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Taylor Milne's picture

            When Zadie Smith came to speak at Bryn Mawr, she discussed how we as people are able to view others and see who they are as a person, but when we look back on ourselves, we are unable to place who we are as a person, which can be frustrating and disconcerting to those who are unable to accept this as a general fact of existing. This struggle with identity can be seen in Zadie Smith’s novel NW, through the characterization of Keisha/Natalie, who throughout the novel battles with who she is as a person, who she wants to be, and how she wants others to view her. Keisha’s first battle with her identity develops from her being ashamed by her background in the low-income area of north west London, where her decision to change her name is representative of wanting to leave her previous life behind and start anew, however, the new Natalie is never able to leave Keisha behind. Another identity crisis that Natalie struggles with is her need to create an identity that she can see, rather than being content with who she is as an individual. She has grown up trying to become the ideal model of a person that she has created based on her perceptions of other people and what she views as fitting for a successful life, and she unsuccessfully does this by taking fragmented bits of other peoples lives and trying to build a life of her own. Smith’s characterization of Keisha/Natalie portrays the notion of battling with one’s identity, and NW considers the degree to which identity differs between one’s self-perception and how others view them, which is displayed through Keisha/Natalie’s split personality and how she uses these personalities to present herself to the world.

            Throughout the stories within NW one of the major themes is the division between the poor and wealthy, and this split can easily be seen through Keisha/Natalie’s shame in her upbringing, and her need to create a life that is deemed “better” than that of those of the lower class. Smith shows in her novel the various levels of socioeconomics that are present within northwest London, focusing mostly on the lower class, and how some people can be ashamed of this background. “They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.” (Smith 238) Keisha struggled with growing up in a low-income home, and throughout the novel the audience is able to see how she is trying to get away from her past, and always move towards the more “ideal” future, away from poverty and full of success, and she tries to achieve this by becoming a lawyer, and leaving her past behind by changing her name from Keisha to Natalie. Although Keisha’s battle with her identity began as a child and spans far beyond her roots in NW, she thought that by becoming a professional, she would be satisfied with her life. Smith shows through her characterization of Keisha/Natalie that the struggle with identity is universal, and cannot be solved by trying to fit into the stereotypical “better person” that Keisha/Natalie had tried to achieve. After Keisha/Natalie is still dissatisfied with her life after becoming successful, we can see that her problems are much deeper and darker.

            Keisha/Natalie’s problem lies in that the identity that she has created for herself leaves her unhappy, because none of what she surrounds herself gives her any real meaning in life. She relies on her friends, family, job, and background to give her an identity, and by doing this on a very shallow level, she is never happy and content with who she is. She chose her job based on the fact that it would help her leave her past and lead a more prosperous life, not because she was interested in law; she also has surrounded herself with people who do not know who she really is, only the “Natalie” mask that she puts on, the person she wishes she could be. “A blinking envelope with the promise of external connection, work, engagement. Natalie Blake had become a person unsuited to self-reflection. Left to her own mental devices she quickly spiraled into self-contempt.” (Smith 300) Here it can be seen that Natalie has become so lost in this identity that she has tried to create for herself that she both tries to ignore the problem, while drowning her life in false senses of satisfaction in technology and connections with others. She comes to hate herself and who she is, mostly because she is unable to see the good qualities in her life, only the bad.

            Within NW and especially Keisha/Natalie, we are able to see the common existential crisis of not being able to see one’s own identity. Keisha/Natalie greatly suffers from this, leading her to always be dissatisfied with who she is as a person, because she cannot see herself as others do, making her feel unidentifiable. “ ‘Really good to see you,’ said Leah. ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with.’ Which comment made Natalie begin to cry, not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms. Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or with anyone.” (Smith 246) Keisha/Natalie struggles with never being able to show her whole self to anyone, and by keeping this “self” repressed for so many years, she loses a grasp on who she is, leaving herself without a true identity. She tries to adopt all of these new identities in order to make herself happy, but she does not do any of it for herself at all, all of the actions she performs are to make her look better to the outside world. Keisha/Natalie has created a shell for herself without any center, with meaning and importance. However, everyone has some meaning and importance, her problem is that she cannot see it, Keisha/Natalie’s flaw is that she believes that the only things that offer real meaning are those that people are able to see, leaving her unable to see herself.

            Throughout the novel, Keisha/Natalie tries to create an identity for herself that she thinks is pleasing to the world rather that to herself, leaving her dissatisfied in her life, and without a real identity to turn to. She is constantly battling between her history as Keisha, and her yearning to be Natalie, leaving her with no real grasp on who she is as a human being. 

Works Cited

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