Identifying a person can be a real dilemma. Sometimes it is hard to tell who a person really is because of circumstantial events and factors that other people use to identify a person. Sometimes a person has very little control over how he or she is identified because identity can depend less on whom or what someone is than on the events used to identify that person. This problem of identity occurs throughout many works of fiction, film and literature alike.
The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis and the ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus the King, by Sophocles are two examples of literary fiction that deal with the problem of identity, but in somewhat different forms. Davis’ historical novel tells the tale of Martin Guerre and how his identity was stolen by a man called Pansette after Martin had been away from his homeland for many years. In Oedipus the King, the King of Thebes, Oedipus, is trying to identify the murderer of the city’s former King only to find out that it was he who was the King’s murderer and the cause for the plague brought upon the ancient city of Thebes.
In the film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, Decker, part of the Blade Runner squad, is put to task attempting to identify androids (Replicants) that appear in every way human amongst humans. From these works of fiction we learn that identity can sometimes be established from the interpretation of events and the unfolding of a plot and story. Natalie Zemon Davis’ novel, The Return of Martin Guerre, deals with the idea of identity and the ways in which a person is identified.
The story is about how a man named Martin Guerre leaves his young wife and family on a whim because he is unhappy in his situation and life in Artigat. After Martin left, he was never to be heard from again or so those who knew him thought. His wife stayed faithful to his memory and her own chasteness. Life went on without Martin. He wasn’t completely forgotten, but his memory was put to the wayside and he was looked upon as a loss to the family and village. Then one day this all changed with the arrival of a man named Arnaud du-Tihl.
Also known as Pansette, Arnaud will attempt to fill the void left by the sudden departure of Martin Guerre by assuming Martin’s former life and calling it his own. How is it that a complete stranger can steal a man’s wife and family and status and everything that go with them by pretending to be that person? Pansette used his prior knowledge of Martin’s life and the knowledge that he gained while living as Martin to solidify his new role in life. Along with a little luck and a silver tongue Pansette took advantage of the events that occurred around him and the circumstances into which he had arrived.
To understand how Pansette did this, a little background is required to shed light on the situation prior to the departure of Martin up to the time of Pansette’s arrival in Artigat. Martin’s marriage to Bertrande de Rols was basically an arraigned business contract to solidify the wealth and status of two households in the village of Artigat. The marriage between Bertrande de Rols and Martin was orchestrated by Martin’s uncle, Pierre. Arraigned marriages were nothing out of the ordinary for this time period in Europe. However, this became a highly unusual marriage.
Martin was impotent and this caused a serious rift in the marriage and almost led to its dissolution. Without consummation of the marriage, the marriage contract could have been nullified. Martin was abused by fellow villagers and looked upon as a bad husband. Through all of this Bertrande stuck by Martin even though he was never truly good to her as a husband. Eventually Martin’s impotence (which was blamed on a witch’s spell) was cured after various masses and prayers were tried and the marriage was consummated. The marriage produced two children, only one that survived. Martin also had problems with his uncle.
His uncle once accused him of stealing grain from his fields. All of these problems compounded Martin’s decision to leave and leave the door open for Pansette to slide into Martin’s life by trying to fool everyone into believing that he actually is Martin. In sixteenth century France, peasants did not have access to photographs, paintings, or even mirrors. In modern times we can use photographs and fingerprints and now even DNA tests to help us identify people in any given situation. This was not the case in Martin Guerre’s time. People were identified through memories and the reminiscing of past events.
He informed himself as cunningly as he could about Martin Guerre, and the things that he used to say and do”(Davis 39). He had intimate knowledge of Martin’s past and of the times that he shared with the other people in the village. These are the things that Pansette used to fool Martin’s friends and family. He took advantage of knowledge that he gained about Martin’s life and the fact that he had some very similar facial features to Martin. He took advantage of Bertrande’s need to have her husband back and live a normal adult life in happiness, even if it was with an imposter.
