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Elizabeth Kennard
Dr. Alan Brown
EDU 354
October 20, 2015
Oppressive Policies and Identity: Does One Conform or Stand Out?
Oppression comes in many shapes and forms; some individuals allow oppression to shape
their character and identity, while others stay to their internal characters and desires in the face of
oppressive policies. Oppression is practices that are not necessarily overt or explicit, but “woven
into the fabric of society,” in which others “have the power to determine the actions of another
being” (Hinson and Bradley 1). This definition of oppression relates to identity in that it focuses
on how oppression works to restrict an individual from pursing their own desires. These
oppressive societies are stripped of the privilege of democracy; individuals are told who they
should be. This close connection between democracy and identity sheds a new light on how
oppression shapes identity; oppressive societies value one identity over another, whereas
democracies allow individual identities to take priority (Engineer 697). This theme concerning
the connection between oppression and identity appears in many texts: adolescent and adult
narrators, canonical and contemporary literature, long novels and short stories, and fictional and
true accounts provides many narratives for opposing societal pressures and identity construction.
Markus Zusak’s young adult novel The Book Thief explores this close relationship
between oppression and the subsequent identity formation through the adolescent protagonist,
Liesel Meminger. Liesel spends her adolescence growing up under the Oppressive Nazi Regime
in a home that only succumbs to the pressures when they need do, otherwise Liesel’s foster
parents follow individual desires in the face of oppression. This philosophy trickles down to
Liesel in her actions throughout the novel; two of her most notable dissents from conformity are
when she steals books when all others are burning them and she befriends a Jew when everyone

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else shuns them. Faced with oppression in her life, Liesel steers clear and chooses to follow her
own desires in shaping her individual identity as opposed to following suit and falling prey to
oppressive powers in society. Liesel responds to oppression by shaping her identity in that she
becomes a literate and knowledgeable individual in a society that values conformity.
John Knowles canonical novel A Separate Peace is set during the same time as The Book
Thief, but explores the idea of oppression as it relates to personal oppression, not societal
oppression. The personal identities of Gene and Finny, the two protagonists of the story, become
dependent on one another throughout the course of the novel; each contributes actions that shape
the identity of the other. Finny’s character has more an influence over the identity of Gene due to
the tremendous guilt that Gene bears; although not explicit oppression, Finny exerts oppressive
forces over the character of Gene through the physically of his broken legs which functions as a
reminder for Gene for his actions. As a result, Gene caters his actions and his identity to atone for
his sins as opposed to catering his actions and identity to suit his individual desires. At the end of
the novel, Gene discovers his own individual identity only when Finny passes away; revealing
that the oppression felt by Finny over the character had more influence over his identity
formation than his individual desires.
Although not set during WWII, Veronica Roth’s dystopian series The Divergent Series
deals with oppressive societal practices that work to label individuals identity without much
individual input. Beatrice Prior, the antagonist, does not fit into any specific label so she creates a
problem from this oppressive society: what happens when an individual cannot be labeled?
Beatrice’s eventual dissent and consequent rebellion against these oppressive practices shows her
pursuit to develop a complex individual identity rather than relenting one’s desires and unique
abilities to the face of oppression and conformity. Beatrice’s choice to be her own person in an

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oppressive society not only inspires others to do the same; she becomes a woman who defies the
faction system and embodies multiple identities, not just one. This complex identity that Beatrice
embodies when all others have a single identity emphasizes her ability and desire to construct an
individual identity in the face of an oppressive system and practices.
Jeffery Euginides contemporary novel Middlesex that follows the life of an intersex
individual that details the struggles of one’s desires not aligning with their external appearance.
Calliope, the narrator deals with an oppressive society in which one is restricted by their gender.
In Calliope’s experience, she cannot act how she wants due to her external gender. As a result,
Calliope becomes Cal around the middle point of the novel in which Cal rejects what is expected
of him in an oppressive society and forms his own unique identity. Although Calliope fell into
what society labeled her as, a woman, at the beginning of the novel, her descent into a unique
identity at the end emphasizes her desire to follow individual pursuits and shape her own identity
rather than allow herself to be labeled by others. The oppression placed upon Calliope due to
gender restrictions and oppression was enough to influence her to become a he and form his own
unique identity as a man instead of falling prey to female gender restrictions.
Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God continues the
discussion of oppressive gender expectations on an individual. Janie grapples with conforming to
the notion that marriage is the only outcome for a women without being able to find a husband
that makes her happy. As a result, Starks experiences three failed marriages in which each time
she conformed to feminine gender expectations she gained an understanding of herself and her
personal identity. Janie’s exploration throughout oppressive gender expectations led her to
develop a unique and personal identity at the end of the novel in which she dissents from
oppressive forces and forges her own path as an unmarried woman.

