Several years ago I read The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, well before Jason Bourne became a film phenomenon. The story brought to mind questions I have never been able to shake. Briefly, the story is one of espionage. It opens with the main character, Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, in a state of amnesia. A variety of people are pursuing him and attempting to kill him. As the story unfolds he displays unusual abilities such as being fluent in several languages and the skill to kill his opponents quickly with his bare hands. Equally unusual is his access to a Swiss bank account with hundreds of thousands of dollars in it as well as passports from several different countries, all with different names but with his picture on each of them. Because of his amnesia he doesn’t know if he is a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” or who is trying to kill him and why.
The questions this story raises for me are: “Who would I be if I didn’t know who I was?” and “Would I be a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’?” These questions introduce the greater issue—identity.
Identity issues have long been a motif in stories such as the one in The Bourne Identity mentioned above, but they go back much further than the forty-something years since Ludlum’s book came out. The epic poem, The Odyssey, raised questions of identity and the issue of proof of identity over 2,700 years ago. In The Odyssey, Odysseus returns to his native Ithaca after a twenty-year absence, unrecognized by neighbors and family. He must prove his identity to his wife, Penelope, by participating in a competition she requires of her suitors. His childhood nurse recognizes him only when she sees a scar he received as a youth.
In one of the Grail legends, Parzival, the title character’s identity is hidden from him by his mother in his youth. He doesn’t know who his father was. He doesn’t even know his own name. He doesn’t know his birthright or his inherited royal lineage. Later in the story after killing the Red Knight, Parzival dons the Red Knight’s armor hiding his own identity from those he meets and presenting himself with the false identity of the Red Knight.
Proof of Identity is more than just a motif in the Cinderella category of fairy tales (Aarne-Thompson Index Type 510). It is a means of categorization. There must be a proof of identity component in the story to qualify it for this categorization.
Identity, loss of identity, proof of identity, and impersonation are identity issues that continue in modern stories. In the animated feature film, Shrek, Cameron Diaz provides the voice for the character Fiona, who is a human being by day but has a hidden identity by night as an ogress. In the film, Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays Chief John Anderton, a character who changes his identity by having eye transplant surgery. In his futuristic world, identity is recorded through retinal scan. He is a police officer with a high security clearance. He is able to penetrate tight security after his surgery because he retains his proof of identity, his old eyeballs, which he has had the foresight to keep handy for just such a situation.
What is this thing we call “identity” that has been a crucial part of story for millennia? If you are creating characters for your writing project, what is the identity of your various characters? What does “identity” mean to you? What skills would remain available and what would you lose? Who would you be if you didn’t know who you were?