Martin used the circumstances that he was given and took advantage of them to make himself into Martin Guerre. Pansette’s plan eventually fails because Pierre began to have doubts as to wether he was Martin as did others. The shoemaker said that Pansette’s foot was larger than Martin’s was. Pansette was broader and didn’t partake in the events and hobbies that Martin loved. He had forgotten many of the old Basque terms that had been bandied about so often when he was young.
He sometimes couldn’t remember things that had been very important in his past life. s eventual downfall occurred during his trial for the impersonation of Martin. It occurred with the arrival of the real Martin in the court room. After some argument, it was agreed upon that the new comer was indeed the real Martin. This goes to show that circumstances and events can be the main tools of identification when identity is in question and that they can sometimes lead to the wrong conclusions. Oedipus the King, by Sophocles also deals with the idea of identity and its acquisition through the unfolding of events and circumstances.
The issue in this tragedy is that the ancient Greek city of Thebes is being ravaged by a plague and the people turn to their king, Oedipus, to find the reason as to why this plague exists; Greeks, believing greatly in the supernatural, believe that the Gods have inflicted their great city with this plague. The people have turned to Oedipus because he is their king and has lifted a plague from the city before when he defeated the Sphinx and its riddle. They feel that Oedipus has Godlike reasoning abilities and that he can answer any question and solve any problem.
Before Oedipus is even approached by his people, he already knows what they are going to ask of him so he had already sent his brother-in-law, Kreon, to the oracle to get some help from the Gods themselves. Basically the oracle tells them that they must find the murderer of Laius, the former king of Thebes and drive him from the city so that the plague can be lifted. Oedipus had heard of Laius and knew only that he was the man that Oedipus replaced as king. This is the point at which the unfolding of the story and events will reveal the identity of the murderer of Laius.
Through Oedipus’ uncovering of information and detective work the identity that all of Thebes seeks will be revealed. Oedipus will also find out his own identity as he attempts to uncover the identity of Laius’ killer. Oedipus’ journey began the day a drunkard told him that he wasn’t his father’s, Polybus, son. An outraged Oedipus then went to the Oracle to find out the truth. This is when Oedipus was given the first clue as to who he is. The oracle told him that he would kill his father and bed down and have children with his mother.
Oedipus then decides to flee and while on the road he encounters Laius. Now here is the trick: Laius is Oedipus’ natural father and also the king of Thebes. Neither man knows this. Laius is the man that Oedipus is destined to kill and he does. Oedipus then goes on to save Thebes by solving the Sphinx’s riddle and become king and marry Jocasta, Laius’ widow. Laius and his wife Jocasta were faced with a similar problem. They were told by the oracle that Laius would father a child and that child would kill him and eventually take his place in bed with the king’s wife, his mother.
So Jocasta had their first son’ feet bound through the ankles and sent up to a mountain to die. The only mistake that they made was that they gave the child to a shepard who in a moment of compassion gave the child to a messenger for Polybus. This child was eventually named Oedipus because of the wounds on his feet. Unbeknownst to him, Oedipus has already fulfilled his prophecy. He has killed his father and slept with his mother, but he doesn’t know it. This is the problem of identity in Oedipus: Who is the murderer of Lauis and who is Oedipus, king of Thebes?
The answer is that Oedipus is the son of Laius and also his killer and this will only come out through the unfolding of events in the course of trying to determine the identity of Laius’ murderer. To discover the identity of Laius’ murderer Oedipus must gather evidence that is based on stories and eventually the testimony of an oracle, a blind man, a messenger and a shepard. The prophet, Tyreseus, knows Oedipus’ fate and identity, but refuses to reveal it to him causing Oedipus to lash out with a conspiracy charge against the blind prophet and Jocasta’s brother, Kreon.
They banter over how many men actually killed Laius. It turns out that it was only one man who killed Lauis at the crossroads. This was learned from an eyewitness to the event. It is also learned from a messenger that Oedipus is not the real son of Polybus. The messenger reveals that he gave Oedipus to Polybus after the messenger had been given Oedipus from a shepard. The shepard states that Jocasta was the one that gave him the child who was bound by the feet; thus the name Oedipus or “swollen feet”. Jocasta is the first to realize who Oedipus really is and in shame she kills herself.
