Novels About Identity and Belonging

People will be figuring out, or grappling with, who they are in these novels, and trying to find their place in the world. Some will be searching for themselves in various pursuits or beliefs, or dealing with the expectations of those around them.

See also Duality

See also Coming of Age

See also Gender Roles

Theme: Identity or Belonging

Annie John | Jamaica Kincaid

Annie, the narrator, grows up in Antigua. She has her first experience with death at age ten. During adolescence, her relationship with her mother becomes strained. The interwoven stories show the mental growth of Annie.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man | James Weldon Johnson

An unnamed narrator sets out to reveal his great secret. He tells the story of his life, starting with his birth in small-town Georgia shortly after the Civil War. His mother teaches him to read and play the piano. As a boy he becomes aware that he is “coloured”; he feels some inferiority upon learning this. When he grows up he realizes he can pass as white. He uses his music to make a living.

Read “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man”

Invisible Man | Ralph Ellison

An unnamed narrator tells the story of his life from segregation in the 1920’s American South to living in Harlem many years later. He feels invisible in the world, believing people refuse to see him.

Read “Invisible Man”

Their Eyes Were Watching God | Zora Neale Hurston

Janie’s nanny encourages her to marry Logan even though she doesn’t find him attractive. They get married but she leaves him for Joe, a man who plans on becoming an important figure in an all-black community. Their relationship deteriorates and become hostile.

Read “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water | Michael Dorris

Three Native American women each narrate a section of this story from their own perspective. It’s told in reverse order starting with the granddaughter, then the mother, then the grandmother, with each narrative adding fresh information and enabling a new interpretation of previously told events.

Go Tell It on the Mountain | James Baldwin

John Grimes is fourteen and lives in Harlem in 1935. His family wants him to live a religious life, but he doesn’t want it. John is confused about how to live and we’re told John’s family history which helps explain his uncertainty.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter | Carson McCullers

It’s the 1930s in a small Southern town. John Singer, a deaf mute, is an important presence in the life of the other main characters. Biff runs a cafe, has a distant relationship with his wife, and says that he like freaks. Jake is educated and a fighter for equality, but he is drunk a lot, which undermines his credibility. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who looks after her brothers and loves music. Dr. Copeland is a black man educated in the North, isolated and keenly aware of the racism around him. Their lives intertwine for a while, but mostly in a superficial way.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland | Lewis Carroll

Alice, a young girl, is sitting by a stream when she sees a rabbit dressed in a waistcoat rushing along, muttering about being late. It jumps down a hole; Alice follows but loses track of the rabbit. She starts on a series of fantastic and absurd adventures.

“I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

Read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

The Old Gringo | Carlos Fuentes

An old man rides into Mexico looking for Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries. After proving his skills as a marksman, he is accepted into the group under General Tomas Arroyo. They set out for their base; they find it razed with many dead.

Betsy Brown | Ntozake Shange

Betsy is a thirteen-year-old black girl in St. Louis living in a house with her extended family. Her grandmother is upset with integration. Against a backdrop of identity and racial concerns, she deals with many of the parts of growing up: a boyfriend, interacting with friends, having to change schools, and family problems.

Madame Bovary | Gustave Flaubert

Emma, a farm girl, marries Charles Bovary, a widowed country doctor. He is content with the union, but she soon becomes bored, desiring a life of passion and romance.  She seeks satisfaction in possessions, her family, and other men.

Read “Madame Bovary”

Demian | Herman Hesse

Emil Sinclair tries to live like his true self. He narrates his life from grammar school, boarding school, and thru university. Early on he meets Demian, a boy a few years older who opens his mind to new ideas.

Main Street | Sinclair Lewis

Carol is an open minded college graduate who marries Dr. Will Kenicott and moves with him to his town, Gopher Prairie. The town is uninteresting and resistant to culture and change. She tries to bring new things to the town and find individualists to help her, and find satisfaction in her life.

“Whatever she might become she would never be static.”

Read “Main Street”

The Member of the Wedding | Carson McCullers

Frankie Addams is a twelve-year-old tomboy who doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere. When her brother, Jarvis, returns home to get married, Frankie believes she will go away with her brother and his wife, and will finally fit in somewhere.

A Long and Happy Life | Reynolds Price

Rosacoke is getting a ride to a funeral on her boyfriend Wesley’s motorcycle. She has to walk home when he leaves. He is attentive to other women, and alternates between treating Rosacoke normally and badly.

The Crazy Horse Electric Game | Chris Crutcher

Willie Weaver is the star pitcher on his local baseball team, and the championship game is approaching. He feels the pressure from the city and his father’s legacy as a former football star. The game is a big success, and Willie feels great for the summer. One day, while water skiing, Willie has an accident.

Roots: The Story of an American Family | Alex Haley

Kunta Kinte is born in a small African village and quickly progresses; by fifteen he is running his own farm and living on his own. He gets captured by white slavers and is taken to Virginia. He makes several unsuccessful escape attempts. He adapts to life on the plantation and meets Belle, a young slave who is helpful to him. The story of Kinte and his descendants continues until after the Civil War.

Out of Africa | Isak Dinesen

Dinesen owns a coffee plantation in Nairobi. It is home to the East Africans who farm the land. She muses on the landscape, and presents character sketches of many people she comes to know.

Summer of My German Soldier | Bette Greene

A group of German POWs on their way to a prison camp are brought into the store of Patty’s parents to buy hats. One prisoner, Anton, buys on behalf of everyone because he speaks English. Later, news spreads that a prisoner has escaped. Patty finds Anton lurking outside one night and offers to hide him.

