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The Bourne Identity and The Manchurian Candidate Novels Essay

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Updated: Oct 26th, 2021

One of the more horrifying concepts in fiction is the thought of losing the self.

It is a theme that can be traced back through history for centuries, usually in terms of insanity, such as in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (primarily expressed in the character Ophelia) or King Lear and into modern times with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. However, this isn’t always the case as novels such as The Manchurian Candidate and The Bourne Identity were released, psychological thrillers involving a loss of identity through less innocent or biological reasons. In The Bourne Identity, a man who has lost all memory of who he is slowly beginning to track the clues of his former life and, in the process, begins to suspect that he may have been a paid assassin of the highest order. In attempting to preserve his own life, he is forced to kidnap, murder, and discover covert skills no honest person has a need to know. The Manchurian Candidate, on the other hand, depicts a man who is conditioned to kill on command but retains no knowledge of his crimes, only a vague sense that something is not quite right. Although well aware of who he is and too familiar with his own painful past, this man is unaware of the actions he engages in for the benefit of the enemy. The protagonists in both The Bourne Identity and The Manchurian Candidate kill and suffer some form of lost identity, but Jason Bourne knows he kills, while Raymond Shaw is completely unaware of his actions.

As has been mentioned, The Bourne Identity begins with a man who has lost all sense of who he is. He is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea with bullet wounds in his back and a head injury that is presumably the cause of his amnesia.

Left in the care of a washed-out doctor on a small island, a small piece of microfilm leads the man to a Swiss bank where he learns his name may be Jason Bourne. As he begins to discover who he is, he is forced to discover his skills in weaponry, espionage, and escape as he grabs a woman to use as a hostage to escape a crowded hotel lobby alive. Although originally seen as a monster killing machine and feeling himself to perhaps be exactly this, Marie explicitly labels the difference and suggests this may not be the case. “It’s hard to explain, but during all the time you kept me, hostage, even when you hit me, and dragged me and pressed the gun into my stomach and held it against my head – God knows, I was terrified – but I thought I saw something in your eyes.

Call it reluctance” (131). Despite this reluctance, Jason is more than willing to kill when the occasion demands, fully cognizant of what he is doing.

This is seen, for example, in the scene in Paris when Bourne attempts to pick up his money from the bank courier. Recognizing the trap when the armored truck comes to a stop, he makes arrangements to spring it and then discovers that the courier wasn’t simply waiting for one of Carlos’ men but actually had one with him.

“He saw the face from Zurich, the killer they had called Johann, the man they had brought to Paris to recognize him. Bourne fired twice; the man arched backward, blood spreading across his forehead” (207).

Although Bourne does not know who he is or why this man and others are chasing him, he is perfectly well aware of what is happening around him and the necessity for him to kill as a means of surviving.

In contrast, Raymond Shaw remains well aware of who he was both before and after his time in combat but is separated somehow from a significant portion of himself following treatment by Yen Lo. His experiences throughout childhood are detailed, as is his continuing love for a childhood sweetheart, Jocie Jordan, and his bitter resentment over his mother’s heartless political plotting in an age when women were given very little power of their own. As he attempts to move on with his life after the war, Raymond actually goes a decent way toward fulfilling his own desires as he first gains a position with a newspaper as a columnist’s assistant and later becomes reacquainted with his lost love, who has recently become widowed. However, the conditioning he received in Korea makes him a deadly weapon, a fact he remains completely unaware of. Whenever he is told to play solitaire and reveals the Queen of Diamonds, he is compelled to obey whatever order he is given next. Using this trick, Raymond is instructed to murder his boss in order to become the next big columnist for his paper regardless of his own feelings about the matter: “It was a relatively effortless job because Mr. Gaines, being such an old man, did not have much strength and Raymond, because of feelings of affection and gratitude for Mr. Gaines did everything he could, with his great strength, to terminate his friend’s life as quickly as possible” (165).

Only with the revelation of the bandaged hand that had been smashed in a taxi door is it revealed that Raymond’s handler is his own mother, using him as a tool to bring about the Communist agenda she’d been working on for so many years. When Raymond is told to kill Mr. Jordan, his father-in-law, and the enemy of his mother and her political aspirations for his step-father, he is also forced to kill Jocie as well because she was there at the time of the murder. This upsets him so much that he finally comes to admit that something is wrong but never fully comprehends what that might be.

Through Marco, he is brought to remember the many murders he’s committed under his mother’s orders: “Mr. Gaines had been a good man, but he had been told to make him dead. Amen. He had had to kill in Paris; he had killed n London by special appointment to the Queen of Diamonds, offices in principal cities.

Amen. … Raymond stared at the seven queens and talked. He told what his mother had told him. He explained that he had shot Senator Jordan and that – that he had – that after he had shot Senator Jordan, he had – ” (346). Realizing that Raymond is tormented by the feeling that he had something to do with the murder of his wife, Marco makes the humane decision of ordering Raymond, still under the influence of the Queen of Diamonds, to shoot his mother and step-father and then himself to end the book.

In both thrillers, the killer has suffered some form of identity loss.

Jason Bourne cannot remember who he was and rushes through the novel, trying to both discover the truth and dreading what it might reveal. In much the same way, Raymond Shaw also seeks to discover the truth but only begins to suspect there might be something more dreadful to discover toward the end of the story. Both characters are used to kill on orders, but Jason is unaware of who he is supposed to kill, having been purposely cut off from his agency prior to his memory loss, while Raymond remains unaware of the orders he’s received until Marco manages to discover the Shaw family secret. This introduces the significant difference between the two characters as Jason Bourne remains fully cognizant of his actions and those he’s killed following his recovery, while Raymond Shaw remains ignorant of these until the very end.

Works Cited

Condon, Richard. The Manchurian Candidate. New York: Pocket Star Books, 1987.

Ludlum, Robert. The Bourne Identity. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.

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IvyPanda. "The Bourne Identity and The Manchurian Candidate Novels." October 26, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-bourne-identity-and-the-manchurian-candidate-novels/.


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