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Analysis of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass". A traditional detective novel

©2016 Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 15 Seiten


In this term paper, Paul Auster’s “City of Glass” is going to be analyzed from a psychoanalytical point of view to explore the protagonist's development. The main question of this paper is: Is “City of Glass” a traditional detective novel? The term paper is divided into the Lacanian theory, the development of Daniel Quinn and the development of the detective novel. The paper will focus on the protagonist and analyze his behavior, his inner life, the process of his search for identity and identity formation. The emphasis lies in how Paul Auster places the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, in connection with a traditional detective novel.

The question of identity and individuality is a significant subject in Paul Auster’s books. In each short story of the New York Trilogy, every protagonist represents the role of a detective. They are positioned in these specific situations which are inexplicable and beyond comprehension.

To answer the question of identity, Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis is used to analyze Daniel Quinn’s character. The first detective novel is credited to Edgar Allan Poe with his short story “The Murders in Rue Morgue”, written in 1841. Poe is the so-called father of the detective genre. He paved the way for the next century and the coming authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Raymond Chandler.



1. Introduction

2. Jacques Lacan’s theory
2.1 The Symbolic
2.2 The Imaginary
2.3 The Real

3. Development of Daniel Quinn
3.1 Quinn’s multiple identities
3.2 Quinn and the detective world
3.3 Quinn’s loss of control

4. City of Glass – a traditional detective novel?

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this term paper, Paul Auster’s City of Glass is going to be analysed from a psychoanalytical perspective, to explore the protagonist's development and the question if City of Glass is a traditional detective novel.

The question of identity and individuality is a significant subject in Paul Auster’s books. In each short story of the New York Trilogy each protagonist represents the role of the detective. They are positioned in these specific situations which are inexplicable and beyond comprehension for them.

To answer the question of identity Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis is used to perform on Daniel Quinn’s character. The first detective novel is credited to Edgar Allan Poe with his short story The Murders in Rue Morgue, written in 1841.

Poe is the so-called “‘father’ of the detective genre” (Scaggs 7). He paved the way for the next century and the coming authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Raymond Chandler.

This term paper is divided into the Lacanian theory, the development of Daniel Quinn and the development of the detective novel. The paper will concentrate primarily on the protagonist and examine his behaviour, his inner life, the process of his search for identity and of identity formation. The emphasis lies in how Paul Auster places the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, in connection with a traditional detective novel.

2. Jacques Lacan’s theory

Jacques Lacan divides the psychic spheres into three parts which coexist in one’s mind: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. One might believe that the Imaginary is connected with the imagination; the Symbolic with symbol and the Real with reality, but the actual meaning of these terms are to a great extent deeper than one initially thinks.

According to Lacan, these three fields start with the Mirror Stage. A human being sees only parts of his body which happen from the birth till the beginning of the Mirror Stage. After recognising himself the human being feels a bit of “rivalry with his own image” (Evans 118), but eventually, the person starts to relate with his image “The moment of identification, when the subject assumes its image as its own, is described by Lacan as a moment of jubilation, since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery” (Evans 118).

At the beginning of the Mirror Stage the subject distance himself from his image because he cannot identify with the appearance he is seeing. However, after identifying with the image the ego is created. The subject feels, at this point, a wholeness of his body “The ego is a construction which is formed by identification with the specular image in the MIRROR STAGE.” (Evans 52). The created ego is the first step of the identification process of a narcissistic development (Evans 122) and “functions as a future wholeness” (Evans 118).

2.1 The Symbolic

“Lacan derives the idea that what characterises the human world is the symbolic function – a function that intervenes in all aspects of our lives.” (Homer 36).

According to Lacan “the ‘subject’ is constructed in the Symbolic at the moment of the access into language; there is no such thing as a ‘subject’ before entry into the symbolic Order.” (Smith 20). So one can assume that when a child starts to talk, moreover, learn a language, another part of the psychic sphere is created. Since in the Imaginary the ego is already developed, the Symbolic part is established by the well-structured language: “The ego-ideal is the signifier operating as ideal, an internalized plan of the law, the guide governing the subject’s position in the symbolic order, and hence anticipates secondary (Oedipal) identification or is a product of that identification” (Evans 53). Like in Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass the analysis of the protagonist Daniel Quinn’s personality lies within the Symbolic sphere. The central aspect of the novel is the search for symbolism for a rational order behind the things.

