Identity and Interpretation

Brianna Donahue, Olivia Ells, Natalie Houston, Alissa French, Jordyn Stinar, Cameron Kramer

In Lilies of the Field, The actor Sidney Poiter plays the character Homer Smith. Homer Smith was a very intense and driven worker. He stops at a farm to get some water, where he meets a group of German, Austrian, and Hungarian nuns. The Mother Superior, Mother Maria, asks him to fix their roof, and offers him to stay for dinner. During dinner they are all speaking German and call Smith, Schmidt, which is the German equivalent. As they are speaking German, he begins teaching them English, so the language barrier is less prominent. In the morning, he asks to be paid for his work on the roof and he explains that he works only for money, but the Nuns are convinced he was sent from God and want to repay him in other ways. Smith expresses that he’s always wanted to become an architect but never could afford the schooling. He then applies for a job, as a contractor. He eventually agrees to build the church for the Nuns. Since he is living on their property he is spending a lot of time with them. He drives them to where they hold their mass, he eats dinner with them and then after teaching them about the English language. A strong bond between Smith aka Schmitt and the sisters over this period of time. Smith drops the sisters off at mass and goes for breakfast after. He goes to the same place every time where he befriends the owner. The sisters get materials for Smith to use for the church. The town comes together to build the church with Homer Smith. Over time, the church slowly gets built, the sisters get better with their English, and Smith gains respect for the Nuns. Once the church is fully built, Smith writes his name in the cement in front of the cross. He does this by himself because he is proud of what he has completed. After building the church the dynamic between the Nuns and Smith is now mutual respect for one another. Smith leaves and Mother Maria is shocked by her sadness since he is leaving, and neither of them expected the relationship they ended up having.

  The main character in Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney, experiences something similar to Homer Smith’s story in Lilies of The Field. Percival Everett changes the nuns’ names from Lilies of the Field in the book I Am Not Sidney Poitier because he is trying to differentiate between Sidney Poitier and Not Sidney Poitier and give the nuns’ names a deeper meaning. He changes multiple aspects of the movie in the book. This is due to the fact that he is living Sidney Poitier’s life but in Not Sidney’s own way. One decision that Not Sidney makes that is different from Sidney Poitier is that he puts up $50,000 to build the church when in the movie Homer Smith builds the church himself. There are differences between the book and the movie, regarding why Percival Everett changes the names of the nuns. One of them being how he changed the names of the nuns to new names that related to the individual’s characteristics and personality from the movie. For example Mother Maria is the Mother Superior in the movie Lilies of the Field but Percival Everett changed her name to Irenaeus. The Wikipedia page on Irenaeus explains who he was: “Irenaeus was a Greek bishop noted for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in the southern regions of present-day France and, more widely, for the development of Christian theology.” This being said, we can conclude that Irenaeus was a leading figure, similar to Mother Maria. Percival Everett changed the other names of the nuns as well, though none of these changes were as predominant as Mother Maria’s. He changed the original names of Agnes, Gertrude, and Albertine to Origen, Eusebuis, Firmilian, and Chrysostom. All of the new names were from Christian narrative. 

Percival Everett changed all of the original female nun names to prominent male figures of Christian history. The female names in the movie make sense for the character as they are foreign. In the book, after the names are changed they become ironic as they are no longer meaningful to the characters origins. All of the new names come from different areas like Turkey, Israel, and Egypt.  Was Everett trying to play into the origins or was he trying to strengthen the power of the female characters? Power comes into play when all of the new names are those that hold prominence in the traditional Christian ideals, specifically with them being male. Mother Maria’s name was changed to Irenaeus, who we now know held a lot of power for the Christian community at that time. In the Britannica article titled “St. Irenaeus” it is discussed how influential his writing was to the people of his time frame, “In the course of his writings Irenaeus advanced the development of an authoritative canon of Scriptures, the creed, and the authority of the episcopal office.”(Wingren, 2012). Everett possibly chose this name to replace Mother Maria’s name because Mother Maria held authority and influence over the other sisters. It seems that Mother Maria or Sister Irenaeus acted as a leader for all of the sisters. 

