The Macksey Journal


In her 2012 novel NW, Zadie Smith explores the tension between the notions of identity as based on essentialism and identity as fluid through following the lives of Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake in their respective struggles to forge their identities in post-multicultural London. I propose that Smith’s characters fall on opposing sides of this spectrum of identity between stasis and becoming, and neither one can achieve the balance between the two extremes. In addition to exploring these ontological questions, Smith challenges the promise of self-sufficiency, individualism, and social mobility in contemporary London—categories which are immersed in neoliberal sensibilities that ostensibly celebrate autonomy, freedom of choice, and the idea that the person is solely responsible for their own existence and place in society, regardless of environment and circumstances. By refuting neoliberal ideals, critiquing extreme multiculturalism, and exploring the role of motherhood in relation to personal identity, Smith questions the possibility of achieving a unified self and cultivating self-understanding. She furthers this critique by challenging the possibility of achieving social mobility while at the same time asking what is lost in the pursuit of social mobility. Thus, I argue that Smith questions the ideal that a person has the sole power to define herself and life amidst the cultural demands of society and the actual barriers of class, race, gender, and education. As well as close readings of Smith’s fictional explorations, this this draws on Smith’s own essays and secondary criticism of her works in order to situate these issues in the broader scope of post-multicultural scholarship.