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Search of Identity in “The Manticore” and “World of Wonders” by Robertson Davies Essay

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021

Introduction

Robertson Davies’s novels The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders are integral parts of his Deptford Trilogy. The narrow-minded and emotionally meager community acquires the author’s witty criticism in this work. Connected by one event, the two novels (the first one is Fifth Business of 1970) examine the lives of two characters from different perspectives. The stories told are not merely connected by the event from their characters’ childhood (Percy chucks a snowball at Dunstan, but Paul’s mother suffers from it and, as a result, Paul is born a premature child), they are connected by the topic that runs them all through, namely, this is search of identity.

The problem of searching the identity

Being disclosed through various events in both books, the problem of the search for identity acquires the author’s original interpretation. We are inclined to believe that this problem might be regarded differently by different readers, therefore, we do not insist on our righteousness in understanding the author’s view. This way or another, we suppose that this was one of the author’s main tasks to make the reader seek the answers he has put and we should admit that he managed to cope with it, as his books do not simply encourage the search of identity conducted by the characters, but the search of an identity that the very reader performs.

The search for identity is the search of oneself. A human’s life holds a lot of difficulties in its store that a man should accomplish. These obstacles often result in the human’s losing his or her identity. Then, it comes out that a great part of one’s life will be devoted to the search for this identity without which the human’s life does not seem possible.

In The Manticore David Staunton, the son of Percy Boyd Staunton known to us from the first novel of the trilogy is deeply shocked by his father’s strange death, Percy’s unhappy childhood contributes to his failure to understand himself. A perspective career does not add enthusiasm to Percy’s life and one day he decides on Jungian analysis as a possible way to solve his problems.

It is interesting to admit that though Percy does not rely on this treatment (“I had told myself and other people countless times I would never submit to – talking to a psychiatrist ostensibly seeking help, but without any confidence that he could give it” (Davies 5), he still resorts to Jungian analysis as it is in the human nature to seek for understanding of oneself. As we can see, in The Manticore the search of identity is performed intentionally by the character, Percy’s shouting during the magician’s performance served as an incitement for him.

In the World of Wonders, the reader gets to know the life story of the unfortunate boy introduced in the first book of the trilogy. Magnus Eisengrim, now a master magician, is chosen to act as another famous magician – Robert Houdini. During the filming, Eisengrim shares the true story of his life: he was brought up by his strict father; because of the father’s religion the would-be magician was forced to run away from home with a traveling circus, after years of hard work he became a member of an English theatre cast. Fear, assiduous work, and determination which accompanied Magnus all his life long resulted in his becoming a famous magician.

In this Davies’s work, we observe the constant search for who the main character truly is. This search for identity is not that determined by the character’s desire, it just seems an attendant circumstance for the story so organically told by him. During this story, the magician does not stop to ask himself about his identity. And it comes out that Eisengrim has lived the lives of four different persons: the classification is based in accordance to the events that took place in his life.

While comparing the topic of search of identity in two books we should also consider the very process of the main characters’ finding their selves. In the case of David, there is a constant image of the Manticore – a creature with the head of a man, the tail of a scorpion, and the body of a lion – that constantly appears in David’s dreams. This image is rather symbolic, as, in the legends where it plays a significant role, it is an embodiment of some power that the hero should overcome. This is just the case with David: he should become a hero and surpass the cruelty and abuse of his father, he should cope with his past and only then he will be able to unravel the mysteries around his family which will lead to his understanding of himself.

In the World of Wonders as more the main character describes his life as more mysteries of his life appear unsolved.

For example, at the beginning of his life, the magician was not puzzled by the question of who he was. He knew that he was born prematurely, therefore, he was considered a survivor. After running away from home, he got a new name, Cass Fletcher. Spending his time with the carnival the boy understood that he did not want to go home. This was the first conflict with who he was. Later, he faced the problem of being Nobody and needed to win himself back.

