Academic journal article
By Stuart, Susan
Critical Survey , Vol. 20, No. 1
Hoffman, Eva--Criticism and interpretation
The Secret (Hoffman, Eva) (Novel)--Criticism and interpretation
American Writers--Criticism and Interpretation
Women Writers--Criticism and Interpretation
The Secret is a first novel by Eva Hoffman, (1) a Polish-American writer, better known for her non-fiction work, her memoir Lost in Translation and other writings which take her back to eastern Europe and the experiences of an earlier generation. It is set in a future USA where cloning is legal, though not acceptable to everyone, and the development of the narrative is largely guided by an implicit exposition of issues related to cloning. The Secret is a first person, chronological account in which many voices are heard, and these diverse voices contribute to a lively discussion within the text of the possible effects and implications of cloning for the clone, and for the clone's family and friends.
Cloning is an asexual form of reproduction and the OED defines it as the creation of a person 'developed from one somatic cell of its parent and genetically identical to that parent'. Despite this genetic identity, elementary biology teaches that the fact of developing within a different womb already creates differences. Writing about the Human Genome Project, Evelyn Fox Keller points out that 'Contrary to all expectations, instead of lending support to the familiar notions of genetic determinism that have acquired so powerful [a] grip on the popular imagination, these successes [of the HGP] pose critical challenges to such notions'. (2) It is in this context that I shall examine the imagined experience of a clone in The Secret.
The Secret is essentially a Bildungsroman, an account of the formative years of the narrator clone, Iris. The voyage into the adult world rarely takes place on glassy seas and is the very stuff of the Bildungsroman. Iris's journey thither may be a stormy one, but it has many familiar features, as will become obvious. The novel is divided into five chapters. In the first Iris gives an account of her childhood: her sense of her own strangeness, her close identification with her mother, Elizabeth, and her isolation from any wider community. Her childhood seems quite happy although she is considered somewhat strange at school. The addition for a time to the household of her mother's lover, Steven Lontano, enhances her life. At the end of this section Iris's biological status as a clone is confirmed, and not only as a clone, but a clone of her own mother. A number of questions are raised, and quite soon answered within the text, although these can only be identified by the reader in retrospect or on a second reading. In the second chapter Iris runs away to New York, discovers men, meets the doctor-scientist responsible for her existence and tracks down her grandparents. In the third she visits her grandparents in an elderly person's community, and is attracted by their traditional values. When her grandmother dies she returns to tell her mother and in a dramatic encounter almost kills her. In the fourth chapter she returns to New York and stays with her aunt Janey, her mother's sister, from whom she learns something of her family history; and she renews her acquaintance with Steven Lontano. In the fifth it is suggested that she finally finds a way to an independent life with a lover with whom she can find a real self and significantly, a life without her mother, from whom she becomes estranged.
Elizabeth, Iris's mother, is shown to be extremely self-centred: when living near her own loving parents she does not trouble to visit them even once a month; she refuses to attend her sister's wedding, apparently because she is envious. Elizabeth thinks she can own another person: speaking to Steven Lontano of her daughter she says, 'Love me, love what's mine' (43), thereby implicitly asserting ownership of her daughter. She is also a controlling person: she keeps her daughter ignorant of her grandparents and having decided she will not tell Iris about her origins until she is eighteen, refuses to divulge any such information when pressed by her. When Iris disappears she writes to her sister, Janey, telling her she 'must' inform her if Iris has contacted her. …