Bless Me, Ultima | Rudolfo Anaya

Tony’s narrates his life from age six to twenty-two. He lives in a New Mexico village in the 1940s. He witnesses a killing, deals with being an outcast at school, and encounters different religious beliefs.

Little Women | Louisa May Alcott

The March family is poor, and their father is away fighting in the Civil War. The daughters–Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–carry out their work responsibilities, pursue their artistic interests, and navigate the social scene.

“I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”

Read “Little Women”

As I Lay Dying | William Faulkner

Addie, the matriarch of the Bundren family, is on her deathbed, while her oldest son Cash is building her coffin. She dies soon after. The family is going to respect her request to be buried in her family’s burial ground, so they prepare for the forty mile journey. Friends and neighbors are advising against this difficult trip, but the family go anyway. It’s narrated by many different people who each give their perspective.

Read “As I Lay Dying”

Kim | Rudyard Kipling

Kim is a thirteen-year-old Irish boy who was orphaned in British India and grew up in an opium den. His wide experience with languages and customs allow him to blend in anywhere. When he meets a Tibetan lama searching for the Holy River, he becomes his chela, or assistant. When they come upon an army regiment, Kim’s identity becomes known and the chaplains want to prevent him from serving a Buddhist monk.

“I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again.”

Read “Kim”

Great Expectations | Charles Dickens

Miss Havisham, a wealthy and eccentric spinster, asks for a young boy to be sent to her house to talk. Pip is sent and falls in love with her young ward, Estella. He continues to visit until it’s time for him to be apprenticed as a blacksmith, the trade of his guardian, Joe. Exposure to Estella and the world of wealth has left Pip dissatisfied with his life. He gets some news that could change his fortunes.

“In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.”

Read “Great Expectations”

The Outsiders | S. E. Hinton

Ponyboy Curtis is fourteen and an orphan. He’s a member of the “Greasers”, a gang made up of poor people from the East Side. They have confrontations with the “Socs”, a rival gang with upper-class members.

Surfacing | Margaret Atwood

The narrator is traveling with her married friends, David and Anna, and her boyfriend, Joe, to look for her father. At her family’s cabin, she finds some drawings by her father that cause her to question his sanity. She is also dealing with the mental strain from an abortion she had. Her friends’ marriage is troubled, and her relationship with Joe isn’t warm.

Donald Duk | Frank Chin

Donald Duk, the twelve-year-old narrator, hates his name and is embarrassed by his Chinese heritage. His uncle is going to give a presentation at his school, and Donald dreads it. Chinese New Year is approaching, so Donald’s father has been making paper airplanes to burn on the last day. Donald takes one of the planes thinking it won’t be missed, but his uncle tells him each plane has a story, so his father will notice. Donald starts to have dreams about building the transcontinental railroad, which one of his ancestors participated in.

The Scarlet Pimpernel | Emmuska Orczy

It is Paris in 1792 during the French Revolution. Many aristocrats are being executed. A hero, known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, has been rescuing aristocrats. In England, members of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s League make plans to assist in another rescue. Chauvelin, an agent of the French government, is investigating the Scarlet Pimpernel, trying to turn any of his associates against him.

Read “The Scarlet Pimpernel”

Jasmine | Bharati Mukherjee

Jasmine, twenty-four, lives in Iowa with Bud, her partner. He is in a wheelchair and she is pregnant. She relates significant events from her life from her birth and childhood in Punjab, her illegal emigration to Florida which begins traumatically, her move to New York where she works as an au pair and earns her own money.

The Adventures of Augie March | Saul Bellow

Augie March tells his story of maturation beginning with his time in a poor area of Chicago as a teenager. He lives with his simple-minded mother; his brother, Georgie, who has a mental problem; his older brother Simon, who develops a desire for wealth and status; and Grandma Lausch, not his real grandmother but a boarder with a strong personality. Augie has a series of jobs thru his teens, eventually becoming the assistant to William Einhorn, a wealthy, disabled man who becomes his mentor. Augie has many jobs and pastimes as well as romantic entanglements.

Pudd’nhead Wilson | Mark Twain

Percy Driscoll’s son is born on the same day as the son of Roxana, a slave in his household. When Roxana is accused of stealing, she fears for her son’s life, as Percy has threatened to send slaves “down the river”, to harsher treatment on a southern plantation. Roxane’s son is only one thirty-second black and thus very light–she decides to switch her son with Percy’s.

Read “Pudd’nhead Wilson”

The Song of the Lark | Willa Cather

Thea Kronborg, twelve, is a talented music student. The local doctor, Howard Archie, is drawn to her. Thea goes with Dr. Archie to look in on Spanish Johnny, a musician who drinks a lot. She is good-looking and mature, and attracts older friends. Thea begins taking on her own music students, and develops a strong artistic identity. The narrative continues with her emotional and artistic maturation.

Read “The Song of the Lark”

The Prince and the Pauper | Mark Twain

Tom Canty lives in poverty, surrounded by the drinking and violence common to the lower class. He walks to the palace one day and is called in by the young Prince Edward Tudor, also about fifteen. They discuss their lives – Tom envies the luxury of Edward while Edward envies the freedom of Tom. They trade clothes, noticing a marked resemblance. Edward decides to go outside to admonish a guard for treating Tom harshly but, dressed as he is, he is thrown off the royal grounds. The boys find themselves living each others lives.

Read “The Prince and the Pauper”

Slaughterhouse Five | Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Billy Pilgrim is a chaplain’s assistant in World War II who doesn’t like fighting. He is captured by the Germans in his first battle. It is at this point that he becomes “unstuck” in time. He is transported to various points in his life, including the war, an alien abduction, and a plane crash, among many others.

Read “Slaughterhouse Five”

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