2.2 The Imaginary

However, before the Symbolic Order evolves, the Imaginary order is developed. It is the first psychic part and develops the mind before the subject comes in contact with the language. “From a literary perspective, Lacan’s conception of the imaginary and the formation of the ego has been utilized to give an account of both the construction of identity and subjectivity within texts as well as the relationships between characters” (Homer 27). However, the Imaginary does not disappear when the mind of the subject comes in contact with language; it stays in the first psychic field but is in correlation with the language. According to Sean Homer, the Imaginary is part of the human mind that continues in the core of one's experience. In the Mirror Stage of a human being the Imaginary is created, in fact, countless images “The ego is the effect of images; it is, in short, an imaginary function.”(Homer 25). It is not only the images of the self; it is the image of the world as well.

2.3 The Real

The last and third part of Jaques Lacan’s theory is the Real as well as the complete opposite of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. According to Lacan, “the real is what stands outside of all symbolization and is unknowable” (Smith 20). Whereas the Imaginary and the Symbolic have its own definition and explanation, the Real is difficult to categorise. Information which goes in the Real section can neither be imagined nor put into words. For instance, birth or death are both something that cannot be integrated into the sphere of the Imaginary or the Symbolic. Death, for example, is a deeply traumatic event that is hard to imagine or to talk about, thus it is an element of the Real. Things that cannot be put in the linguistic or imaginary box are put in the sphere of the Real. According to Lacan the Real “remains foreclosed from the analytic experience, which is an experience of speech” (Lacan ix). Even birth is something that cannot really be explained, so it is put in the Real section as well. So to make these occurrences be put into words or images, it first has to be understandable, so it can transfer between all three spheres without problems.

3. Development of Daniel Quinn

In this chapter, the psychological development of Quinn will be analyzed with the help of Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychological ideas.

3.1 Quinn’s multiple identities

The novel City of Glass begins with a short introduction about the protagonist, Daniel Quinn. He is an anonymous author who writes about detective stories. Daniel Quinn finds himself in a difficult and profound identity crisis. The reader finds out that Quinn had lost his wife and son and still processing the aftermath of that. The loss of his family results in an emptiness in his life.

TRAUMATIC EVENTS, traumatic experiences—we know what they are: psychological blows, wounds to the spirit. Severe trauma early in life may irrevocably damage the development of a child. Trauma is psychic hurt. The word has become a metaphor for almost anything unpleasant.

(Hacking 183)

If one has a look at Daniel Quinn and Jacques Lacan’s theory one can see that Quinn's mind is completely standing in the Real sphere. Due to the tragic loss, he experienced in his life which can be put in the Real section. As above mentioned those horrible events are placed in this sphere. He cannot integrate the awful event into the Symbolic or the Imaginary, so the Real part dominates Quinn’s mind. In the beginning, he tries to escape his trauma by adjusting and concentrating on elements which belong to the Symbolic or the Imaginary section: “by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else,” (Auster 4).

Picturing images into his mind, he momentarily escapes the Real and enters the Imaginary. This induces a short time of enhancement of his psychic and mental state. Nevertheless, the loss of his family did traumatize him extremely that the Real completely dominates his state of mind, and because of his profound traumatized experience, he lost the connection to the Symbolic or the Imaginary sphere. This makes it difficult for him to write. Thus, he creates a second identity: William Wilson. Under this name, he published several books because he differentiates himself from Wilson who has no connection to his past, so he has no terrible experiences which traumatized him. Wilson functions as a representative of the Symbolic. He has the power to connect to the other two psychological parts. Quinn completely separates himself from Wilson

Because he did not consider himself to be the author of what he wrote, he did not feel responsible for it and therefore was not compelled to defend it in his heart. William Wilson, after all, was an invention, and even though he had been born within Quinn himself, he now led an independent life. Quinn treated him with deference, at times even admiration, but he never went so far as to believe that he and William Wilson were the same man.