As the author, Percival Everett shows a constant theme in this book I am Not Sidney Poitier. This recurring theme revolves around Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier. There are so many aspects of Sidney Poitier’s roles that are changed in the book through Not Sidney Poitier’s life. The character Not Sidney has a constant battle with his identity. He is often mistaken for the actor and must explain the origin of his own name. Everett uses this theme of Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier to differentiate the characters as a whole. This also helps the reader understand the difference between the two and how Not Sidney wants to be recognized as himself and not mistaken for Sidney Poitier. Everett changes many aspects in the roles of Sidney Poitier as a way to separate the two. For example, in the movie Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier builds the church with his hands and takes time to do so, but in the book, Not Sidney Poitier just tries to pay for the church to be built. Everett changes the names of the nuns in the book as another way to differentiate the characters by changing aspects of their stories. He wants to make it clear that they are NOT the same person, ironically why the character’s name is Not Sidney Poitier. Author Percival Everett is giving Sidney Poitier’s life to Not Sidney, but changing the story, using as many aspects that he can that revolve around Sidney Poitier and Not Sidney Poitier, while still keeping their stories similar all the way down to their names. Everett as an author tends to write nonsensically. This all relates back to the course being taught by Percival Everett, the character, titled Nonsense. In the book on page 100, Percival Everett exemplifies just how important the title is to its course, “I suppose what we’re talking about in this class is art. If it’s not, then I’m lost, but of course I’m lost anyway. At least I’ve been lost before and it looks just like this. Let’s consider art as a kind of desacralization, perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that is undoubtedly connected or at the very least traceable to an amalgam of very common yet highly unusual sociohistorical factors” (Everett, 100). Throughout the writing, Everett The Character, has a tendency to abruptly change the direction of the course and go on rambles. This is proven on page 100, when Everett’s speech has a lot of length but not a lot of sense and meaning that anyone but himself can understand. This goes back to the course’s title of Nonsense. During his ramblings on page 100 Percival Everett The Character appears to be speaking a lot about nothing. But in reality, there is a meaning behind his words that nobody else can understand. This is possibly the reason for the name changes throughout Everett The Author’s writing. He appears to be changing these names to be confusing or different, when in reality they could have a meaning that no one understands. Based on what we have read and learned from this course and reading I am Not Sidney Poitier, we have found that Percival Everett, the author, enjoys controlling what he writes but likes to leave the perception up to his readers. This explains many of his ideas that occur in the book. He leaves his readers thinkING and curious about the meanings behind his words.

There are many reasons why Percival Everrett could have changed the nuns’ names in the book I am Not Sidney Poitier. He could have changed names with the intention of having meaning but confused the readers with nonsense. His meaning could have been to compare Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier. Whether or not the reader understands his decision, his writing choices have meaning. Percival Everett was trying to convey many of his ideas through the book I am Not Sidney Poitier. He changed so many of the concepts due to the main idea of Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier, the nuns being one of them. When we first started reading the book, we did not really think too much about the name changes of the nuns but after we started this assignment and started thinkING, we truly began to analyze it. We found that Percival Everett had multiple themes that he might have been trying to convey to his readers. The most prominent being to play into the theme of Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier. One of our course epigraphs is a quote from Erasure written by the author Percival Everett, “it is crazy that a sentence can ever be understood”. This demonstrates how Percival Everett’s writing can be connected to our course, because it doesn’t always seem like he has a specific rhyme or reason for doing the things he does. He often leaves it up to his readers on how they want to interpret his work. In this course, we as students are able to make observations and come to conclusions about topics in the books we read. We also get to discuss with our peers our opinions and ideas and share how we came to those conclusions. We did that for this collaborative essay, we came together and shared our ideas and came up with our own opinion on if the name changes for the nuns was important. Any of the different interpretations listed above could be the reason Everett changed the nuns’ names, but in the end, it is up to the reader to decide what they believe.

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