years before. This action is an incredibly defining moment in the creation of Keisha’s identity. She is tied down to her past and the person that she tried to escape from being. This action shows that despite all of her efforts, Keisha is the product of her experiences and her choices.

            Throughout her life Keisha Blake tried shape her essence into something that she wanted everyone to see her as. However, by doing so her actions defined her not only as a piece of her former self, but as the insecurities that she tried to cover up. She is neither the essence she tried to avoid nor the essence she aimed to become, she is the essence that was created through her actions and that she never knew existed.



Work Cited

Crowell, Steven. "Existentialism." Stanford University. Stanford University, 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

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