A fraught concept in any context, the question of identity becomes extremely complex in this novel due to the historical context of the Holocaust. In the eyes of the Nazis and their collaborators, Sarah is nothing more than a Jew, which condemns her to death. However, de Rosnay shows that such a simple label cannot encompass Sarah’s complexity as an individual, let alone encapsulate an enormous and diverse group. For one, Sarah is ethnically Jewish, but not religious (meaning that she did not grow up in a family that practiced Judaism). Furthermore, though her parents are from Poland, Sarah was born and raised in France. The soldiers’ insistence that Sarah does not belong in France because she is Jewish therefore seems doubly absurd, since Sarah certainly sees herself more as French than as Jewish. This complexity suggests that any attempt to reduce a group or individual to a single aspect of their identity is impossible, unjust, and absurd.
Julia’s plotline confirms this point, though with much lower stakes. The Tézacs consistently refer to Julia not just as American, but as the American (l’Américaine), reducing her to the single identity marker of her nation of origin. However, when Julia moves to New York City after splitting from Bertrand late in the novel, she finds herself wryly identifying as a “Frenchy” (the nickname her daughter, Zoë, gets teased with at her new school). De Rosnay uses Julia’s consistent sense of being an outsider to show that identity often cannot be explained through a binary framework in which someone either “is” something or isn’t. The novel suggests that perhaps a more truthful and humane way of thinking about identity is to consider the accumulated lived experiences that make up a person’s past.
Although de Rosnay shows that Sarah and Julia both desire to be viewed compassionately and humanely in the context of their complex lives, she also explores characters’ desires not to be viewed in the context of their past. While de Rosnay does not explicitly suggest that a person cannot overcome her past, she shows that trying to erase one’s past is not a viable way of re-forging one’s identity. This is made clear in Sarah’s case, as her choice to not tell her husband or son that she is the sole Holocaust survivor of her immediate family does not free her to live life as an entirely new person. Instead, it only isolates her and compounds her grief. Sarah’s identity is part and parcel with her past experiences. Trying to divorce oneself from one’s past is not only impossible, but also incredibly destructive. De Rosnay thus shows that identity is far too complex to be reduced to discrete labels, or one facet of a person’s being. Furthermore, identity is rooted more firmly in experiences than in any single characteristic. William Rainsferd attests to this when he says of Sarah, “I didn’t know who my mother was […] I knew what she looked like, I knew her face, her smile, but nothing about her inner life.”
Identity Quotes in Sarah’s Key
The mother pulled her daughter close to her. The girl could feel the woman’s heart beating through her dressing gown. She wanted to push her mother away. She wanted her mother to stand up straight and look at the men boldly, to stop cowering, to prevent her heart from beating like that, like a frightened animal’s. She wanted her mother to be brave.
Why did Bertrand take such pleasure in making me out to be the snide, prejudiced American, ever critical of the French? And why did I just stand there and let him get away with it? It had been funny, at one point. In the beginning of our marriage, it had been a classic joke, the kind that made both our American and French friends roar with laughter. In the beginning.
Through the bus’s dusty pane, she recognized one of them, the young red-haired one who had often helped her cross the street on her way home from school. She tapped on the glass to attract his attention. When his eyes locked onto hers, he quickly looked away. He seemed embarrassed, almost annoyed. She wondered why.
The one who smelled a warm, comforting, motherly smell: delicious cooking, fresh soap, clean linen. The one with the infectious laugh. The one who said that even if there was a war, they’d pull through, because they were a strong, good family, a family full of love.
That woman had little by little disappeared. She had become gaunt, and pale, and she never smiled or laughed. She smelled rank, bitter. Her hair had become brittle and dry, streaked with gray.
The girl felt like her mother was already dead.
In that sheltered, gentle life that seemed far away, the girl would have believed her mother. She used to believe everything her mother said. But in this harsh new world, the girl felt she had grown up. She felt older than her mother. She knew the other women were saying the truth. She knew the rumors were true. She did not know how to explain this to her mother. Her mother had become like a child.
“Please don’t worry about it,” I said. “I don’t use my married name.”
“It’s an American thing,” said Mamé. “Miss Jarmond is American.”
“Yes, I had noticed that,” said Véronique, in better spirits.
Noticed what? I felt like asking. My accent, my clothes, my shoes?
She had grown up too much to be afraid anymore. She was no longer a baby. Her parents would be proud of her. That’s what she wanted them to be. Proud because she had escaped from that camp. Proud because she was going to Paris, to save her brother. Proud, because she wasn’t afraid.
She fell upon the tar with her teeth, gnawing at her mother’s minute stitches. Finally, the yellow piece of cloth fell away from the blouse. She looked at it. Big, black letters. JEW. She rolled it up in her hands.
“Doesn’t it look small, all of a sudden?” she said to Rachel.
I longed for the birth, for the sensation of the baby’s head pressing down through me, for that unmistakable, pure, painful sensation of bringing a child into the world, albeit with pain, with tears. I wanted those tears. I wanted that pain. I did not want the pain of emptiness, the tears of a barren, scarred womb.
After my conversation with my sister, I lay on the sofa for a long time, my hand folded over my stomach like a protective shield. Little by little, I felt vitality pumping back into me.
As ever, I thought of Sarah Starzynski, and of what I now knew. I had not needed to tape Gaspard Dufaure. Nor jot anything down. It was all written inside me.
Was it to do with Sarah, with the rue de Saintonge? Or was it just a belated coming-of-age? I could not tell. I only knew that I felt as if I had emerged from a long-lasting, mellow, protective fog. Now my senses were sharpened, keen. There was no fog. There was nothing mellow. There were only facts. Finding this man. Telling him his mother had never been forgotten by the Tézacs, by the Dufaures.
Somehow he was no stranger to me, and more bizarre still, I felt even less a stranger to him. What had brought us together? My quest, my thirst for truth, my compassion for his mother? He knew nothing of me, knew nothing of my failing marriage, my near miscarriage in Lucca, my job, my life. What did I know of him, of his wife, his children, his career? His present was a mystery. But his past, his mother’s past, had been etched out to me like fiery torches along a dark path. And I longed to show this man that I cared, that what happened to his mother had altered my life.