Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Other: Friendship in Existentialism

Muni's picture

Co-authored by Frindle

Zadie Smith begins and ends her novel, NW, with each half of a friendship. The novel opens with Leah, grown up and on her own, listening to a radio that at some point mentions what it is to define oneself. The novel closes with Keisha (now Natalie), going through an existential crisis. A large portion of the middle of the novel is devoted to the events that lead to the beginning and the end of the novel, toward the adulthood of these characters. In this way, the book appears to almost grow from the inside out, which parallels the theme of existentialism throughout the novel. Existentialism is the idea that one is defined through one’s own actions; what one chooses to do internally is observed by an “Other,” who then is able to define the other. In this way, one cannot be defined without an Other (in this case, a close friend). When one loses their Other, they also lose a large part of their identity and fall into despair, which leads to an existential crisis.

A major concept of existentialism is the sense of the “Other,” one who “Looks” at you and defines you based on what they observe. In the third section of the book, Host, we see that Leah and Keisha are defined by each other. As Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist, writes in his essay Being-for-Others, “The profound meaning of my being is outside of me, imprisoned in an absence…I am proof of the other” (Solomon 224). This applies to Leah and Keisha: they are not themselves without their Other, the one who sees them for who they truly are. More than that, who each is is ingrained just as deeply in the other as it is in herself. It is for this reason that when Keisha’s mother bans her from seeing Leah, Keisha doesn’t know who she is. She finds that “In the absence of Leah [she] felt herself to be revealed and exposed. She had not noticed until the break that the state of being “Leah Hanwell’s friend” constituted a sort of passport, lending Keisha a protected form of access in most situations” (224). Everyone had defined her as being “Leah’s friend,” and when she loses Leah she loses this crucial part of her identity as well. Because Keisha is Leah’s Other, she not only loses the half of her that is in Leah, she also loses the half of Leah that is in her. Without Leah around, Keisha has no one to reflect, just as she has no one to be reflected in. In the beginning of the novel Leah writes “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (Smith 3). From an existentialist viewpoint, however, the opposite is true. Sartre writes “The Other’s existence reveals to me the being which I am without my being able either to appropriate that being or even to conceive it” (224). Simply by being there Leah shows Keisha who Keisha is, something Keisha cannot do by herself. When one has an Other, there is a give and take between the two: each carries half of themselves and half of the other. When one’s Other leaves, one becomes a shadow of one’s former self. Without Leah, Keisha no longer knows who she is, and falls into a sense of despair.

If existentialism is founded upon the idea that an individual becomes who they are based on what they choose to do, then despair in existentialism would be despair as a reaction to losing one’s self or one’s identity. By the end of the book, we can see that both Keisha and Leah feel a sense of despair about their lives. They are both conflicted about their relationship with the other, and they seem only to find ways to escape their despair when they’re with each other. In accordance with Sartre, “the Other is…simultaneously the one who has stolen my being from me and the one who causes ‘there to be’” (Solomon 245).  Keisha’s identity is based on Leah’s, so in a way, Leah has prevented Keisha from being “the sole author” of her own identity. Keisha realizes this when the two begin to grow apart, as she “...watched her friend ascend to the top deck in her new panda-eyed makeup and had a mauvais quart d'heure, wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television” (Smith 217). Keisha interprets her Other to be the books she’s read and the television she’s seen, and does not realize that her Other is actually Leah. Throughout the arc of their friendship, Leah and Keisha go through the motions of coming together and pulling apart several times, and each face issues that mirror the state of their relationship. Sartre writes, “While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me. We are by no means dealing with unilateral relations with an object-in-itself, but with reciprocal and moving relations…Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others” (Solomon 245). As Keisha goes through her identity crisis, giving herself the name Natalie, she is actively trying to free herself from her old identity, which was dependent on that of Leah. Despite this, she can’t find fulfillment in her life, because her true identity is still Keisha, and still depends on her Other, Leah.

When Keisha’s relationship with Leah is severed she loses her identity, which results in her existential crisis. But, if Keisha is Leah’s Other, why did Leah not fall into despair as well? Can we really ever choose to change our identity, or is it already so ingrained in our Other that we change very little throughout our time with our Other? If existentialism is dependent upon an Other, what happens when one doesn’t have an Other?

Works Cited:

Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 2nd ed. New York: Modern Library, 2005. Print.

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