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The Bourne Identity | Context


The World during the 1970s

The events within The Bourne Identity take place in the late 1970s, in Europe and the United States, and the novel's setting includes several important governmental agencies and locations. The novel also references historical events whose impact—even though they may have taken place 50 years or so before the 70s—still reverberate in the culture and in the characters' lives.

Baader-Meinhof Gang

Newspaper articles in the novel, which are actual newspaper articles, report the villain Carlos as being connected to the Baader-Meinhof gang. Also known as the Red Army Faction or RAF, this German terrorist organization was sympathetic to groups ranging from the Communist Party (political party that advocates for a government-run economic system) to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (self-declared terrorist organization). Its members were responsible for more than 30 deaths. In The Bourne Identity the super villain Carlos is rumored to have ties to the group.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

The Central Intelligence Agency is the United States' most elite espionage agency. Founded in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), the 33rd president of the United States (1945–53), the CIA was first formed to set up a systematic way to organize intelligence and to advise the National Security Council (NSC), which was established around the same time. Both organizations were part of a post-World War II (1939–45) attempt to restructure the United States' military and intelligence agencies—for the purpose of assisting the president in shaping foreign policy. According to its own website, the CIA's historical mission has been, in part, to "secretly fund intelligence operations and conduct personnel actions outside of standard US Government procedures." Jason Bourne is not a CIA agent per se, but the clandestine Vietnam special operations group Operation Medusa is part of a CIA mission. Bourne's mentor and government contact before Bourne loses his memory is David Abbott of the CIA.

Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza is the Dallas, Texas, location of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–63), the 35th president of the United States (1961–63). The villain in the novel, Carlos, was reportedly an active participant in this assassination.

Grassy Knoll

The grassy knoll is the supposed location of a "second shooter" in President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The setting is an integral aspect of many conspiracy theories because no one has ever been able to prove there was a second shooter. In The Bourne Identity it is rumored that the evil assassin Carlos was the second shooter.

Mekong Delta

Known as South Vietnam's "rice bowl," the Delta had a population of almost six million people in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War (1954–75, civil conflict between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam) it was a stronghold of the Viet Cong (North Vietnam's communist guerilla army) and the site of thousands of Vietnamese civilian casualties. Jason Bourne and the other members of the clandestine special operations group Operation Medusa were based in the Mekong Delta.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created after World War II (1939–45) to prevent another European-wide conflict by establishing alliances—political and military—between countries. The Europe and United States of The Bourne Identity are very much in a NATO alliance in that their various governments and intelligence agencies are supposed to be in communication with each other. Whether or not those rules are followed is a different matter.

New York, New York

The New York City neighborhood most often mentioned in The Bourne Identity is the Upper East Side, an upper-class area that runs from south to north from approximately 59th to 96th Street and from east to west from Fifth Avenue to the East River. The clandestine setting of Treadstone Seventy-One is a brownstone at 139 East 71st Street.

Paris, France

Paris is one of the central locations of the action in The Bourne Identity. Most notable is the rue Saint-Honoré, the locale for the fictional fashion house Les Classiques. However, the actual Saint-Honoré is home to many fashion ateliers (studios). Over the course of the novel Bourne takes or follows various characters, including André François Villiers and Jacqueline Lavier to restaurants located in the French countryside just outside of Paris. These locales are perfect scenes for rendezvous and assignations, often co-housed in inns, and with very good food and wine.

The Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

The Pentagon is a five-sided building housing the headquarters of the United States military. It is also the location of a clandestine Treadstone Seventy-One meeting in the novel.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)

The Palestinian Liberation Organization, founded in 1964, began as a self-declared terrorist organization of the Palestinian people, engaging in acts of terrorism throughout the 70s and 80s and calling for the "destruction of the State of Israel." However, in the 90s the PLO denounced terrorism and became the "official representative" for negotiations with Israel. In The Bourne Identity Carlos is rumored to be working with the PLO on his terrorist schemes.


At the time of The Bourne Identity's writing, public pay phones (often in phone booths) were the most secure form of communication. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) and the Internet did not yet exist. However, the Concorde airplane flew magnates and diplomats from New York to Paris in fewer than four hours. So it was conceivable that the CIA agent in the novel, Alexander Conklin, could fly from Washington D.C. to Paris in just six hours and 12 minutes. He plans to fly back to Washington D.C., the next day, specifically on the Concorde.

World Currency

As Jason Bourne moves from France to Switzerland and back to France, his currency and means of payment change at every border—though this is never discussed in the novel. In the days before the European Union (1993) and the Euro (noncash monetary unit introduced in 1999, currency followed in 2002) were established, French and Swiss francs were separate currencies with separate values.

