The Briefcase by Rebecca Makkai
The way people twist and create new realities to forget the old never ceases to amaze and fuel the imagination. People strive to forget old, unpleasant, or in the case of Rebecca Makkai’s “The Briefcase ,” life threatening identities or existences motivated purely on self-preservation. Everybody can relate to the feeling of wanting to simply step into another’s life to avoid conflict in yours. In the short story, “The Briefcase,” this idea is taken to the extreme when a political prisoner switches places with a physics professor and takes the facade to a new level.
People will stop at nothing, even lying to themselves, to avoid hardship and escape from the problems or situations they are placed in. The story is very open to interpretation due to the fact that the main character, location, and time are all unknown. The author simply sets the stage vaguely to allow the reader to immerse him/herself into the story. Without any boundaries of time, location, or ethnicity any reader can place themselves into the position of the main character.
If fact, all that is known of the main character is that he is a man, once a chief, now a political prisoner alongside 200 others being taken away to an unspecified location. You can sense the gravity and desperation of his emotions in this situation, “He thought of other chains of men on other islands of the Earth, and he thought how since there have been men there have been prisoners. He thought of mankind as a line of miserable monkeys chained at the wrist dragging each other back into the ground” (534).
This quote shows the man’s mindset at this point, which would not be too far off any others in his position. He is in a desperate situation, so desperate in fact that he is doubting the goodness of mankind as a whole. The man has a strong desire to be free, as we all would, and takes advantage of a slipped handcuff to slip away from the doomed line of prisoners. This escape sets off a chain of events that allows the ex-prisoner to obtain a new life. In his absence the guards simple take a man off the street, a physics professor, and puts the professor in the place of the escaped main character.
In his capture the man is able to obtain the detained professor’s briefcase, containing all of his work and information, and his suit. This situation presents the escapee a change to start anew. This is a very interesting turn the story and the decision to steal the man’s identity is crucial to the moral of this story. Faced with the same options in the same environment what would most people do It is wrong to let an innocent take your place in punishment, and even worse to steal the man’s identity, yet faced with this conundrum with life on the line most people would convince themselves it is the right thing to do.
The main character weighs his options at this point. Does he go on and live this lie to whatever end Or does his conscience get the better of him and force him to reveal himself At this point the man makes up his mind with a steely resolve, “this felt not like a robbery but an apology, a way to put the world back in balance. The professor would not die, because he himself would become the professor, and he would live” (536). The decision to keep the professors clothes and belongings to become him is no small task, yet the man seems to be very comfortable with it.
He rationalizes the innocent professor taking his place in saying the professor won’t die because he will simple fill the professor’s shoes. From the outside this seems like a cold and heartless dead, yet placed in the same position with the same opportunities would most people’s decisions be so different The man takes this lie and runs away with it. After moving five cities east he begins his new life as the professor. He gives his new name, writes to the professor’s old students and wife, even grows a beard similar to the picture of the professor he had.
Years pass by and he slips deeper and deeper into the lie, creating a self-caused delusional state. “Today, his hands smelled of ink, when for thirty years they had smelled of leeks. They were the hands of the professor; ergo, he was now the professor” (536). He mails letters, requests money, signs his name at the post office, even takes a lover all under the guise of the professor. The main character at this point is so deep into this lie, this alter ego, and his ticket to freedom that he convinces himself that he is the professor.
He plans for every situation and is very careful to cover his tracks, yet you can sense him really start to enjoy his new role. But there is a hitch in his plan that he did not foresee. The wife of the real professor, as some might suspect, would try to find her husband. After all if you were his wife and he disappeared one day without a trace most would peruse him. Finally the story climaxes with the wife confronting the man. This is the most important and interesting part of the story, proving that people will convince themselves of anything to maintain a pleasant life.
Even when faced with the wife, who knows her husband, he tries to convince her to be with him, that he will treat her children well. It is as if he is in love with this woman due to the fact that his alter ego is supposed to love this woman. He finds her the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He has convinced himself that he is the professor to the point that he is in love with the professor’s wife. Now, if this isn’t denial in its fullest stage then he has simply gone crazy. Even as the wife goes to the police he remains calm in his lie.
He truly believes it so much that he knows someone down the line will believe him and he will be able to continue to live this way. This story proved people will stop at nothing, even lying to themselves, to avoid hardship and escape from the problems or situations they are placed in. Not because this character did what he did, but that the audience can relate and see themselves making the same decisions to save their own life. At a glance it is easy to judge this man in his actions, which are terrible and wrong. But if put in the same place how many of us would go to similar lengths