In Search of Identity

During our class discussion of Absolute Beginners tonight there was some discussion about identity regarding the narrator. The idea was posed that the narrator is trying to find his own identity within the realm of 1950s London. It is interesting to think of the identity of a nameless character in a landscape that is also finding a new identity. London is moving past the old societal norms and expectations, but there are still instances when it seems like the adult generation is attempting to hold on. At the same time, the narrator is in the last year of his teenage years and is stuck between the realm of teenager and adult. Absolute Beginners is about finding an identity, both as a nation and as an individual.

One of the things that set the narrator apart from other characters in the novel is the language that he uses. The narrator sometimes uses words that seem to too sophisticated, and even complicated, for teenage use; such as when he uses “masticate” instead of “chew.” The narrator also describes his encounter with Ed the Ted saying, “Ed the Ted said nothing, just looked sinister, and stood breathing halitosis on me” (Macinnes 55). According to the OED Online, “halitosis” is “an abnormally odorous condition of the breath; foul breath” (“halitosis” n.). Halitosis is an extremely sophisticated word for something as foul and menial as bad breath. The sophistication of the narrator’s language is able to set him apart from other teenagers who are more childish or brutish than he is. On the other hand, the narrator using sophisticated words when they are not necessary can also set him apart from the adults as well. The language that the narrator uses is out of place sometimes for the situation. This implies that perhaps the narrator is not as smart as he thinks he is, and he is just throwing around fancy words without considering his context or his audience. This would imply that the narrator is not an adult either. Even though he knows big, fancy words he still has not mastered language on an adult/educated level. This reading suggests that the narrator is stuck somewhere in between his beloved teenage years and adulthood and he does not have a category anymore that he really belongs in.

In the same way, London is also in a transitory phase during this novel. London is caught between the old ways and the new, and I think there are instances in the novel where this tension shows. The narrator makes a point to show the reader that the old London is dying and that Victorian houses have gone from grand and beautiful to essentially the ghetto. Youth culture is beginning to take power in a way that was not seen before, and to the narrator London is the place where teenagers rule. At the same time, though, there are still people holding on to the values and traditions that defined the past. The narrator’s mother exhibits this when she discusses the narrator coming home after his father dies; “‘You want me back,’ I said, ‘because you’ll want a man about the house’ [. . .] ‘To keep the dear old place respectable, till you get married once again'” (Macinnes 53). The narrator’s mother cannot let go of the expectation that she needs a man of the house for appearances, even if she is the one who currently runs the house already. The word “respectable” places a lot of value on appearances, Appearances and tradition are things that the narrator’s mother can’t seem to escape, even in post-war, progressive, young, and new England.

The search for identity as a nation is just as present as the search for identity as an individual. I think that in both cases, the nation and the narrator, do not find the identity that they were seeking and the tension will continue unresolved

“halitosis, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 4 November 2016

Macinnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. Allison and Busby, 2011.

Samantha Hudspeth

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