Fortunately, the magician was able to become Mangus, and this was the final conflict with who he was. Eisengrim’s former lives became a part of his past and he had answered the question of who he was. Since then he became Mangus Eisengrim, a person, capable of working miracles. Now his task was to render his power to the audience utilizing cinema, this was a real challenge for him, but it evoked the better sides of his soul.

The search for identity in the two novels under consideration may also be regarded as the search for Canadian identity. Being one of the greatest Canadian novelists along with Margaret Laurence, Alice Monroe who followed the traditions of Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, and Wiliam Faulkner of working out fictional kingdoms, Robertson Davies creates a microcosm by defining the features typical for Canadian identity.

We cannot but admit the fact that The Manticore and the World of Wonders were published within the decade of 1964 to 1975 that coincides with the so-called Manawaka cycle – the period when Canadian writers were trying to define a national identity. Robertson Davies focuses on the cultural churches with the purpose to identify their cultural conditions. One should study the parallels in the use of churches (considering both the architecture and décor of the buildings) and the cultural composition of the congregation to characterize Canadian identity.

In The Manticore novel, religion is reborn in the form of psychoanalysis that the main character undergoes. David Stanton’s trust in the Jungian analysis results in his rebirth – “re-entry and return from the womb of mankind” (Davies 261) – he has forgotten his past as a rational and emotionally stunted person; instead, he became a full, passionate being.

The metamorphoses of the main character in the World of Wonders are also a sort of religion. The Magian View is defined as “a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible… a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck” (Davies 297), this was a view that contradicted the conservative protestant Canadian conscience of the period described.

Thus, in the two works we are discussing here Davies suggests some alternatives to the Canadian condition: he implies that Canadians could cultivate a new view of the world that originates from the World of Wonders. But the features of some alternative religions, such as Jungian archetypes, Roman Catholic saints – are typical for the Old World, according to the author. Unfortunately, there is no alternative that the New World offers Davies at the present moment.

As it comes from the mentioned above, The Manticore and the World of Wonders are aimed at searching identity, no matter whether it is a personal identity or the Canadian one. In the long run, both forms are closely interconnected and cannot exist without one another. Though the methods to search the identity the author has applied to in the two novels are different, in both cases the main characters succeed in their searches, and the Canadian identity was sufficiently outlined by the author

Summary

The novels teach the reader not to neglect the search for one’s self and to care about the close connection between one’s identity and the identity of the whole country. The Manticore and the World of Wonders made a very successful attempt to approach not only the main characters’ understanding of themselves but the readers’ as well. Here is where the significance of the novels’ topic of the search for identity is rooted.

Works Cited

Baldacchino, Joseph. “Ethics and the Common Good: Abstract vs. Experiential.” Humanitas 15.2 (2002): 25+.

Cheaney, J. B. “Bred in the Bone – the Fiction of Canadian Author Robertson Davies.” World and I Aug. 2001: 247.

Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Davies, Robertson. The Manticore. Penguin Classics, 2006.

Davies, Robertson. World Of Wonders. Penguin Classics, 2006.

Katerberg, William H. “Borderland Religion: The Emergence of an English-Canadian Identity, 1792-1852.” American Review of Canadian Studies 35.4 (2005): 743+.

Knoenagel, Axel. “David Lucking: The Serpent’s Part Narrating the Self in Canadian Literature.” International Fiction Review 32.1-2 (2005): 116+.

Stovel, Nora Foster. “Temples and Tabernacles: Alternative Religions in the Fictional Microcosms of Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro.” International Fiction Review 31.1-2 (2004): 65+.

Sugars, Cynthia. “The Anatomy of Influence: Robertson Davies’s Psychosomatic Medicine.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 33.4 (2000): 73.

Weiss, Jonathan, and Jane Moss. French-Canadian Literature. Washington, DC: Associaton for Canadian Studies in the United States, 1996.

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