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Agency: A Moot Point?

tomahawk's picture

In class, several people argued that Zadie Smith’s Natalie was the only character who showed any agency. By doing well in school, becoming a lawyer, and marrying a wealthy man, Natalie escapes poverty. But, is Natalie the only character who has agency in NW?

Sabina Alkirke analyzes several researchers’ methods of studying agency in “Subjective Quantitative studies of Human Agency.” She finds that agency is not only measured by a person’s ability to change her socioeconomic class. Alkirke broadens the definition of agency to be “people’s ability to act on behalf of what matters to them” (Alkirke 223). She presents agency as multi-faceted; it can be measured objectively through a person’s resources, but also subjectively through feelings of empowerment (Alkirke 23). Agency, therefore, is both an internal and an external phenomenon. Using Alkirke’s definition, Natalie has agency, but so do Leah and Felix.

Leah shows she has external agency when she has an abortion and takes Natalie’s birth control. She has resources: the money to pay for the abortion and the access to birth control. Moreover, by quitting using drugs and by ending his relationship with Annie, Felix demonstrates that he has the “ability to act on behalf of what matters to [him].” It is important to Felix that he can be clean and that he can be in a monogamous relationship with Grace. Therefore, Felix also has external agency. In class, several people perceived that Natalie was the only character who had agency, yet Alkirke’s definition portrays that all three characters have agency.

The above paragraph gives examples of external agency, but Zadie Smith also shows that there is a distinction between external and internal agency. Michel illustrates a lack of internal agency when he calls Natalie near the end of the book. Smith writes, “‘She’s lying out there in the sun,’ said Michel. ‘She won’t speak. I don’t know what to do anymore’” (Smith 395). In this passage, Michel feels unable “to act on behalf of what matters to [him].” Although he feels as if he is not in control, Michel has the resources to get Leah back into the house. For example, he could pay people to restrain Leah and carry her out of the sunlight. This would be completely unethical, yet Michel has the monetary resources to change the situation, and consequently, has external agency. In following, Michel exemplifies the dichotomy of agency; a person can have one kind of agency, but not the other. 

Although I can imagine many more instances in which external agency and internal agency are independent of each other, looking back on the last few paragraphs, I wonder if the differentiation between internal and external agency often exists. Are internal and external agency usually separated from each other? Before I read this book, I had not consciously distinguished these two types of agency. Perhaps the reason for this is that the dichotomy does not usually apply. Natalie, for example, portrays external agency. She is born into poverty, but gains status through her work and through her marriage. Would Natalie have studied for years to become a lawyer if she did not believe that she could eventually be one? Would she have pursued Frank if she did not think that she could become Frank’s wife? Zadie Smith never answers these questions in NW. But, in my opinion, Natalie became part of the upper class because she felt empowered to change her status and because she found the resources (education and marriage) to do so. I would also argue that Leah thought that she could have an abortion and that she would be able to steal Natalie’s birth control before she had the abortion and before she stole the birth control. If she did not suppose she could accomplish either of these things, I doubt she would have pursued either. Furthermore, I do not believe that Felix would have been able to quit using drugs if he did not feel empowered to do so. In my opinion, Natalie, Leah, and Felix do not merely have external agency; they have internal agency as well.

Lastly, when seeing that all of these characters encompass multiple forms of agency, I begin to wonder if Alkirke’s broad definition of agency devalues it. Not only does Natalie, Leah, and Felix have internal and external agency, I start to wonder if agency can encompass trivial actions. For example, if walking “matters to [me]” and I have the ability to do it (because I have healthy legs and I often feel empowered to go on long walks), do I have agency? By Alkirke’s definition, I do. Although her definition helps me see that agency is not merely determined by a person’s resources and that people can have agency without desiring to change their socioeconomic status, it seems to be a moot point to say that any of NW’s characters have agency if I can have agency by just taking a walk. Yet, at the same time, I now wonder if I am catching myself in the same predicament that other people in our class were caught in. Natalie seems to have agency whereas I do not consider myself to (if I merely take a walk) because I value escaping poverty more than taking walks. Perhaps Alkirke’s definition is vague because it fights the quantification of agency. It stops people from saying that one form of agency is greater than another, and that what matters to one person, should be the concern of many. 

