A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


Dave Eggers

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Themes and Colors
Self-Consciousness and Meta-Narration Theme Icon
Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Guilt and Poetic License Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Identity Theme Icon

In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers pays close attention to the identities people assume and the roles that they or others attach to these identities. Eggers himself straddles multiple personas, simultaneously fulfilling the role of a responsible guardian and a wayward bachelor. Naturally, he often finds it difficult to concentrate on each identity, especially since they are so distinct. Of course, his priorities as Toph’s caretaker consume his daily life, but this doesn’t mean he exclusively identifies as a guardian, since he also values his social life, which exists independently from his life as a de-facto parent. As such, he tries to occupy a middle ground, where he can exist as more than one thing. Unfortunately, society is eager to put people into categories, meaning that people rarely recognize that Eggers’s identity is actually a composite of several roles and personas. By accentuating this struggle to exist at the intersection of multiple identities, Eggers shows readers how difficult it is for people who don’t conform to conventional stereotypes to live in a world that groups people into simple and one-dimensional categories.

The most obvious friction between Eggers’s personas arises between his identity as Toph’s guardian and his identity as a young bachelor. Describing what it feels like when he gets the rare opportunity to go out with friends, he writes: “maybe they’d just be sitting around, at Moodie’s usually, watching cable, getting ready, and I would be there, on the couch, with a beer from the fridge, savoring every minute, not knowing when it would come again, and they would be casual, having no idea what it meant to me.” In these moments, Eggers’s closest friends have “no idea” what it means to him to simply be “sitting around” with them. They don’t register the fact that he’s torn between being a guardian and having a social life, instead assuming that he must feel exactly like they do. In reality, of course, this isn’t the case. “I felt so detached sometimes,” he writes, “went for weeks at a time without really being around people my age, like living in a country where no one understands your words.” Even as Eggers hangs out with his friends, he no longer feels like he can fully identify with their youthful lifestyle, since the majority of his time is spent “detached” from them.

What’s interesting about Eggers’s friends, though, is that they do sometimes remember that he—unlike them—has caretaking responsibilities. In fact, they often place too much emphasis on this, asking him about Toph when he’d rather be enjoying a night out like the rest of them. One night, for example, Eggers is at a bar with friends and beginning to feel disappointed that the evening isn’t wilder. He wishes he could start an orgy, or at least something that would make him feel like it was worth leaving behind his duties as a caretaker. As he thinks this, several friends ask him about Toph, each one eventually saying, “Where is he, anyway?” This bothers Eggers. “Why ask me, when I am out trying to drink and incite orgies, where my brother is?” he wonders. He feels like this question keeps him from embracing the carefree existence of a young person with an active social life. Suddenly, his friends remind him of how he’s different from them, forcing him to think about his role as a guardian. In turn, it becomes clear that the people around Eggers won’t let him exist as two things at once. Instead, they fluctuate between seeing him as a regular young man and seeing him as a caretaker.

Not only is Eggers aware of the ways others try to pigeonhole him, he’s also sensitive to how people—including himself—force others into unfortunate stereotypical categories. This is overwhelmingly (and uncomfortably) apparent when he and his friend Meredith encounter a group of Latino teenagers on a beach late at night. The teenagers approach them as they’re having sex, mock them, throw sand in Eggers’s eyes, and generally give them a hard time, though they eventually leave and it becomes clear that they’re nothing but a group of rowdy adolescents. However, Eggers is suddenly convinced that they stole his wallet, which he can’t find. When he chases them down and they deny his accusation, he threatens to call the cops. He asks them who the police are going to believe: “Two regular people sitting on the beach, or you people?” Saying this, he vocalizes his belief that he and Meredith—two white people—are “regular,” whereas these teenagers, whom he assumes are Mexican, inherently become suspects because they aren’t white. He even adds: “I mean, I don’t know what your status is with green cards and everything, but this could get really fucking ugly, you guys.” It’s quite obvious here that Eggers is drawing upon racist stereotypes and using them to cast this group of teenagers in an unflattering light. When he finally gets home after having made such a scene, he sees his wallet lying on the dresser, a turn of events that emphasizes the fact that he was wrong to assume the worst about these teens.

Considering that this is Eggers’s memoir, his choice to include this story suggests that he wants to shine a light on the ugly and blatant assumptions he made about these teenagers based on their race. In general, Eggers doesn’t shy away from examining his own implicit biases throughout the book, sometimes even putting them on display in such an unflinching way that readers might question whether or not he’s fully in control of the message he’s sending about his own prejudices. However, if readers wish to give Eggers’s engagement with race and socioeconomic class a sympathetic interpretation, they can refer to the fact that he’s interested in demonstrating that people often categorize others according to superficial aspects of their identity. In short, Eggers tries to interrogate the human habit of assigning reductive identities to other people. Whether or not he successfully manages to do this without casting himself as prejudiced and insensitive is ultimately up to the reader.

