Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revised Essay on Peter Stillman Jr.

During his talk with the elder Peter Stillman, Quinn is told about how Humpty Dumpty represents human aspirations. Stillman explains to him, saying, “We exist, but we have not yet achieved the form that is our destiny. We are pure potential, an example of the not yet arrived.” Reflecting on this remark, the younger Peter Stillman expresses an awareness of his own potential through his desire to change his identity.

When he is first introduced in the novel, the younger Peter Stillman appears to be quite troubled. His speech is irregular, jumping sporadically from topic to topic. He constantly asks and answers his own questions while making what others might consider inappropriate remarks. It appears that his dialogue is incoherent, but when further inspected one finds that he actually makes interesting insights on his identity and potential. When Quinn meets him to discuss his case, Peter constantly repeated, “I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name” (Auster, pg 16). This may sound crazy, to claim you are not who you are. After all, your name is how you are identified by the world around you. And if you are not who people believe you to be, it begs the question: Who are you?

It is no secret that serious consideration is given thought when a parent names their child. For one thing, your name stays with you for the rest of your life. Because names are given such gravity in what they mean and represent, they become important in and of themself. An article from Psychology Today states, “While a name may be a palimpsest for parental aspirations (hence the concerns of savvy parents that they not appear to be striving too hard), a name also reflects high hopes for the child himself. Choosing an uncommon name is perceived as an opportunity to give your child a leg up in life, signaling to the world that he or she is different” (PsychologyToday). Given that names are expected to reflect the kind of person a child will be in the future, parents tend to name their children after themselves with the hope that they will follow in their footsteps and tradition. In that way, Peter is correct in acknowledging and denying his name. His name is indeed Peter Stillman, but it is also the name of his father. By sharing a name, Peter Stillman Jr. seems to lack an individual identity. It is as if he is forced from childhood to share an identity with his father. The name given to him by his abusive father is what others identify him with, but he himself wants nothing to do with it. For the idea of being Peter Stillman Jr. would force him to relive the mistreatment of his father.

While it is possible for people to shut out bad memories and deny them, it is harder to deny who they are. According to the same article from Psychology Today, “Ultimately, self-esteem and the esteem of the world dictate the degree to which we hold our name dear” (PsychologyToday). In other words, how much we like our name and identity is directly related to how we feel about ourselves, which in turn is affected by how society and those around us views us. Having been neglected by his father and shut out from society since he was little, Peter’s self-image has been severely challenged. He understands that even though this is the name given to him, he does not want to be associated with the memories that go with the name. To him and his wife and anyone who comes into contact with him, the name Peter Stillman will always bring to mind the mentally abused and troubled man. By refusing to acknowledge it, Peter makes the argument that one can change who they are into what they want to be.

By denying his identity as his father’s son and his name, Peter rejects his father and what he stood for. What his father was is not what Peter wants for himself. He sees himself having a different destiny than that his father expected for him. In this way, he demonstrates his understanding that his potential is greater than that which was initially bestowed on him by his father. He also realizes that who he is at the moment is not any indication of what he can be in his future. Because of this, the younger Peter Stillman accurately resembles the living embodiment of Humpty Dumpty. “When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less. The question is, said Alice, whether you CAN make words mean so different things. The question is, said Humpty Dumpty, which is to be master – that’s all” (Auster, pg 80). Humpty Dumpty regards with disdain the importance and hidden meanings people impart on everything. When a meaning is given to something, it becomes accepted by society as having certain permanent qualities and lacking in others. Humpty Dumpty argues against this because doing this limits potential.

Facing an identity crisis and having given up on his father’s name, Peter is like Humpty Dumpty in his refusal to let others dictate potential. By disregarding the importance of his given name, Peter Stillman Jr. refuses to allow associations with his name take over who he is. Rather like the struggle mentioned by Humpty Dumpty of the influence of words versus the one who uses them, Peter asserts his struggle between who his father wanted him to be, how other people view him as damaged, and finally what he wants to be. Like the egg, Peter is already in existence, but has the potential to become much more. Unfortunately, the process is not simple because there is so much ambiguity involved in striving to be more than the present state. Peter is fully aware of this problem. He tells Quinn, “For now, I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. I cannot say who I will be tomorrow. Each day is new, and each day I am born again. I see hope everywhere, even in the dark, and when I die I will perhaps become God” (Auster, pg 22). Peter understands the difficulties of reaching his full potential, but he is not without hope. In fact, based on his remark, he is quite optimistic to the possibility that maybe even one day his full potential may reach that of being a deity.

