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Socioeconomics and Identity Definitions

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 battles with her identity stem from her shame in coming from a working class family in north west London, leading her to change her name in order 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 obsession with needing to create identity that she can see, and that others can look up to, rather than accepting who she is as an individual. Throughout her childhood, we are able to see both Keisha’s mimicking of people who are more privileged than herself, and also her desire to move into a higher social class. She has grown up trying to become the ideal person that she has formed 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 wealthier peoples lives and attempting to create 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 is defined by one’s socioeconomic status, 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 overlying themes is the division between the working and upper classes, which can be observed through Keisha/Natalie’s shame in coming from a lower class family, and her need to move into a more prosperous life. Smith shows in her novel the various levels of socioeconomics that are present within northwest London, focusing mostly on the lower class, and why people can be ashamed of their economic status. “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 break away from her past that she believes defines her and move towards a successful future. She tries to achieve this by becoming a lawyer, and attempting to erase her past 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 shame associated with coming from the working class is universal, and cannot be solved by trying to fit into the stereotypical “better person” that Keisha/Natalie had tried to fit herself into. After Keisha/Natalie is still dissatisfied with her life even after her success, we can see that her problems are much deeper and darker.

            Through the chapters revolving around Keisha’s youth and adolescence, Smith foreshadows Keisha’s identity crisis through Keisha’s mimicking of personalities of those who come from a higher socioeconomic status than herself. We are able to see at an early age that Keisha already feels the pressures of society to move up the social ladder, and this can be seen early on with her obsession with stories that involve success of the underdog, which was often an orphan. Keisha’s obsession with becoming someone other than herself can also be seen in the mimicking of others. “Keisha Blake was eager to replicate some of the conditions she had seen at the Hanwells’. Cup, teabag, then water, then—only then—milk.” (Smith 204) This is seen here first when she becomes obsessive over copying exactly the motions of that she had observed of people that she admired, especially due to their prosperity. We are also able to see this mimicking behavior as she attempts to create a personality before entering school, “But now they were leaving Quinton Primary for Brayton Comprehensive, where everybody seemed to have a personality, and so Keisha looked at Leah and tried to ascertain the outline of her personality.” (Smith 209) Through both of these examples Smith illuminates Keisha’s struggle with creating her own identity, and shows how she instead takes the personalities of the others that she admires and tries to make them her own, even if they do not fit in with who she is as a person. The actions that revolve around her identity and personality throughout her childhood and later in life all show her need to “fit in” and be accepted by society, which she believes will come from breaking from the working class and become a professional that other people may look up to.

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. Natalie’s main purpose in life is to look as if she is successful and a part of a higher social class, and because of this she bases her actions on what she believes others will view as socially correct. She comes to hate herself and who she is, mostly because she is unable to see the good qualities in her life and becomes obsessively judgmental of the bad.

            Throughout the novel, Keisha/Natalie tries to create an identity for herself that she believes represents what is acceptable by social conventions that revolve mainly around a person’s socioeconomic status. However her obsession with breaking from her working class background leaves 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. Smith shows throughout the novel that although many people try to break from the social construct that they were born into, that even if they are successful, they are never able to leave behind their past.



Works Cited

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