Identity of A Nation and Identity of Self in Abraham's Promise

Maureen Grundy, EL 119 (1999), Brown University

Question: What is the relationship between Abraham's identity and the identity of Singapore as a whole, both pre- and post-independence? How is his life symbolic of the past, present, and future of Singapore? How does Abraham perceive dependency and independency and how did his feelings about these two things develop? Does he change the way he thinks about dependence and independence as the book progresses? If so, how?

"Your life is no more valuable, you who watch the same television and eat food that, no matter how much more elaborately prepared, how much more expensive than your neighbor's, remains in essence the same. For life to be of value we must resist this dependence on others, this childish satisfaction in other's dependence on us. If I have difficulty in obtaining gainful employment, such is a small price to pay for my liberation." (p.40)

"But I was firm in my response, explaining that it was not so much a question of necessity as independence, that it was better for Rani to have a job for her own self-respect." (p.112)

"After lunch at the coffeeshop, I would return home and await Rani, who most days would be back by early to mid-afternoon. Now instead of cherishing her independence, I was irked by it, for I found myself sliding into dependence..." (p.128)

Abraham Isaac is a man with a lost identity. Through his attempts to analyze the events of his life or to rationalize his own behavior, we a see a man lost and confused. Abraham struggles through the difficulties of his life, his failures as a brother, a husband, and a father, and a pattern emerges where everything he does, says, or feels revolves around an internal conflict between dependence and independence. This perpetual conflict, which spans his entire lifetime, creates a problem in defining self, particularly in establishing one's place with relation to others. What makes Abraham a most interesting character is that his evolution toward defining himself progresses along with the evolution of a nation; a nation also trying to carve out its own identity. Abraham's personal identity parallels that of the nation's identity. Furthermore, as Abraham fights for the ideals of what he believes his country should be, he finds himself subscribing to these ideals in every aspect of his life with little regard to the price he and others may pay for such idealism.

In many ways, Abraham symbolizes Singapore and its changes across three generations. As the country experiences the transition from dependence to independence, it faces the challenges of emerging from the shadows of other entity, of defining itself as a new body, and of establishing itself as a self-sufficient and capable new country. Early in his life, Abraham falls into a national identity which is so deeply entwined with a dependency on a bigger, greater, and stronger empire. Abraham's disgust of such dependence becomes apparent early on in the novel (p.40) and his resistance to dependence becomes a recurring theme throughout the rest of the book. In this first passage, Abraham claims that life is valueless and childish if one is dependent on others. His opposition to individual dependency, which is certainly influenced if not determined by his opposition to the nation's dependency on Britain, displays itself in his work, his role in the teacher's union, and in his personal relationships, specifically with his sister, his wife, and his son. Singapore's transition into independence seems to only perpetuate, if not further incite, Abraham's passion for independency in all aspect of his life. In this second passage, Abraham equates independency to having self-respect and admires Rani for her own independence. His beliefs are made here and throughout the book with such conviction about the detrimental effects of dependency on others. Such conviction is what will ultimately cause failure in his life and with his relationships.

When Abraham loses his job, we see his beliefs on dependency somewhat change. In this third passage, he becomes annoyed by the independence of others, simply because he feels as if his slip into dependency shows a sign of weakness. His approach to thinking about dependency becomes selfish in that he can only think about his own independence and not about how he is affecting the lives of those around him. His fear of losing independence causes him to push away those in his life who could help him. His struggle for independence and self-reliance first pushes away his sister Mercy, than his wife, Rani, and eventually leads to a lost relationship with his son. His inability to find a balance in his life between independence and dependence, between surviving on his own and allowing others to affect and help him, contributes to the many lost opportunities for happiness and fulfillment in his life.

Perhaps at the end of the novel, Abraham's admittance of „wrong-doing" to Victor and his apology is a sign of Abraham's changing feelings regarding dependency. Perhaps he is realizing now that he needs Victor, after all else in his life seems to have been lost to his resistance of dependency. Perhaps his attempts to reconcile this relationship is an attempt to create a new self-hood which is not so restricted by the ideologies he holds for Singapore's identity. Abraham's life mimics the stability and instability experienced by a country in transition, by a country trying to form its own identity. Through his life story, we witness the difficulty of defining oneself and one's relationships simultaneously with an entire nation which wishes to do the same.


Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Philip Jeyaretnam