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The Sole Author: Keisha's Identity through Existentialism

Samantha Plate's picture

Samantha Plate

Play In The City


The Sole Author: Keisha's Identity through Existentialism

            Have you ever wondered who you are? Have you ever thought “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” Have you ever thought everyone knows themselves except for you?  If so, you are not alone. You are questioning your existence just like Keisha Blake does all throughout NW. In Zadie Smith’s novel NW, Keisha Blake questions her identity in an attempt to understand herself while struggling with the concepts of existentialism.

            Existentialism is extremely prevalent throughout NW. It is always there in the background, breaking through every now and then to make obvious appearances, other times passing by in the background. Leah introduces Natalie to the ideas of Kierkegaard during chapter 55 and it is shortly after this that Keisha becomes Natalie. Much later in chapter 138, Keisha tries to understand this philosopher better by doing a Google search. It is shortly after this that she begins to visit the listings site. The ideas of Kierkegaard and Existentialism can be seen in Keisha’s thoughts and actions and can be used to understand her better.

            Kierkegaard was known as the “father of existentialism”. He had many ideas that helped to shape the ideology as a whole (McDonald). Keisha focuses a lot on “‘the difference between a moment and an instant’” (Smith 302). This idea, which Leah presents in their college years, follows Keisha into her adulthood where she finds the need to understand it. It is that moment where you have a realization that changes your life and it is so important that those few second must be called “‘Fullness of Time’” (Smith 303). At this point in her life Natalie realizes that she has never had a life altering realization, she has never felt this fullness. This is what drives her to do the things she does. She realizes her life is stable and nothing much else is going to happen. It is this realization that drives her to have a child. She is hoping for a “dramatic event” like the one that brought her and Leah together. Unfortunately not even the birth of her daughter could give Natalie what she wanted. For her it was not like “‘…meeting yourself at the end of a dark alley’” as she had hoped it would be (Smith 323). It was after her children were born that she began to contribute to the listings, in some strange hope of finding something in that alternate life that she could not find in her own. Natalie’s search for a dramatic event is also what prompts her to get involved in the dispute on the playground. However even this “victory” what not quite what she was looking for (Smith 339). Keisha continues her search, and hopes to finally find what she is looking for with the person she first had a dramatic event with, Leah. NW ends with the two women forcing themselves into a situation where they really had no place. They try to convince themselves they are doing the right thing by calling the police. Or rather that they are doing it for the right reasons, because deep down it is not justice they seek, but the excitement, to be involved in something big. It is by potentially ruining Nathan’s life that Keisha hopes to find meaning in hers.

            The meaning of one’s life is an important aspect in existentialism. The entire concept is based on the idea that existence precedes essence. We are born without a specific essence or purpose, and it is through our actions and decisions that we create ourselves. We truly are the “sole author” of our lives (Smith 3). Keisha undertakes this task too seriously and becomes “crazy busy with self-invention” (Smith 247). She spends her whole life trying to find out who she is. However, existentialism tells us there is nothing to find. This is something Keisha cannot accept. She tries to create herself by choosing her path in life and changing her name, but she still feels there is something missing. She is troubled by the fact that she has no concept of herself. She feels her personality is absent and cannot be defined the way she is able to define others. When Zadie Smith spoke to us, she also expressed this inability to define herself, which is easily relatable. We are able to see each other and point to their personality and say who they are, but we are unable to do this to ourselves. So is our human nature. Unfortunately, Keisha does not realize that she is not the only one who feels like she does and spends her life trying to find herself. This drive to define herself is seen in her actions and how she reverts back to Keisha. Throughout the book Natalie often falls back on Keisha, especially when making decisions she does not want her new constructed personality to be associated with, such as her sexual relations and calling the police to turn in Nathan. She thinks she is disguising herself behind this other persona, but she is really revealing her true self when she is Keisha. Existentialism is difficult to accept because it says that we are to be held solely responsible for all of our actions, which is something Keisha seems unable to do.

            All throughout NW Keisha struggles with the concepts of existentialism and identity. She searches for a dramatic event to give her life purpose, and lets this drive her decisions. Keisha has a need to define herself the way she defines other people and tries to do this by constructing a new self. However her constant reversion to Keisha after she becomes Natalie shows how it is our choices and how we live with them that define us. As existentialism tells us, man is not a definable thing, man is what he wills.

Works Cited

McDonald, William, "Søren Kierkegaard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <>.

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

*Other knowledge about Existentialism came from my ethics class lectures, readings, and discussions with Professor Payson.*