(Auster 4)

Though Wilson was created to perform Quinn’s inability to write and connect to the other parts of his mind, he also created another identity, Max Work. He is the protagonist of William Wilson detective books “he nevertheless was the bridge that allowed Quinn to pass from himself into Work” (Auster 6).

After the death of his family, Daniel Quinn entirely cut ties from his former life and loses contact to his friends. Thus, Max Work lives the life Quinn separated himself from. It seems that Quinn created a persona that is ideal for him as an ideal ego.

Fairbairn proposed that both the exciting and the frustrating aspects of the internalized object are split off from the main core of the object and repressed by the ego. There thus come to be two repressed internal objects, the exciting (or libidinal) and the rejecting (or antilibidinal). Both carry with them into repression parts of the ego by which they are cathected, leaving the central ego unrepressed but acting as the agent of repression. In consequence, the original ego is split into three egos: a central (conscious) ego attached to an ideal object (ego ideal), a repressed libidinal ego attached to the exciting (or libidinal) object, and a repressed antilibidinal ego attached to the rejecting (or antilibidinal) object.

(Kernberg 63)

Max Work is someone that does the work which Quinn simply cannot do anymore. Work is the complete opposite from Quinn. He is an adventurous and straight forward person who lives in a world where everything makes sense. So when Quinn puts himself in the position of Work he becomes this person. Quinn lives the life he once loved and by being Max Work he escapes from the real world, from his meaningless and empty life he is living after the death of his family. However, being a detective also distracts him, in addition, the reader gets to know why Quinn loves to write detective novels:

What he liked about these books was their sense of plenitude and economy. In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so—which amounts to the same thing.

(Auster 8)

In a detective novel, everything is important, meaningful and fundamental. Hence nothing is irrelevant. For solving the case the detective needs to put everything in order. From Jacques Lacan’s point of view, the detective’s mind is entirely assimilated into the symbolic part of the mind. It is the arrangement of structure and logic. The dominance of the Real is dissolved in a detective’s mind. For Quinn, the ideal “detective is someone who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them.” (Auster 8).

Making these two characters, William Wilson and Max Work, he creates a balance in his mind. He tries to reach parts of his mind which he cannot gain as Daniel Quinn. He creates Wilson as a stage name to bring order in the Symbolic sphere. And through Max Work he can exist and live in an ideal ordered detective world. Ultimately one can state that Quinn tries to flee his meaningless life into a fictional world.

3.2 Quinn and the detective world

Everything changes when Quinn gets a call by a Mrs. Stillman in the middle of the night. She needs the help of an investigator and tries to find a detective named Paul Auster. With this event, Quinn sees an opportunity to flee his empty real life for a 'real' detective life. Through Max Work Quinn only pretends to be a detective in his novels, but being Paul Auster gives him the opportunity to be a ‘real’ detective in his real world.

“The concept of ego identity originally formulated by Erikson included in its definition the integration of the concept of the self.” (Kernberg 58). Quinn already created an ego ideal by creating Max Work, so pretending to a detective is not that difficult for him as one might think. Thus, being Paul Auster is something familiar to him. However, after deciding he should take the case, he also thinks that he is not responsible for Auster’s actions or rather his actions while he is pretending to be Paul Auster. Quinn also got the feeling when he pretended to be William Wilson he is not responsible for what Wilson does, given that he lives “independent life” (Auster 5).