Zurich, Switzerland

The largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is also extremely beautiful because of its location on Lake Zurich. As the center of infamous "Swiss banking" (banks not obligated to reveal information about their clients and funds), the city was often the locale for less than savory financial transactions. Jason Bourne goes to Zurich because the photographic negative embedded in his hip contains the number of a Swiss bank account.

World War II

World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. Almost all of the European nations, as well as the United States, and many countries throughout the South Pacific and Asia were engaged in conflict. Many of the involved countries allied with each other. Germany, Japan, and Italy were the main Axis powers, fighting for the cause of fascism and totalitarianism, which are political ideologies based on fervent nationalism and dictatorial government rule. The Allies were the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France—and China to a lesser degree. Switzerland, located between France and Germany, remained neutral, and as such became the "banker" for the various conflicting sides. At the end of the war, the bloodiest in world history, stretches of Europe had been destroyed in bombing raids, and the United States had released nuclear bombs on Japan. World War II set the stage for the Cold War (1947–1991), an ideological conflict between the democratic Western nations and what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) over the spread of communism and nuclear proliferation. This postwar world is the setting of The Bourne Identity.

The Cold War (1947–91)

After World War II (1939–45) ended, the allied forces of the United States and the Soviet Union (also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR from 1917/22–91) broke their alliance. The Soviet Union took over the governments of the following countries—some of which have changed names and borders since: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The German city of Berlin epitomized the line between the communist East and the democratic West. A thick, heavily patrolled wall divided the war-ravaged city in half. Over the next 44 years, the two super powers—the United States and the Soviet Union—waged an ideological Cold War over the spread of communism (political system where the means of production are controlled by the government) and nuclear proliferation. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower feared what came to be known as the Domino Theory, the idea that if one country fell to communism it would lead to other countries doing the same. Soon enough, the world would be divided into communist states and free states. Each side would have its own nuclear arsenal pointed at the others' closest borders.

The peak of the Cold War was arguably the Cuban missile crisis (1962). For 13 days Americans waited in horror and terror to learn whether U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917–63), the 35th president of the United States (1961–63), would engage in nuclear conflict with communist Cuba. When the standoff ended peacefully, citizens may have been relieved, but some military leaders were thought to regret the opportunity to finally drop the bombs they'd been stockpiling for a generation.

Jason Bourne's ideas about international relations and statecraft (the skillful management of state and governmental affairs) are intimately linked with the ideas and culture of the Cold War. Bourne believes in the idea of a world divided into two sides: communist and democratic, good and evil, East and West. The primary mission for a spy—whether for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or an even more clandestine operation such as The Bourne Identity's Vietnam special force Operation Medusa—was to fight communism and avoid Russian infiltration of America and its allies. The character of Jason Bourne's nemesis, the "assassin of Europe," Carlos, is even more terrifying because he claims no allegiance to any particular state or political point of view. He's in the killing game for pure cash and chaos.

Marie St. Jacques's expertise in international finance and the way states trade money for arms and favors is quite contemporary. In The Bourne Identity's time and place, there were few women with such an occupation and expertise. Furthermore, Marie thinks of the world economy as not simply an exchange between official state treasuries and markets; she knows secret transactions (of weapons, bribes, or illegal drugs) are occurring all the time across borders.

The Vietnam War and Covert Operations

The Vietnam War took place between 1954 and 1975. In allying with the South Vietnamese to fight communist North Vietnam, the United States hoped to neutralize the communist presence in the Eastern Hemisphere. In The Bourne Identity Operation Medusa is a military mission that is more secret than the most secretive of governmental agency's (CIA) operations. Also, Operation Medusa is based on the actual secret—and viciously violent—Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations of the same era. Many of The Bourne Identity's characters were a part of the fictional Operation Medusa. Jason Bourne himself was one of Operation Medusa's most ruthless killers. The CIA operative David Abbott led Operation Medusa. Philippe d'Anjou, who works at the fashion house Les Classiques and turns out to be a cohort of the evil assassin Carlos, is also a former Medusa soldier.

Operation Medusa's inspiration may be the Phoenix Program. In 1968, just after an offensive that officially increased American involvement in Vietnam, a merged CIA/military group organized the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency (a term for when one group attempts to counter another group that is fighting it secretly from within) designed to attack the North Vietnamese who were fighting the South Vietnamese from the inside. Based on clandestine operations, interrogation of prisoners, and murder, the Phoenix Program is not regarded as a success. In fact, the Phoenix Program and other similar programs contributed to the American people's distrust of veterans and the United States military following the war.

