Justin Torres’s, We the Animals (2011) chronicles the process of an unnamed narrator
on understanding his own identity; an identity conflicted with sex, coming of
age, love, hunger, poverty, vulnerability but also, maybe, hope. These conflicts
were evidenced on the structure of Torres’s connected vignettes detailing the
upbringing of three-brothers in a mixed-race family.
The narrator’s identity seems to be in
conflict ever since he was a child. At first,
the novel will emphasize “we” instead of “I”. In early stages of life, identity
holds a very thin line with that of people around. For nearly the first half of
the novel the narrator will always refer to himself and his brothers for every
situation. “We knew there was something on the
other side of pain…” (Torres 2). The narrator had hope and vision on life with
his brothers, he felt there was hope for everyone. “…He was leading us
somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn’t get there in a hurry” (Torres
2). In the beginning, the struggle
with identity was not only difficult to him but for the three brothers as well,
nevertheless this is the age where there is hunger and eager for life. The coming of age for the narrator made him
become dislodged from the family and struggle to have an identity of his own.
The father being a Puerto-Rican holds
a strong and male chauvinist character. Within several passages of the novel
the narrator was segregated from his brothers onto uncomfortable situations.
For example, in the chapter called Dawn, the father will send the boys to
shovel the snow, while the narrator was bathed by his dad, naked and physically
vulnerable. The father also called the narrator pretty. “I was thinking how pretty
you were,” he said. “Now, isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about
his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and
twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got
me a pretty one” (Torres 10). The father was coming face-to-face to his son
deviating from the acceptable and traditional cultural expectations of masculinity.
On the other hand, the mother was just absent
in many aspects. She was nearly as susceptible as the three children to the
father. When the father left them, she had no clue on how to become the
responsible of the family. The children, specifically the narrator, observed
the parents’ volatile relationship not as figures a child will look up to. Their ethnicity setting them apart from the white
working-class children around them, and the disorder of their home life
encourage them to burrow on their own lives and sometimes forced adulthood.
character began to differentiate himself from the mentality of the family, he
knew there was something more than what his living conditions were blocking him
from. It is then he attends school and shows intellect his brothers won’t show.
Thereafter, he felt so different from the rest that he revealed his
homosexuality, essentially shaped by his life. Even though it is not revealed
until later, the theme of sexuality is there throughout the novel. A notable transition
began when the boys unexpectedly watch the gay porn in their neighbor’s
basement. The narrator’s older brothers began to suspect their brother’s
difference; it was then that the “we” became just “I”. He did not feel comfortable in his own skin and
found a sense of freedom in revealing. His life events only foreshadowed the
character’s sexuality and the final stage of his formation.