Identity can be defined as “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is” (OED). Although this definition seems fairly straight forward, it is extremely complicated to know exactly who or what someone is. It is impossible to know another person’s inner turmoil and fears. Struggling with identity remains a popular theme in literature and pop culture. The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby exemplifies this theme. Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction, the search and struggle for identity can be insightful for readers experiencing similar issues in their lives. The search for identity is a very broad theme as there are numerous identities that people struggle with, such as: political, class, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, parental, or simply the differences between men and women.
Throughout Daniel Defoe’s novel, Moll Flanders, main character Moll is subject to the struggles of finding one’s true identity. This eighteenth century woman was intent on breaking the stereotypical image that women were dependent and weak minded. In order for Moll to break such a conventional view, she had to mold her identity to certain situations. Moll explains on the very first page of the novel, “The author here is supposed to be writing her own history, and in the very beginning of her account she gives the reason why she thinks fit to conceal her true name, after which there is no occasion to say any more about that” (Defoe 1). From the very beginning, the reader never truly knows who Moll is, as ‘Moll’ is not her real name. Throughout the novel, Moll becomes somewhat of a professional impersonator as she is able to take on any guise that will work to her advantage. The most prominent struggle that Moll faces with identity is during her days as a thief. She creates an alternate identity in her life of crime. “…this was to dress me up in men’s clothes, and so put me into a new kind of practice” (Defoe 296). Moll’s Governess believes that as men, they have a better chance of stealing items, and their true identity will be concealed with a disguise should something go wrong. In doing this, Moll crosses boundaries regarding both her gender and appearance. She acts like a man and lies to everyone she meets, making them believe she is male and not female. In doing this, Moll entangles her sexual identity as a female with the sexual identity of a male only differentiating from the two when it suits her. Dressing as a man allows Moll a short time away from her real self, she gets to be someone completely different. Her male character acts and behaves any way Moll sees fit as she is in full control of both identities.
At one point throughout the novel, Moll (as a man) and her accomplice are chased down after stealing silk. Moll has enough time to run to her Governess’ house and hide “…I got time to throw off my disguise and dress me in my own clothes…” (298). If not for her dramatic alteration in apparent sexual identities, Moll would have been arrested on the spot and faced the gallows. After this incident, Moll never dresses as a man again, remaining a woman to avoid sharing her companion’s untimely demise. “…the question of whether or not our identities are continuous (and, by implied association, unique) is not one that many of us wish to keep foremost in our minds. So, as it lurks in the rhetoric of this narrative, in imitates the quality of its presence in our consciousness; the rhetorical texture of the narrative becomes almost a metaphor for the less specifiable currents of our own minds” (Butler). Although somewhat chastened by this experience, Moll perseveres and continues her search for her true self.
Obscuring one’s identity is as relevant today as it was 300 years ago. For your viewing pleasure: Dean Pelton from the TV show Community would rather pretend to be different characters than his true self.