Amidst the many shocking revelations of The Fifth Season, we came to know our singular protagonist by three names: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Since then, the identities of various characters have undergone shifts, some voluntary, some not. Schaffa and Hoa, too, shift (and Tonkee, though Essun notices that she is in many ways still the same ol’ Binof). Again, I will be drawing on psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s work in The Protean Self, this time to explore the ways in which this fracturing, this fluidity of self, can be adaptive or regressive.
Lifton’s book explores the ways in which individuals, beset with “unmanageable historical forces and social uncertainties,” with rapidly changing leaders, ideas, jobs, partners, places of residence, etc, evolve “a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux” in which they are immersed (Lifton, 1). These psychological challenges and triumphs present in modern life are reflected in Essun’s journey throughout the trilogy, as she displays incredible resilience in her repeated adaptations to changing conditions.
Hoa transforms from odd-looking but human (read: squishy) child to stone young adult after being severely wounded, losing limbs and lower jaw in hand-to-hand stone-eater combat. While we get the impression that he was soon going to give up the child guise of his own accord, as it was no longer necessary to earn Essun’s sympathy/trust, this process was expedited by outside forces, and was aesthetic rather than psychological. Schaffa, after being near-mortally wounded by Essun’s obelisk-powered explosion off the coast of Meov, is no longer “the Schaffa that we have known so far;” that Schaffa “is now dead” (The Obelisk Gate, 41-42). This was not something he chose–Schaffa “knows the price” of this transformation and feels it “better to die than pay it” (40). Yet, in the panic-stricken throes of death, he gives in, loses much of himself, and finds evil Earth’s will much closer to the surface. Under duress, Schaffa is not saved by mental resilience; rather, he simply becomes vulnerable to an outside force.
Essun, however, seems to wield more control throughout her transformations. In the aftermath of her explorations of the hidden “socket” in the Fulcrum, she announces to Schaffa that she has “picked a rogga name…Syenite” (The Fifth Season, 331). With that name, Damaya’s behavior changes as well. She withdraws from Schaffa’s influence, and, while at first still craving stability and autonomy within the institution of the Fulcrum, she eventually breaks free and goes rogue with Alabaster. Post-Meov, when Syenite must again transform to adapt to new conditions, this time blending in with the “stills,” she adopts the name “Essun.” This iteration of herself is intentionally average and unnoticeable, “neither the best teacher nor the worst,” quiet and mostly known “as Jija’s wife” (15). This repeated reinvention of self is characteristic of what Lifton terms “‘the protean self,'” after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms” (Lifton, 1), and as we can greatly appreciate this far into Jemisin’s series, it saved Essun’s life.