According to Lacan, the identification with an image implicates an estrangement from the self. Meeting Mrs. Stillman and her husband Peter Stillman, it becomes clear that the detective role of Auster, Quinn, is more of a protecting role. Paul Auster is supposed to protect Peter Stillman who is frightened to be murdered by his estranged father. The case is to some extent similar to Quinn’s tragic event. In a way, he is helping two people, a son and a wife, something he could not do in his real life. He starts his new identity but is still aware of his old one. He did not completely abandon his old self: “He had not really lost himself; he was merely pretending, and he could return being Quinn whenever he wished” (Auster 50). His character as Quinn is just put aside, so he can completely be Paul Auster. Thus, Quinn's past memories enter his mind again, but not as Daniel Quinn rather as Paul Auster. As Auster, Quinn has strength again; he receives things differently and makes logic connections. By letting himself think of his past he allows himself to process the tragic events. And when Quinn goes to buy a notebook, after his meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Stillman, he writes his own name which indicates his separation from his pseudonym William Wilson and his detective Max Work. He leaves the fictional and unreal world of Max Work and becomes the real Paul Auster. It looks like that taking the identity of Paul Auster is a step forward for Quinn to become himself again, but as the chapters will show this is not the case.

3.3 Quinn’s loss of control

Daniel Quinn’s loss of self-starts when he pretends to be Paul Auster, but it intensifies when Quinn goes to see Mr. Stillman Sr. Each time he pretends to be someone else and tries to be someone who might be able to get close to Mr. Stillman Sr., but fails drastically. At the first time, he introduces himself as Quinn, the second time as Henry Dark and then as Stillman’s son. Quinn plays with his opportunity to change his identity to the fullest. It does not matter what identity he adopts, Stillman Sr. does not recognise him. He also fails his mission by losing the trace of Stillman Sr. “There were no clues, no leads, no moves to be made” (Auster 90). Due to the fact that Stillman Sr. did not recognise him after each encounter, means that Mr. Stillmann Sr. is not a threat to Peter Stillman. His failure distresses him and disturbs his logical detective system. Though being a 'real' detective Quinn does not give up and tries another way. He starts looking for the real Paul Auster. However, it turns out that the famous the detective Paul Auster is actually a writer. The real Paul Auster cannot help him, so he tries to call Mrs. Stillman but he cannot reach her. Quinn is devastated after this incident and does not know what to do. He has nothing, not even a trace he could follow. His symbolic order is completely disarranged. The clients are gone, the alleged threat is nowhere to be found and the famous detective is not a real detective. The Real Order dominates again over the Symbolic Order. It turns out that the detective world is not at all logical and in orders but rather senseless and confusing as his old life. However, Quinn is determined to help his clients even though he cannot reach them anymore. He makes it his responsibility to help and rescue Mr. And Mrs. Stillman “Virginia and Peter Stillman were shut off from him now. But he could soothe his conscience with the thought that he was still trying. Whatever darkness they were leading him into, he had not abandoned them yet.” (Auster 104).

The notebook, he bought after his meeting with the Mr. and Mrs. Stillman, is his last connection to the Symbolic Order. It was meant to be a part of his detective work but through his failure to proceed with him being a detective, it becomes a symbol for his own very existence.

“It had been a sign, and it was telling him that he could not yet break his connection with the case, even if he wanted to” (Auster 108). Quinn believes that the unanswered phone call is a sign not to stop with his case, even a sign to investigate more into this mystery. He even believes that it was fate which brought them all together “It was fate, then. Whatever he thought of it, however much he might want it to be different, there was nothing he could do about it. He had said yes to a proposition, and now he was powerless to undo that yes.” (Auster 109). Bringing fate into this case illustrates Quinn’s desperation. He cannot see any signs or symbols, so he creates them by himself. This clearly indicates to the reader that Daniel Quinn is slowly losing his mind. He says to himself that he cannot stop being a detective which he was not in the first place. He has no control anymore. His case is the only thing which matters to him, so he does everything to solve it. He even starts living on the streets to observe Peter Stillman. He lowered his essential needs as a human being to the minimum. He cannot feel anything anymore and after weeks on the streets, Quinn has a drastic change in his appearance. His transformation is so extreme that Daniel Quinn cannot recognise himself “for the fact was that he did not recognize the person he saw there as himself.” (Auster 117). According to Lacan’s theory of a Mirror Stage, a baby starts to recognise his image and creates an ego. In Daniel Quinn’s case, it is the other way around. He slowly starts not identifying himself with the image he is seeing in the mirror. Quinn’s change is like the estrangement he had when he wrote in the name of William Wilson or when he pretended to be Paul Auster.