Work Cited

Alkire, Sabina. "Subjective Quantitative Studies of Human Agency." Social Indicators Research 74.1 (2005): 217-60. Print.

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


tomahawk's picture

Agency and Existentialism

Sherry Ortner argues that “ both a source and effect of power” in “Thick Resistance: Death and the Cultural Construction of Agency in Himalayan Mountaineering” (Ortner 146). Her definition of agency is multi-faceted. Therefore, to learn about a character’s agency (with Ortner’s definition in mind), I must explore agency further than I did with Alkirke’s definition; I must look at both the effects of a character’s agency and the factors that facilitated this agency.

Zadie Smith’s characters illustrate agency as an “effect of power” when they attempt to change their lives. Felix shows that he feels empowered when he stops using drugs and decides to be in a monogamous relationship with Grace. Leah illustrates her agency when she gets an abortion and takes birth control to ensure that she does not become pregnant. Michel portrays that he is empowered when he confronts Shar on the way back from the supermarket. Throughout the novel, Natalie also demonstrates that she is empowered because she gains social mobility and enters the upper class. By altering their lives, all of these characters show that they have agency.

Although finding the “effects of power” was easy, discovering the sources is much more difficult. I could argue that Felix gained power from his relationship from Grace and that her support and love led him to get clean. I could also argue that Leah was empowered by her relationship with Michel. However, though these are all valid possible sources of power, they are no more than possible sources of power. There is no way to determine causality and to undeniably state that one possibility is the true source of power. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, most characters never tell the reader exactly where they get their agency from. Secondly, a character’s agency may be derived from multiple sources, sources that the character is subconscious of. Leah exemplifies both of these two reasons. While she is sitting in the waiting room, Leah never clearly states what empowered her to get an abortion. Moreover, even if she did, even if Leah said that Michel’s love for her gives her agency, she would not be acknowledging her other power sources. Another power source that Leah has is her socioeconomic class; she has the monetary resources to get an abortion. Like Leah, all of the characters have sources of power which they derive agency from and capitalize on that may not be aware of. These sources could include characters’ socioeconomic class, their race, and their upbringing. Since the characters may be unaware of their own sources of power, the reader will never be able to determine them either: making my search for causality an impossible endeavor. 

Although this seems to render half of Ortner’s definition useless when applying it to NW, the idea that sources of agency are often subconscious affects existentialism and its relation to the novel. It raises the following questions: can characters truly define themselves if they are influenced by subconscious power sources? And, are any of these characters able to create their own meaning if some of their meaning has already been determined for them by these subconscious power sources? 

Zadie Smith’s character Nathan Bogle elaborates on these questions. While walking with Natalie Blake, Nathan Bogle tells her, “There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown. Not at all. They don’t want you, your own people don’t want you, no one wants you. Ain’t the same for girls, it’s a man ting” (Smith 376). Nathan is eluding to how his race stopped him from having agency. Nathan neither had the “source [or] effect of power.” Nathan did not have a power source because he did not feel as if he had support from his community when he was young. Moreover, Nathan’s life shows that Nathan did not reap the effects of power; he is still living in Northwest London in poverty. Although Nathan did not have agency, he shows that agency and existentialism are intertwined. Agency gives people the ability to define themselves through their actions. Since Nathan did not have agency, he was not able to define himself further than a poor black male, which was the role in society that he was born into. Therefore, people (characters and Nathan included) cannot simply define themselves. Often, other factors prevent a person from developing his own meaning.

Work Cited

Ortner, Sherry B. "Thick Resistance: Death and the Cultural Construction of Agency in Himalayan Mountaineering." Representations 59.1 (1997): 135-62. Print.

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