Despite the horrible treatment he experienced from his father, Peter expresses no disdain for his life. Rather, he tells Quinn, “He will come. That is to say, the father will come. And he will try to kill me. Thank you. But I do not want that. No, no. Not anymore. Peter lives now. Yes. All is not right in his head, but he still lives. And that is something, is it not? You bet your bottom dollar” (Auster, pg 18). Based on his words, Peter had at one point wanted to die, but something happened to make him change his perspective. While he never explicitly states the reason he wanted to end his life, the torture his father bestowed on him is a very high motive. It would seem that despite all the pain he suffered mentally and physically Peter obviously found something worthwhile to keep living for. It does not appear that the reason is due to his relationship to others because his doctors and his wife serve only to tell him what to think. As Peter mentions to Quinn, “I know nothing of this. Nor do I understand. My wife is the one who tells me these things. She says it is important for me to know, even if I do not understand” (Auster, pg 19). Rather, Peter states that he has a propensity and passion for writing poetry only he can understand. He calls it “God’s language”. Connecting this language Peter believes only he knows to the power of language mentioned by Humpty Dumpty, perhaps God’s language is indeed the one and same. According to Peter Stillman Sr., “Humpty Dumpty sketches the future of human hopes and gives the clue to our salvation: to become masters of the words we speak, to make language answer our needs. Humpty Dumpty was a prophet, a man who spoke truths the world was not ready for” (Auster, pg 80). Based on this statement, Peter Stillman Jr.’s potential can be seen in an entirely new light. Instead of viewing him as a crazed man with mental deficiencies, he is actually a genius ahead of his times in that he manipulates his words to his intentions rather than find meaning in words themselves.

In addition to becoming a poet, Peter further expresses his belief that one day his writing will become famous. Also, he wishes to become a fireman and doctor and in his old age a high-wire walker. Peter acts in an almost childlike manner in his ambition to become so many professions in his lifetime. This enthusiasm is yet another demonstration of his potential. It does not matter what happened to him as a child. By discarding his old identity his options for his future seem limitless.

From reading the conversation between Quinn and Peter, it is notable the similarity between the two men. One man, Quinn, faces identity crisis and takes on the role of being someone else. The other, Peter, appears to seek the help of the former, but in reality he seems to understand his identity, or rather his potential identity, better.

Auster, Paul. City of Glass. Luc Sante, 2006

Flora, Carlin. “Hello, My Name is Unique.” Psychology Today. March 2004 Sussex Directories, Inc.


  1. the link to my original post:

  2. I had to read this through twice before making any comments at all. I think that's more a good thing than a bad thing - this essay has its depths, its twists and turns, and I'd certainly rather have that than any overly simplistic, unambitious piece of work.

    I think my questions are fairly conceptual.

    1) If Peter Jr. rejects his given identity, or is searching for a new one, why doesn't he change his name? Note also that he enigmatically says that Peter Stillman is not his *real* name, implying that he does have a real name, but we're not privy to it. I think you're on the brink of claiming that his real name is Humpty Dumpty, because of the connection between their language. I think that if that's what you intend, you could benefit from making it more explicit.

    2) If Peter Stillman Jr. does, in fact, speak/write God's language, as you seem to believe, doesn't that imply that the father was successful? To me, that's the most obvious problem with what you're writing. His father's intention was that he speak God's language; while struggling to reject his father, he does, in fact, speak God's language; by your argument, doesn't this mean that he does, in fact, have exactly the identity his father prepared for him. It's possible, I guess, that the God's language he actually speaks is not the God's language that his father intended; in fact, I suspect you might have gone there if you'd thought this question through. My point is that his father's goals are curiously absent from this essay, but extremely relevant to it.

    3) Given your argument from Psychology today, what does it mean that PS Sr. has given PS Jr. his own name? He wants to impose his own identity on him - and yet, in a sense, he wants him to have no identity. That fundamental fact seems really, deeply relevant to your argument - but you aren't engaging with it.

    I was interested in your approach, and enjoyed reading this through twice. The Humpty Dumpty argument is beginning to make more sense to me, and your engagement with the text has improved. But because you are making complex, far from obvious argument, you would have benefited tremendously from engaging with other potential points of view - this is an essay which could use some consideration of counterarguments, from beginning to end. Of course, that also means that it's an essay with an interesting, worthy, and complicated approach.