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The Bourne Identity | Themes


Limits of Violence

Jason Bourne is a damaged man. In the course of The Bourne Identity he endures almost unimaginable violence, from multiple gunshot wounds to near-broken fingers—and his original head injury. He is also capable of inflicting substantial violence. However, he does not emerge unscathed from the torrent of spilled blood. As a man, as a lover, he is unsure of who he is, perpetually doubting himself and experiencing violent flashbacks he cannot control. In Port Noir, Dr. Geoffrey Washburn tells Bourne that his pain will signal him to stop and listen to his surfacing memories. The conflict here is that Bourne does not stop when he is injured or in the kind of pain that would cause any other man to give up.

One way in which Bourne's superhuman qualities can seem justified is in the backstory about his training and missions as part of Operation Medusa, the clandestine special operations group he served in during the Vietnam War. The history of the Vietnam War is incredibly bloody. Soldiers committed inconceivable acts of violence against Vietnamese civilians and, as a result, were ruined in mind and body.

Perhaps Ludlum intended Bourne's capacity to inflict and endure violence to be a heroic trait. Or possibly his almost superhuman tolerance was meant to prove his damaged psyche. Though, as a writer, Ludlum seems to revel in the violence and gore of Bourne's journey. However, the effect of Jason Bourne spending the majority of the novel aghast at the idea that he could be a ruthless assassin is a residual sorrow for those who have been to war. This is at the heart of The Bourne Identity. A consequence of war, for individuals, is the discovery of their own capacity for violence, something powerful enough to ruin a human psyche.

Lie of American Power

At the time of The Bourne Identity's 1980 publication, the United States was at the nadir of its Cold War power. The office of the president had not recovered from the Watergate conspiracy and President Richard Nixon's subsequent resignation (1974). The arms race with the U.S.S.R. was deadlocked. The Vietnam War's high casualty rate and lack of popular support left the idea of American exceptionality in serious doubt.

Ludlum's novel explores this lack of faith and trust in the government and the political system as a whole. As a traumatized Vietnam mercenary, but also a victim of a failed CIA covert operation, Jason Bourne exemplifies lost American power. As Bourne flees across Europe, officials at the Pentagon and Treadstone Seventy-One argue over how and why their experiment went out of control. Jason Bourne is himself like what contemporary readers might know as a "rogue state." That is, a national power so out of control it will inflict damage inside and outside its own borders.

Ludlum shows faith in the system by creating Bourne as a character with inherent and instinctive morality as well as violence. Bourne is not a Terminator, mowing down everything in his path. Nor is he a James Bond, debonair but also ultimately selfish. Like the best epitome of Ludlum's vision of the United States, Bourne tries to do the right thing, even when he cannot explain why.

The Search for Identity

Jason Bourne's amnesia is almost perfect. He remembers nothing but his reflexes for violence and self-defense. Like a child, he is in a perpetual state of wide-eyed wonder. However, he is not childlike in his appetite for physical and emotional love with Marie St. Jacques. Nor is he childlike in his burgeoning awareness of the role he plays in pursuing Carlos.

Ludlum's protagonist may not remember his own name, but he knows what is right on a basic and instinctual moral level. The implication here may be that human beings are not the philosopher John Locke's tabula rasa or "blank slate." Even in a most extreme stripped down and injured state, Bourne knows the difference between right and wrong. He kills Chernak, a Nazi. He protects Marie St. Jacques from sexual assault. He respects André François Villiers's age and grief at his wife's betrayal with Carlos.

When Bourne believes he is the killer Cain, he despises himself and thinks he is unworthy of Marie's love. Bourne may be literally searching for his actual name, but he is quite clear on the quality of who he is and who he would like to be.

Power of True Love

Jason Bourne and Marie St. Jacques develop deeply intense feelings for each other in a very quick time frame. Initially, Jason kidnaps Marie at gunpoint, using her as a sort of human shield to escape his pursuers in Zurich. Marie escapes, but she doesn't know she has played into the enemy's hands. The thugs who are after Jason kidnap her and are in the process of raping her when Jason appears and saves her.

It is a strange moment. Marie is naked, in pain, and terrified. Jason is so badly injured in the ensuing fight that he doesn't realize she has taken him to a nearby village, found a doctor for his wounds, and is nursing him back to health. Their initial romance feels a bit contrived. How could such an intelligent and cultured woman as Marie fall in love with the man who is responsible for her attack? Yes, she chooses to concentrate on his act of saving her instead of his taking her captive.

Do Jason and Marie experience true love? By the end of the novel Marie is the only person who can save him from his own self-destructive instincts to return to New York and meet his nemesis Carlos for almost certain death. She remains loyal to him even as she discovers he is David Webb rather than Jason Bourne, that he had a wife and family, and that he has killed far more people than she ever knew. She believes in his essential goodness.

For his part Jason could have chosen a less accomplished and cultured woman—more of a classic "Bond girl," all body and little personality. Marie is a fully fleshed out character; she has a history and a doctorate in Economics. Each time Jason seems to remember a piece of his past, whether he thinks he is the assassin Cain or worries that his amnesia must be a cover for an evil persona, he tries to leave Marie. Each time, he also reaffirms his love for her and continues to believe in the idea that she can save him from himself. This is the power of true love as depicted in the heightened circumstances of The Bourne Identity's moral universe.

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