The Spy Thriller Genre

The first spy novel is widely agreed to be English writer Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901). This novel established the conventions from which the genre has grown, from the literary espionage of English novelist Graham Greene (1904–91) to Ian Fleming's (1908–64) glamorous "007" James Bond series:

  • Lone protagonist: Usually male, the hero must be handsome, irresistibly attractive to women. He must recover from injury and escape from danger like a superhero. He would have access to the latest gadgets and technology—but also be able to improvise deadly weapons from pocket change and loose produce. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne doesn't begin the novel with particularly attractive personality characteristics: he's brutal, meets Marie St. Jacques by kidnapping her at gunpoint, and attacks before asking questions. However, after surviving multiple gunshots, antagonists, and potential femme fatales, he turns out to be well meaning and playing on the side of the good guys.
  • International antagonists: Jason's Bourne's enemies and pursuers are French, Swiss, Polish, Russo-Venezuelan, American, and (in the past, before the novel's story begins) Vietnamese. The spy genre requires a world stage to gin up excitement and intrigue.
  • Topical conflicts: As in most spy novels, the plot of The Bourne Identity relies on knowledge of European politics and major world conflicts from the novel's era. Whether his story resolves at the end of the novel or not, there would always be new nemeses and horrors for Jason Bourne to address. The villain Carlos remains uncaptured in the end.
  • Travelogue of exotic or foreign locales: The spy genre is meant to be an escape for readers. This is not domestic fiction, with the conflicts taking place between family members in the living room. Instead, the whole world is a stage for the action, and writers like Robert Ludlum add elements of a travelogue—meaning they offer descriptive details—to their stories and settings. It would be possible to take The Bourne Identity tours of Zurich and Paris. The locales are real and beautiful.

Amnesia and Other Mental Disorders

Amnesia describes a condition during which a person loses memories, including facts, information, and experiences. However, the loss of someone's sense of identity is more fictional than factual. While many trauma and injury victims experience partial amnesia, Jason Bourne's full retrograde amnesia (he can't remember anything about his past) would be uncommon in real life. Dissociative amnesia is a condition that causes memory loss as the result of trauma. In The Bourne Identity Dr. Geoffrey Washburn suggests to Bourne that his memories may return as the result of traumatic triggers. This theory holds true throughout the novel as Bourne experiences panic symptoms—racing heart, difficulty breathing, and perspiration—when events remind him of Operation Medusa.

Jason Bourne's amnesia feeds into modern ideas about trauma and the brain—particularly for soldiers after combat. In the novel psychiatrist Dr. Morris Panov misdiagnoses Bourne as a paranoid schizophrenic (disconnection between perception and reality characterized by suspicion of others) with multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder, a rare condition where trauma disconnects a person from their sense of identity).

However, it is more likely that Bourne suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) condition where a trauma causes a person to experience stress or fear even when they are no longer in danger. PTSD wasn't added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III, published by the American Psychiatric Association to standardize the classification of mental disorders) until 1980, the same year The Bourne Identity was published. Until that time, veterans who experienced post-combat trauma received diagnoses of shell shock or mental illness. In fact, the huge postwar influx of troubled Vietnam veterans led to the development of a PTSD diagnosis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or "on edge"
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts
  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame

Jason Bourne experiences each of these symptoms over the course of the novel. The most notable of these are his flashbacks and bad dreams—or even waking nightmares. When he is in a traumatic or painful situation (which occurs frequently considering he is also avoiding a killer), he often returns to the scene of his worst moment in Southeast Asia with bombs exploding around him in a jungle. When he becomes convinced he is actually the assassin Cain (with little evidence to confirm Cain is a killer), Bourne attempts to leave Marie St. Jacques—a definite example of "distorted feelings like guilt or blame." The most obvious of Bourne's symptoms is his total amnesia. While he does experience significant brain damage after his initial injuries at the beginning of the novel, his trauma plays an instrumental role in "protecting" him from his own terrible memories.

The Series

The Bourne Supremacy (1986)

Jason Bourne, now going by his real name, David Webb, is living happily in Hong Kong with Marie St. Jacques. He learns that someone else is committing crimes under the Bourne alias. He goes back into the spy business in order to capture the imposter and to avert a civil war in China.

The Bourne Ultimatum (1990)

Now, Jason Bourne, a.k.a. David Webb, has children with Marie St. Jacques. Again, they are living in relative peace until Carlos, the villain of the original The Bourne Identity, appears to pursue his old enemy. This novel features the return of Operation Medusa, the special operations mercenary fighting force in which Jason Bourne learned to be a killer.

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