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Essay: Signs in Paul Auster’s City of Glassay

April 6, 2009

In 1985, the story ‘City of Glass’ was published, later collected in the exclaimed The New York Trilogy, alongside two other connected stories: ‘Ghosts’ and ‘The Locked Room’. It brought worldwide attention to Auster, who has steadily released some very thought provoking work.

‘City of Glass’ and subsequently, The New York Trilogy, shows us that from the very beginning there have always been common themes prevalent in Auster’s works. These themes include the authorial authority that a writer has, the act of writing itself, identity and a healthy dose of Lacanian psychoanalysis.

The New York Trilogy was the first Auster book I read, and while I don’t think it’s his best book it is ripe for discussion. I’ll probably shall discuss his other books later on.


The discussion between Boston Stillman and Daniel Quinn, in where Stillman talks about finding a damaged umbrella, ‘Consider a word that refers to a thing – “umbrella”, for example.’ This is a discourse on the classic model of the linguistic sign, first described by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. He said that every word is made of signs, and every sign has two sides. The word “umbrella” is the signifier which is the sequence of letters in a word e.g. U-M-B-R-E-L-L-A. ‘When I say the word “umbrella”, you see the object in your mind.’ This is the signified the object that appears in our minds’ eye when we hear or read the signifier e.g. ‘You see a kind of stick, with collapsible metal spokes on top that form an armature for a waterproof material which, when opened, will protect you from the rain.’

There is another reference to linguistic signs and Saussure, who said that language is difficult to change, this makes it static but also it can grow. It is static in that a language has set conventions, but it can grow because as new technologies and situations arise, new words must be added. Stillman alludes to this, ‘When you rip the cloth off the umbrella, is the umbrella still an umbrella?’ The word ‘umbrella’ is static, if broken it remains an umbrella but as the function has been destroyed, can it still be an ‘umbrella’? If so, this would mean a new word should replace the original.

Another example of both signifier and signified is Quinn’s red notebook which is brought up numerous times throughout the story. The signifier is R-E-D-N-O-T-E-B-O-O-K and the signified is the object of the notebook, which brings up the act of writing things down.

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