The Endless Process of Becoming and the Transformation of Identity in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

Maroua Touil


The postmodern identity is always in a state of becoming. The permeability of boundaries eradicated the traditional belief in a unified identity. Modernist fiction was dominated by the belief in a unique and stable identity. But postmodernists no longer highlight the centrality of the self. The concepts of wholeness, identity, authenticity and the idea of centeredness are subverted in postmodern fiction. Postmodernism refutes the notion of origin and the possibility of fixing one’s identity. The postmodern self is perceived in terms of fragmentation. Accordingly, identity is an endless process of becoming.  Postmodern theorists aborted the search for the nature of the self due to their certainty about the impossibility of obtaining an objective truth about anything. In addition, subjectivity does not exist because it is produced by language which is held to be slippery. Emile Benveniste shows the importance of language in building the self since “it is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject, because language alone establishes the concept of ego in reality, in its reality which is that of being” (“subjectivity in language,” 40).

Amitav Ghosh, in his novel Sea of Poppies, investigates into the construction of identity and the nature of the self. The characters try to transform all the internal and external forces that shape their identities mainly their historical background, their family ties and at last their memories. This transformation takes place in the ship Ibis. Each person escapes from a specific situation in his/her homeland. Mr Zachary Reid flees the American racial discrimination and Paulette is running away from the authoritarian European community in India.  Accordingly, Deeti becomes Adii and Kalua transforms into Maddow Colver. The characters’ reconstruction of their identities conveys the resistance to Ghosh’s text to adopt a stable and solid identity. National identity is shaped by fluidity which is best seen through Paulette who despite her French origin, she easily identified with Bengali culture including food, language and the dressing style. The characters are engaged in a process of rediscovery. Paulette runs away from her benefactor’s sexual desires by assimilating with the Indian culture and escaping her European ancestry.

 The characters’ identities are put at the margin due to exploitation, migration and colonialism. These outsiders tried to travel from the margin to the centre. In fact, the orphaned Paulette enters the ship disguised as a man, Zachary Reid passes for a white person and Deeti escapes her husband’s funeral pyre and changes her name together with her daughter. The reader notices the ambivalent state of the characters due to their desire to eradicate their memories and past identities and form new ones that help them integrate with their present condition


Identity, Postmodernism, Becoming, Masquerade, Transformation, Displacement

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