Dangerous Doubling and Fractured Identity in “The Icarus Girl”

Posted by Madelyn Schoonover on April 09, 2016 in Blog, Madelyn Schoonover tagged with , , , ,


In part one of this three part series, I explained how the colonial program implemented the concept of the European Family of Man to control colonized societies, and to completely erase the colonized female from discourse. I proposed that postcolonial Gothic is a medium for colonized females to regain this lost voice. In this section, I will explore some of the traditionally Gothic tropes that Helen Oyeyemi utilizes to interrogate a postcolonial past and move toward a more empowered future for her protagonist Jessamy in The Icarus Girl.

Like many traditional Gothic heroines such as Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, and Marian Halcombe, Jessamy Harrison suffers from a crisis of gender identity arising from a patriarchal society’s gender suppression. Unlike European heroines, however, Jessamy’s predicament also stems from the cultural conflict ingrained in her status as a half-English half-Nigerian postcolonial female. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Jessamy believes she has no place in society. The novel opens with her hiding in a linen cupboard, the confinement and darkness of which calms her: “Outside the cupboard, Jess felt as if she was in a place where everything moved past too fast, all colours, all people talking and wanting her to say things […] [G]rown-up[s] would say: […] ‘Why are you sad?’ And she’d have to explain that she wasn’t sad, just tired” (Oyeyemi 4). As a product of a patriarchal history that is both colonial and European, existence is an exhausting, constant navigation for Jessamy between who she is, and the impossible being she thinks her parents/society want her to be. In her essay “Abjecting Hybridity in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl”, Jordan Stouck argues, “[Jessamy] is always both excessive and lacking as a subject (excessive in that she is overly defined and lacking as she does not conform completely to any one definition)” (101). It is this undefined excessiveness that wears on Jessamy in day-to-day life. The cupboard, though confining physically, is a womblike non-space where Jessamy is no longer ruled by impossible societal expectations. Instead, she can exist as a non-entity. It is this state of non-existence that Jessamy finds most comforting at the beginning of the novel

To articulate Jessamy’s quandary, Oyeyemi uses many Gothic tropes, the most prevalent of which is doubling. Clearly there is the example of Jessamy’s name – a doubled name; Jess and Amy put together – that becomes even more complicated when she and her family visit Nigeria for the first time. There, the girl with two first names gains one more: Wuraola, her Nigerian name and the name her Nigerian relatives – most specifically her grandfather – call her. This third name is an unintentional yet keen attack on Jessamy’s already fractured identity. She wonders if she should “answer to this name, and by doing so steal the identity of someone who belonged here? Should she… become Wuraola?” (Oyeyemi 20). Confronted with this new “self”, Jessamy is unsure how her Nigerian relatives wish her to act; in other words, how they wish her to perform herself. Sarah Ilott and Chloe Buckley note the “disintegration of self” experienced by Jessamy “is the other work that the gothic performs in Oyeyemi’s novel”, creating another link between The Icarus Girl and the Gothic tradition as a whole (5). Another connection can be made specifically to the female Gothic and postcolonial traditions, as this split identity is impressed on Jessamy not only by the patriarchal formation of a colonizing European society, which Jessamy is still partially linked to via her father’s English blood and her English name, but also the patriarchal society of Nigeria embodied by her grandfather.

Initially, the cultural differences erected between Jessamy and her grandfather prove difficult to navigate. The grandfather claims that he does not “know” his son-in-law, Jessamy’s father, because he does not know what the last name Harrison “mean[s]”. Jessamy illustrates the hypocrisy of her grandfather’s statement as she thinks, “It was […] obvious that knowing someone’s name didn’t mean that you knew them […] He thought her name was Wuraola, but he was wrong” (Oyeyemi 28). Jessamy’s grandfather claims to not “know” one of Jessamy’s names (Harrison) while simultaneously assigning her a new one (Wuraola). The unintentional violence the grandfather commits against Jessamy by refusing to accept the English side of her hybrid status thus strengthens the notion that Jessamy must chose one side of her identity or the other, or remain unaccepted by society. Fred Botting argues, “a collapse of family bonds and values [in the Gothic] is symptomatic of a decline of paternal authority caused by its own repressive and abusive tendencies” (Gothic 175). By thus reinforcing the rhetoric of “us or them” that is so harmful to Jessamy’s sense of identity, Jessamy’s sense of family also becomes dichotomized. Not quite fitting into either European Family of Man or her Nigerian family, the girl with three names has no cohesive family and no cohesive sense of familial identity. Lacking a familial identity that embraces her hybrid status, it should not then be surprising that Jessamy finds such companionship in the mysterious TillyTilly, who when they first meet opens new doors – literally, in the sense of her grandfather’s study and the amusement park gates – rather than shutting them, exposing Jessamy to new ways of being instead of caging her further into a separatist rhetoric.

Throughout the novel, TillyTilly assumes many forms as well as many supposed identities, all of which have confounded critics as they try to pin down exactly who/what she represents. However, I would argue this approach TillyTilly’s multiplicity is not productive. Far more productive is to examine what she ends up meaning to Jessamy. Summarizing Baudrillard, Botting notes, “monstrosities appear to make not difference or Otherness, but an unbearable sameness collapsing on all forms and possibilities of identity” (“Post-millennial monsters” 500). In this way, the ambiguous, monstrous figure TillyTilly can represent whatever Jessamy needs her to represent at any point in her journey towards hybridity. When Jessamy needs a friend in Nigera, TillyTilly is that friend. When she needs a sister, TillyTilly is a sister. It does not matter at first if TillyTilly is Jessamy’s dead twin Fern, because Jessamy believes she desperately needs something to fill the empty space left by her original double; the only person who might also understand her postcolonial gendered problem. It is precisely because TillyTilly means nothing outside of Jessamy that she can mean everything to Jessamy. TillyTilly’s mutability is the very thing that initially gives Jessamy the confidence to be mutable herself: “Ever since she had come back from Nigeria, she felt as if she was becoming different, becoming stronger, becoming more like Tilly” (Oyeyemi 151). Through TillyTilly, Jessamy is finally able to find her own hybridity.

However, by the end of the novel TillyTilly is not quite as mutable as she first appears. As soon as Jessamy begins to make connections to more English spaces, TillyTilly shifts from friend to foe. This monstrosity and Jesssamy’s eventual complete overthrow of harmful dichotomies will be examined in part three.



Works Cited

Botting, Fred. Gothic. 2nd Ed. Oxton: Routledge, 2014. Web. 6 Nov 2015.

Botting, Fred “Post-millennial monsters: monstrosity-no-more”. The Gothic World. Ed. Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend. Oxton: Routledge, 2014. 498 -509. PDF e-book. 6 Nov 2015.

Ilott, Sarah and Chloe Buckley, “‘Fragmenting and becoming double’: Supplementary twins and abject bodies in Helen Oyeyemis’ The Icarus Girl.The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (2015): 1 – 14. Web. 6 November 2015.

Layla, Joanna. ‘Gone Jessy’ and TillyTilly. N.d. Illustration Mock-ups for The Icarus Girl by Helena Oyeyemi, Com. Joanna Layla Illustrator. WordPress. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.        <http://joannalayla.com/portfolio/bookcover/>.

Oyeyemi, Helen. The Icarus Girl. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. Print.

Stouck, Jordan. “Abjecting Hybridity in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.” Ariel 41.2 (2010): 89 – 112. Web. 5 Nov 2015.

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