A Thought Or Two About Fictional Twins

Double Vision                                                                                                                 There is something about twins that makes them a subject of fascination for readers and writers.

Twins, or their equivalent, have been popping up in fiction throughout the history of literature. We have evil twins, separated-at-birth twins, sickly or mad twins, wicked sisters, rival brothers, but also changelings, soulmates, dark halves, lookalikes … and all of them threatening to unpack our emotional baggage. People just hate it when you tell them you saw their ‘twin’ in the supermarket. It undermines the human quest for uniqueness.

In her book Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Juliana De Nooy examines the various and most fascinating manifestations of twins:

Identical and conjoined twins offer counter-intuitive images of one being in two bodies and two beings in one body, and thus may be seen to lend themselves to explorations of the nature of the self.

Consider for a moment when you last met twins on your own reading travels.

Schizophrenia                                                                                                                   We find them in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) – Jackson and Pierrot, the brothers of the disreputable Lola. We find them in John Banville’s 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea – the wordless Myles, and his sister Chloe. I remember finding them years back when I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), another Booker winner. (What were the Small Things? I can’t remember.) Roy’s Esthappen and Rahel die tragically, I believe, by drowning, while Banville’s Myles and Chloe wade out together into the sea to meet their fate:

They were far out now, the two of them, so far as to be pale dots between the pale sky and paler sea, and then one of the dots disappeared. After that it was all over very quickly.

In Richard Ford’s novel Canada (2012), which explores the themes of assimilation and belonging, Ford’s narrator Dell and his unalike sister Berner are fraternal twins. Dell reflects:

I sometimes found myself thinking of Berner as an older boy. Other times I wished she looked more like me so she’d be nicer to me, and we could be closer. Though I never wanted to look like her.

The desire for the closeness that comes from similarity threatens our human need for individuality. Canada2 Zadie Smith’s ground-breaking novel White Teeth (2000) uncannily anticipates the rise of fundamentalism in Britain. One son Magid is sent back by his father to Bangladesh to be educated and ‘challenged,’ while his twin Millat remains. But which twin is ‘safe’? Millat goes on to join the dubiously-acronymed ‘Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,’ (KEVIN):

… he stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden. In his mind he was as much there as he was here. He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin after all).

This is the schizophrenia of a split cultural identity as exhibited in the twins of Smith’s novel, but transferable to a population of confused individuals. White TeethSacrifice                                                                                                                                In her book Negotiating with the Dead (2002), Margaret Atwood has a whole chapter on ‘duplicity,’ or this ‘world of doubles’: ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ Atwood describes a magazine advertisement for a Toni home permanent. Two identical girls are shown with two identical hair perms – one an expensive salon hairdo and the other the cheaper home version. ‘Why was it that I suspected fraud?’ asks Atwood. Is this a clue to the twin syndrome? One twin is merely a copy of the other. As Atwood observes:

In his book on human sacrifice, The Highest Altar (1989), Patrick Tierney would have it that the successful twin represents the living society, and the unsuccessful one his dark alter ego – the one who was sacrificed and then buried under the cornerstone in order to deal with the Underworld, propitiate the gods, and protect the city.

NegotiatingIn life, one of a pair of Siamese twins must often be sacrificed to save the life of the more complete other. This is the lot that falls to Marion and Shiva, the twin protagonists of Abraham Verghese’s surgery-for-beginners-novel Cutting for Stone (2009). In Gillian Flynn’s best-selling crime thriller Gone Girl (2012), Go – short for Margo – comes very close to taking a murder rap for her twin brother Nick. In literature, twins – or at least one of them – are expendable.

Who can say how many twins have fallen for the sake of fiction?

The complete article ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ first appeared in the IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies Newsletter, Issue 46, March, 2015. More on twins in the next post.

References

Atwood, M., 2002. Negotiating with the Dead. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Banville, J., 2005. The Sea. Basingstoke: Picador.

De Nooy, J., 2005. Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Flynn, G., 2012. Gone Girl. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Ford, R., 2012. Canada. London: Bloomsbury.

McEwan, I., 2001. Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape.

Roy, A., 1997. The God of Small Things. London: Random House.

Smith, Z., 2000. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Tierney, P., 1989. The Highest Altar. Viking.

Verghese, A., 2009. Cutting for Stone. New York: Vintage.

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