In the beginning, Quinn says that he can always come back being Daniel Quinn when he is William Wilson or Max Work but now he is not able to go back. He is stuck in this identity of Paul Auster as it is his own self. Earlier in the novel, he does not feel responsible for Wilson’s actions or Max’s actions or Auster’s actions but he is now in a state that he feels responsible for everything he does as Paul Auster. After months of observing Peter Stillman, Quinn is told by the writer Paul Auster that Stillman Sr. had killed himself which meant that the case is finally closed. Quinn tries again to call Mrs. Stillman but he does not reach anyone. After arriving home he realises that his apartment is re-rent and his belongings are thrown away. This means all the evidence of his former life as Daniel Quinn is gone. He decides to go to Mr. And Mrs. Stillman’s house and find out that the couple is long gone. The house is entirely empty. However, he stays at their place and writes into the red notebook.

With the case solved, Quinn’s identity as an investigator is dissolved too, and having no physical evidence of his life as Daniel Quinn he lost both identities.

4. City of Glass – a traditional detective novel?

The traditional detective novel contains the classic elements: Who?, How?, Why? (Buchloh, Becker 17-18). Moreover, a detective fiction is a genre where a detective manages to solve a crime. The reader is challenged to solve the crime by the clues given before the detective reveals the answer at the end of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, a crime is introduced. The detective works together clues and attempts to solve the case. Often a wrong person is blamed for the murder, eventually, the detective starts to piece together the crime and normally because of some unexpected circumstances the detective finds the guilty person. The reader assumes that City of Glass is a typical detective novel, because of “the fact that the ‘original formula’ remains fairy visible can easily lead readers and critics to ‘drive to the old house by mistake’ or simply ‘by habit’ ” (Herzogenrath 2). There is a detective, Daniel Quinn, even though he is pretending to be one, and a mystery to be solved, the alleged bad intentions of Mr. Stillman Sr., and the investigation itself. It seems that Quinn is eventually going to solve the mystery but as the reader continues he realises that is not like this at all. As the detective gets more and more involved in the case it becomes clear that mystery is something difficult to explain or understand. It is apparently a part of the Real Order. Just like the protagonist, the reader tries to logically rearrange the Symbolic Order. With the title of the novel, Paul Auster implies that everything is clear and transparent but it is actually the other way around: “A city of glass, in other words, would be characterised not by myriad perspectives and possibilities of seeing things, but by ‘the impossibility of not seeing things’ ” (Nealon 128). Quinn cannot see through things, thus the truth stays hidden and the connections between the events are ambiguous. The interpretation of the title should be that the city is breakable and fragile like glass. Everything can easily break in a storm and it is difficult to put them together once broken.

In City of Glass, it is clearly illustrated that the world is a place where the reality is far from understanding. The author shows that the city of glass is damaged and it is broken into several pieces. Just like the protagonist’s, Daniel Quinn, identity is split into pieces.

When Quinn believes to see letters in his drawings, it shows whether this is a desperate attempt of a desperate investigator to come a step closer to closing the case or if it is really important evidence for the case. And also when Quinn believes that not reaching Virginia Stillman, is a sign of fate and that he should proceed with the investigation, show that Quinn has no other options left than believing in the supernatural. These breaks of genre norms are found several times in the book, this means the author leaves the protagonist by himself, because of the mostly not so clear signs. The mystery in the book does not clarify itself. It stays unclear why Mr. Stillman Sr. killed himself or why the clients vanished. This leads to a self-destructive method of Quinn to solve the case but ends up alienating and harming himself. For the reader as well as the main character it is hard to follow the lead to solve the case because of Paul Auster breaking genre rules. It is condemned to fail.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
525 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
2017 (August)
Identity detective novel loss Jacques Lacan city of glass

Titel: Analysis of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass". A traditional detective novel