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Nella Larsen’s short story Passing details the tragic fate of a woman who allows
oppressive forces to shape her identity in place of shaping her own. Clare forgoes her individual
identity as an African-American woman, to best fit in with what is advantageous in society. Clare
passes as white; she allows oppressive practices to dictate the color of her skin and personality,
two prominent aspects of identity. Clare’s persistence to fit in directly contrasts the above literary
figures, but her reaction to oppression results in a tragic fate: suicide. Clare’s lack of individual
identity causes her to lose sight of who she is, and therefore lose motivation to continue on in
life; demonstrating that her reaction to oppression gave weight and influence to societal
pressures over individual desires. Clare loses herself in an effort to be what is expected of her;
her individual identity was lost in an effort to conform to societal expectations.
Although these stories are mostly fiction, the tension between falling prey to oppressive
forces or forging one’s own path is rooted in historical events as well. An important period in
time in which individuals, both black and white and young and old, were confronted with falling
prey to oppressive policies or shaping a unique identity was during the Civil Rights Movement in
the United States. The Civil Rights Movement was a time in history when African-Americans,
and some White Americans, stood up against the oppression and injustice enacted against the
African-American community (Morris). Although the Civil Rights Movement was a movement
that encompassed a lot of ideas, thoughts, actions, and people, one landmark event was the
forced desegregation of the Little Rock High School. This event shows African-Americans
standing up for what they believed in, equal rights to education, in the face of oppression. Daisy
Bates was one individual who pioneered this advancement of the African-American community,
although met with much oppression from others. Bates not only went against societal pressures
of who was to be schooled where, but also was a woman with a voice when women were

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otherwise silenced (Calloway-Thomas and Garner). Bates’ life work was dedicated to ensure that
the African-American community was able to follow their individual desires in the face of
oppression by both local communities and governments; emphasizing that she formed her own
identity in the face of oppression as opposed to allowing oppression to shape her identity.
Kristin Sims Levine young adult novel The Lions of Little Rock depicts the facts of
segregation as it relates to the education of adolescents during the Civil Rights Movement. Liz,
much like Clare in Passing, poses as a white student to attend the all-white Little Rock High
School. Although Liz falls prey to the societal pressures in that she allows societal values to
shape her identity, Marlee, the protagonist, stands up for her friend and disregards societal
pressures in that she works to continue her friendship with a girl of opposite color in an
oppressive society that tells her not to. Marlee’s determination to continue her friendship with
Liz shows her desire to construct her own identity in the face of oppression because she is
concerned with who she wants to be friends with, not who an oppressive society tells her to be
friends with. Although the two are physically separated at the close of the novel, Marlee sharing
her phone number with Liz shows her dedication to allowing her individual identity to bear more
weight over societal pressures in her personal identity.
Jacqueline Woodson memoir Brown Girl Dreaming details her childhood as an
adolescence of color during the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina and New York. In this
memoir, Woodson as an adolescence gains an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement in
two distinct areas of the United States and her subsequent identity formation is recounted
throughout this novel. Woodson’s exploration to find her place in a society that oppresses and
rejects her emphasizes the idea of finding a unique identity amongst oppressive forces. Woodson
explores who she is throughout this memoir, instead of succumbing to societal pressures that tell

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her she is less than valuable as an individual due to her skin color. Woodson’s self-exploration
does not end in a concrete identity but rather exploring who she is in many different contexts
reveals a desire to shape her own identity and find out who she is rather than succumb to the
labels placed upon her by oppressive powers.
Kathryn Stockett’s contemporary novel The Help details life during the Civil Rights
Movement but from the perspective of a white narrator, as opposed to one of African-American
descent. The white narrator, Skeeter, grapples with coming home from University and not
wanting to succumb to pressure and oppression from her family that tells her to marry instead of
work as well as a society that tells her to treat African-Americans poorly instead of as humans.
Skeeter rejects both of these societal pressures to write a book about the African-American
experience during the Civil Rights Movement; not only did Skeeter reject her expected role as a
wife, but she also closely aligned herself with the African-American population as opposed to the
white population. Skeeter shapes her unique identity as an author and ally to the AfricanAmerican population as opposed to relenting to the oppressive society and family that works to
label her as a wife and an individual not friendly with all races.
This synthesis of how some literary figures fall prey to societal labels, although most do
not, has grave implications in the classroom. Looking at how others construct identity not only
reflects individuals, but also the society in which they live. Looking at how political structures
shapes identity begs the questions of “Who am I?” This idea of identity construction not only has
impact on the individual but societies can be analyzed for how they function and whether it is
immoral or moral based on how the citizens respond (Cruelo). Through the study of identity,
students will not only gain a better understanding of who they are or who they want to be but
also understand the role society played in the construction of their identity.

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Works Cited
Calloway-Thomas, C., and T. Garner. "Daisy Bates and the Little Rock School Crisis: Forging
the Way." Journal of Black Studies 26.5 (1996): 616-28. JSTOR. Web.
Cerulo, Karen A. "Identity Construction: New Issues, New Directions." Annu. Rev. Sociol.
Annual Review of Sociology 23.1 (1997): n. pag. Web.
Engineer, Asghar Ali. "Democracy and Politics of Identity." Economic and Political Weekly
33.13 (1998): 697-98. JSTOR. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002. Print.
Hinson, Sandra, and Alexa Bradley. "A Structural Analysis of Oppression." Consumer Star
(n.d.): 1-5. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: Perennial Library,
1990. Print.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1966. Print.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Levine, Kristin, and Annie Beth Ericsson. The Lions of Little Rock. New York: G. P. Putnam's
Sons, 2012. Print.
Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for
Change. New York: Free, 1984. Print.
Roth, Veronica. Divergent. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Amy Einhorn, 2009. Print.

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Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.