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The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Identity appears in each chapter of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Identity Quotes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Below you will find the important quotes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius related to the theme of Identity.
Acknowledgements Quotes

Further, the author, and those behind the making of this book, wish to acknowledge that yes, there are perhaps too many memoir-sorts of books being written at this juncture, and that such books, about real things and real people, as opposed to kind-of made up things and people, are inherently vile and corrupt and wrong and evil and bad, but would like to remind everyone that we could all do worse, as readers and writers.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker)
Page Number: xxi
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

They laugh, I chuckle—not too much, I don’t want to seem overeager, but enough to say “I hear you. I laugh with you. I share in the moment.” But when the chuckling is over I am still apart, something else, and no one is sure what I am. They don’t want to invest their time in the brother sent to pick up Toph while his mother cooks dinner or is stuck at work or in traffic. To them I’m a temp. A cousin maybe. The young boyfriend of a divorcee? They don’t care.

Fuck it. I don’t want to be friends with these women, anyway. Why would I care? I am not them. They are the old model and we are the new.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

They are scared. They are jealous.

We are pathetic. We are stars.

We are either sad and sickly or we are glamorous and new. We walk in and the choices race through my head. Sad and sickly? Or glamorous and new? Sad/sickly or glamorous/new? Sad/sickly? Glamorous/new?

We are unusual and tragic and alive.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

If when she comes over she questions anything about the state of the house—“Oh God, there’s food under the couch!” or even “Holy bachelor pad!”—or worse, any parental decisions made in her company or otherwise, she is first glared at in Toph’s presence, later lectured out of his earshot, and then becomes fodder for month-long trashings in conversations with Beth about people who know nothing about anything and how dare they say anything, these people, these lotus-eating simpletons who have never known struggle, who would never question other parents, but feel the right to question me, us, simply because we are new at it, are young, are siblings.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Beth Eggers
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

You know, to be honest, though, what I see is less a problem with form, all that garbage, and more a problem of conscience. You’re completely paralyzed with guilt about relating all this in the first place, especially the stuff earlier on. You feel somehow obligated to do it, but you also know that Mom and Dad would hate it, would crucify you […]. But then again, I should say, and Bill and Beth would say—well, probably not Bill, but definitely Beth—that your guilt, and their disapproval, is a very middlebrow, middle-class, midwestern sort of disapproval. It’s superstition as much as anything—like the primitives who fear the camera will take their soul. You struggle with a guilt both Catholic and unique to the home in which you were raised. Everything there was a secret—for instance, your father being in AA was not to be spoken of, ever, while he was in and after he stopped attending. You never told even your closest friends about anything that happened inside that house. And now you alternately rebel against and embrace that kind of suppression.

Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

[…] maybe they’d just be sitting around, at Moodie’s usually, watching cable, getting ready, and I would be there, on the couch, with a beer from the fridge, savoring every minute, not knowing when it would come again, and they would be casual, having no idea what it meant to me, even when I’d be a little manic about it all, a little overeager, laughing too much, drinking too quickly, getting another from the fridge, no problem, okay, hoping for something to happen, hoping we’d go somewhere good, anything to make the night count, make it worth it, justify the constant red/black worry, the visions—I felt so detached sometimes, went for weeks at a time without really being around people my age, like living in a country where no one understands your words[.]

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Moodie, Stephen
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

You wouldn’t believe what people will believe once they know our story. They’re ready for anything, basically—will believe anything, because they’ve been thrown off-balance, are still wondering if any of this is true, our story in general, but aren’t sure and are terrified of offending us.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

I tell her how funny it is we’re talking about all this because as it so happens I’m already working to change all this, am currently in the middle of putting together something that will address all these issues, that will inspire millions to greatness, that with some high school friends […] we’re putting something together that will smash all these misconceptions about us, how it’ll help us all to throw off the shackles of our supposed obligations, our fruitless career tracks, how we will force, at least urge, millions to live more exceptional lives, to {standing up for effect} do extraordinary things, to travel the world, to help people and start things and end things and build things…

“And how will you do this?” she wants to know. “A political party? A march? A revolution? A coup?”

“A magazine.”

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Meredith Weiss (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Everyone’s seen the show. We all despise it, are enthralled by it, morbidly curious. Is it interesting because it’s so bad, because the stars of it are so profoundly uninteresting? Or is it because in it we recognize so much that is maddeningly familiar? Maybe this is indeed us. Watching the show is like listening to one’s voice on tape: it’s real of course, but however mellifluous and articulate you hear your own words, once they’re sent through this machine and are given back to you, they’re high-pitched, nasal, horrifying. Are our lives that? Do we talk like that, look like that? Yes. It could not be. It is. No.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker)
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

It was overwhelmingly white, of course, but racism of any kind—at least outwardly expressed—is kind of gauche, so we basically grew up without any sense of prejudice, firsthand or even in the abstract. With the kind of wealth and isolation we had from societal sorts of issues—crime, outside of the vandalism perpetrated by me and my friends, was unheard of—the town was free to see those kinds of things as a kind of entertainment—wrestling matches being contested by other people, in other places.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Laura Folger
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

We’ve reached the end of pure inspiration, and are now somewhere else, something implying routine, or doing something because people expect us to do it, going somewhere each day because we went there the day before, saying things because we have said them before, and this seems like the work of a different sort of animal, contrary to our plan, and this is very very bad.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker)
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

To hear anger from him is a great relief. I had worried about his lack of anger, had worried that he and I had been too harmonious, that I hadn’t given him enough friction. He needed friction, I had begun insisting to myself. After all the years of normalcy and coddling, it was time to give the boy something to be pissed about. How else would he succeed? Where would he find his motivation, if not from the desire to tread over me?

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis: