The Inner Conflict

In the novel Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, the readers explore the life of an outcast inflicted with the daily struggle of Tourette’s. The main character, Lionel Essrog, works for a detective agency run by Frank Minna who serves as a father figure to him. After the tragic murder of Frank Minna, Lionel is determined to catch the killer at any cost. Even if this never ending bender of vengeance leads him to turn his back on everyone and lose trust for his own family. Throughout the novel we see two sides of Lionel, one of low self-esteem and the other a courageous side. I will begin by analyzing the contradictions of Lionel’s character through the use of his self-esteem issues and his courage to pursue the chase to find Minna’s killer. Finally, I will be discussing what actor I believe would be best to portray the strange and peculiar image of Lionel.


At first in the novel we learn about Lionel’s past and witness various indications of how he views himself. Lionel grew up in a foster home and was later adopted by Minna, along with some other boys in need of a home. He was always the outcast whether it be at the foster home or at school. His Tourette’s was always something that got in the way or caused him to be judged or scrutinized by others around him. Never being fully accepted by his surroundings caused him to perhaps feel worse about himself. After all, Minna’s nickname for Lionel has always been “freak show”, which in itself is insulting enough to make you question your own self-worth. The first few passages of the book help to illustrate his views surrounding his identity. Lionel first describes himself as the following, “I am a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk of filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s” (1). The chapter does not begin with Lionel describing his appearance but rather how he is his own disease and nothing more. Another passage later on gives us more depth into how the character perceives himself to be. The passage reads as follows, “I became a walking joke, preposterous, improbable, unseeable. My outbursts, utterances and tapping’s were white noise or static, irritating but tolerated (…) I wasn’t tough, provocative, stylish, self-destructive, sexy (…) I was merely crazy” (84). The readers get the true sense of Lionel’s lack of self-esteem as he continues to describe himself throughout the book as some kind of freak, loner and unaccepted person who remains in the shadows of those around him. Yet, as I will discuss later on, the reader’s are taken aback by Lionel’s courage to prevail through his self doubt.


In addition, the readers are able to see the character push through his Tourette’s and gather up the courage to pursue the chase of finding Frank Minna’s killer. Although the character has described himself only in a negative light and continues to discuss his Tourette’s as some sort of curse, he never seems to allow it to hold him back when it comes to investigating the murder. His tics can be debilitating and hard to control. An example is when he heard the news of Minna’s passing. Lionel began to shout out some verbal tics and even began tapping the doctors shoulder and fixing his collar (34). Picturing this gives the reader a sense of embarrassment considering a grown man is touching and playing with a doctor’s wardrobe like a frustrated infant. However, these embarrassing and random outbursts do not seem to hinder his ability to continue his courageous path. An example is when he is speaking with the investigator, Lionel began to blurt out a bunch of random pieces of information that do not quite add up and finally blurts out the utterances of “fuckmeblackcop” (112). This is a good example of how although his Tourette’s can be hurtful and raise a little hell, he still has one goal in mind and refuses to let it stand in the way. Another concrete example of Lionel’s courage, despite his low self-esteem, is when he confronts his adoptive brother Tony about Minna’s murder. He begins to question Tony and his involvement in the case after accusing Minna of being two different people. Shortly after Tony pulls out a gun in order to gain some dominance over the conversation, Lionel decides to still test his patience with a sarcastic remark. Tony begins waving the gun around, most people would try to comply, Lionel decides to test Tony by saying “I suppose it was the smart Frank Minna who taught you to wave guns around” (184). The true example of Lionel’s courage is when he is seated in the same room as the Fujisaki members. Fujisaki was the murderous group that ordered the kill on Frank Minna. They were very dangerous men that people should not double cross. Shortly after courageously speaking with the members of Fujisaki he begins to tic and does not stop until he is escorted out of the room after shouting “fuck me Fujisaki” (279). This was very courageous considering he was supposed to play it cool and was not let Fujisaki know he knows who they are. However, his Tourette’s overtook him and allowed him to have that extra edge of courage to confront the killers of Minna.


Finally, the actor I would choose to portray the image of Lionel Essrog’s character is Leonardo DiCaprio. I believe this actor would play Lionel’s character beautifully because of the research he does in order to understand the character’s struggles. Another reason why I chose Leonardo DiCaprio is based on his amazing performance in the movie “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” He was so believable in his performance that when it came time for the awards many of the interviewers thought that he was actually Autistic. I feel he would master the verbal and physical tics down to a tee.


In conclusion, Lionel Essrog is a character I feel everyone can relate to, this sense of self-doubt and lack of self-esteem but always being able to rise to the occasion. Although he views his disorder as negative it can prove positive at times, whether it be to get away from investigators or confronting evil. This character speaks to the readers in an interesting way, causing one to re-evaluate their perceptions of themselves and perhaps see things in a better light. Many people would like to have the ability to accept their illnesses and still thrive to succeed no matter what setbacks are up ahead. Or perhaps see the positives in their illness and develop it as a strength. Lionel has what we all contain as readers, a little bit of negative self-talk and a lot of courage. Life is a long road of unknowns but Lionel has taught us not to dwell on the negative because it can anchor you down but, rather to push through and never give up. Or as Lionel would say “Put an egg in your shoe and beat it. Make like a tree and leave. Tell your story walking” (311).


Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.


One thought on “The Inner Conflict

  1. You make some interesting points about Lionel’s character. You do a good job of dissecting his relationship to his own condition.

    For future assignments: Try to incorporate more evidence. This paper suffers from a bit of a lack of engagement with the novel. You don’t have many citations, and some of them are quite short. This doesn’t give you enough meat to really talk about in your paper. You make it more difficult for yourself by using less evidence. You have an entire novel’s worth of material to choose from.


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