After Oedipus puts all of this information in perspective with the fact that he killed a man at the crossroads, he realizes his shame too. He realizes that he has actually fulfilled the prophecy that he chose to run from. In shame he pokes his eyes out and asks to be run from the city. Oedipus has identified himself as the murderer of Laius and the harbinger of plague to Thebes and also as the man who wed kill his father and share a bed with his mother. This was all made possible by the studying of past events and present circumstances.
Identity was revealed not through modern means of identification, but by te playing out and unfolding of events. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a film that takes place in the year 2019 in Los Angeles. The future depicted in this movie is a very dreary one. The streets are dark and dank and Earth is no longer considered a healthy place to live. However, the most awe inspiring characteristic of the future depicted in this film is that man has found a way to make “men” and all other forms of life through genetic engineering.
This type of genetic engineering throws a new twist into the problem of identification. No longer is it just enough to identify who a person is, now you must first find out if the person is even a human. The “men” that men make are called “replicants”. These cyborgs are very much human-like. They are hard to identify by the untrained eye alone. The technology that creates replicants is getting even better. The Tyrell corporation, one of the leading manufacturers of replicants is making their replicants even harder to identify by making them more and more human.
Replicants were declared illegal on earth and a special police task force was created to seek out and destroy all replicants on earth upon identification. These special bounty hunters are called Blade Runners. It is their job to spot and destroy replicants. Their job requires them to analyze the behavior of suspected replicants for certain features that will mark them as such. How a Blade Runner identifies a replicant that is almost as human as one can get without actually being human? They try to analyze events and the circumstances that surround past events and future ones too.
The story revolves around a Blade Runner named Deckerd. He is contracted to kill four replicants that have gotten loose on earth and have gone on a killing spree in an attempt to meet the man that made them. Their desire is to somehow escape their predetermined life expectancy of four years has brought them to earth to risk their existence and somehow extend their short lives. These four replicants are very advanced (known as Nexus 6) and show few of the flaws that replicants normally have, making it very difficult to distinguish them as replicants.
Deckerd uses what is called a “void-comp test” to determine if an individual is a replicant. The test consists of a series of questions that are designed to stimulate emotional response that a replicant wouldn’t know how to deal with thus exposing it for what it is. Normally it takes thirty or so questions for Deckerd to determine the identity of the person, but when he meets Tyrell’s newest experiment, Rachel, it takes over one hundred questions. How has Tyrell made it so difficult for Deckerd to see that Rachel is a replicant. He has made her more human to the point that Rachel even thinks that she is human.
If Rachel doesn’t know that she is a replicant, how is anyone else supposed to know? No longer can a replicant be identified by its inability to control emotions as the replicant Leon was because they can now deal with their emotions by relying on implanted memories as an emotional cushion. Replicants are being fooled into being human to make them more human as is the case with Rachel. An interesting aside to the movie is the question of Deckerd’s identity. Is he a replicant? It can be assumed that he is by the development of two events in the movie.
The first is his dream of a unicorn while he is playing the piano. On top of his piano are many pictures. Replicants use pictures to help solidify their memories as their own. They are very valuable to them. Deckerd is also playing the piano half hearted as if he doesn’t now why he does. Rachel sits next to him and just starts playing and tells him that she didn’t even know if she could play or not only that she remembers getting lessons. She can play. At the end of the film, Deckerd finds an oragami unicorn that was made by another cop.
Is this a sign that this cop knows that Deckerd is not really human and that he knows Deckerd’s memories? Only through questionong and the observation of behavior will anyone know what Deckerd really is. Identity can be established by many means. Finger prints, photographs, DNA, memories, etc… However, sometimes this is not enough. Sometimes we rely on events that occur around us to help establish a person’s identity because we have no access to the aforementioned means as is the case in The Return of Martin Guerre and Oedipus the King.
Both stories relied on circumstantial evidence compounded with the unfolding of events to establish the identities of individuals. In Blade Runner, identity was established by scientific means until they no longer were enough. Again events and their development were required to establish identity. All three works of fiction share the common theme that someone is not always who you think they are. Careful attention to detail must paid in order to be sure of a person’s true identity.