“Identity Crisis:” How the Characters in Ali Smith’s “There but for the” Struggle with the Knowledge of who they are and and the Reality of the World Around them

therebutforthe Ali-Smith-007 Throughout Ali Smith’s  There but for the, many of the characters in this novel struggle with who they are.  The term “identity crisis” would be an understatement for some these characters.  However, each character’s poor sense of identity is represented by a struggle within the self.  This lack of self-knowledge towards their own identities leads to their own madness to develop.  The first character that I would like to discuss is Mark, who strangely enough most of this story is centered around.  Mark is confounded by his own sexuality and his is disillusioned with his relationship to reality.  And as much as he tries to keep it under control, he has urges that go beyond our everyday parameters.  As well his touch with reality has been lost when we find out he still talks to his mother even though she died 47 years earlier.

Another character to point out would be Genevieve who struggles with who she is by speaking for others such as in the first chapter entitled There, where she discusses Mark’s sexual orientation out in the open, She does this knowing that he is a closeted homosexual which ends up looking as a disrespectful gesture mainly because she takes away Mark’s own ability to be out in open himself that he is gay.  In that sense, Genevieve does this because with all of the social problems she suffers from, she feels like this older sister or even motherly figure towards Mark and his dilemma but in actuality struggles with this care for herself.

To conclude there are other characters who have represented this side of a lost sense of identity, but the two best examples can be seen through Mark and Genevieve.  Mark represents the need for acceptance for who he is, whether that is presented by his homosexuality (including his somewhat scandalous relationship with a man 20 years younger than him); or his disturbed relationship with his mother even after her death.  Genevieve represents the need to be a caregiver for Mark even though she has a lot to take of in terms of her own issues.

There “But” For The

After our class discussion about There But For The, I realized how intrigued I was with the section titled “But” and how Ali Smith utilizes the multiple definitions of the word throughout the chapter. The last section of the chapter, titled “But (my dear Mark)” writes that “but…is very occasionally a preposition but is mostly a conjunction,” telling us that Smith mainly used the word as a conjunction throughout the chapters. She defines the word conjunction using the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary and deconstructs the definition to explain or wrap up the chapter “But” and tell of what’s to come. The section ends with the quote “the way things connect,” and this is appropriate because the chapter was the beginning of explaining how everyone was connected.

I used the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary to define the word “but,” since it’s the name of the section. Here is a link to the online dictionary. I won’t quote the entire definition to try to keep this blog post from being excessively long, so check out the whole thing on the website! Ali Smith writes that “but is mostly a conjunction,” and the dictionary defines “‘but’ conj: contrary to expectation; used to emphasize the word that follows it.” These two definitions speak volumes to how Smith laid out the novel. In this second section of the novel, Miles acts contrary to how everyone at the dinner table expected him to. He seems completely fine throughout the entire dinner, as we see through Mark’s narration, and then quietly goes upstairs and locks himself away in the house. The “The” section describes the situation after Miles already locked himself in, whereas the second section backtracks and shows us how out of the blue this was. From Mark’s point of view, nothing was really sad during the dinner that could’ve triggered this response; the first definition of the word “but” embodies how everyone felt about Miles’ actions.

The second definition of “but” as a conjunction applies to how the chapters connect to each other. “For” takes a more intimate look at Miles’ life and the struggles he has been through; the first section briefly goes into his past and the second section is narrated by a man that doesn’t know Miles that well. Using but as a way to “emphasize the word that follows it” draws attention to the “For” chapter, where we begin to understand Miles as a person rather than a strange celebrity locked inside of a house.

Smith writes that she is focusing on the use of but as a conjunction, saying that it “is very occasionally a preposition.” I think it’s still important to examine it’s use a preposition when analyzing the novel. The dictionary simply defines but as “prep: except.” It may be a little far fetched, but if we take this definition along with the definitions of conjunction that Smith utilizes in the section, it can be applied to the connection between Mark and Miles. Mark was the outsider during this chapter; the guests at dinner were fascinated with his mother’s suicide and we see, right after Mark sees Miles on his way to the room, the guests talking about Mark and his mother while he acts as an outsider looking in. He stands outside of the group and listens in. Miles is in a similar position, for he physically excludes himself from the group by leaving and going upstairs. These parallels are drawn in the “but” chapter; Miles and Mark are the exceptions, are outside of the group, making the preposition definition of but applicable. Some intriguing bit of information that the dictionary offered was the etymology of the word. It reads “etymology: Anglo-Saxon butan, meaning ‘outside of’ or ‘without’, from be by + utan out.” This ties in to the connection between Miles and Mark, that exist outside of the dinner party.

Smith’s decision to title the second section of There But For The “but” has many meanings and leaving it up to interpretation. Using the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary was imperative to understanding this section, for initially I used Webster’s and the Oxford Dictionary, but then realized that Smith specifically points to a dictionary. The definition provided in that particular dictionary tied “But” together for me!

There But For The

This was honestly one of my favorite books that we read in this class and I guess, subconsciously, I saved it for last. What struck me post about this book was its structure. I love books and movies that are told from different perspectives. You get a rounder view through other people’s lenses and what is most fascinating about that kind of structure in terms of this book is that we never get Miles’ perspective, yet the entire book is about him- he is the main character. We get this round sense of who Miles is, where he comes from, and the people he interacts with- yet we never get the opportunity to be inside his brain, to hear his thoughts.

The biggest question (and one that stays unresolved) throughout this book is why did Miles choose to lock himself in Gen and Eric Lee’s guest bedroom? While there is no definite answer and you’d probably have to get in contact with Ali Smith to find one, I’m going to make my own hypothesis here. From what we’ve gathered about him through this book and is that he is a person willing to talk to anyone and he makes people come out of their shells. He brought Anna into the “popular” group on their trip and took her from being an outcast into being surrounded by people. He talked to Mark once and he was invited to a dinner party. He always made sure to visit the mother of his dead friend Jennifer on the anniversary of her death. And he made quite the impact on Brooke and made her feel important. All of these examples say a lot about his character and the kind of person he was and so I don’t think he locked himself in the bedroom to be a burden, I don’t think he did it for attention… I think he did it to make people look differently at their lives.

When Anna receives the email telling her that Miles is locked in the guest bedroom and can she please help!, she starts thinking about Miles and remembers that he was the one that pulled her out of her awkward, introvert nature and made her enjoy her time on the trip, surrounded by people. He challenged her way of thinking: “He is very witty, and definitely clever; he is probably one of the ones on this trip who are going to Oxford or wherever it is they’re all going. But he doesn’t sound rich or like he goes to a posh school. Also, he has already really made her laugh.” (page 43) He introduced her to kids, he wanted her to sit next to him, he retrieved her passport for her so she could leave if she really wanted to. This is someone that made an impression on her entire trip and changed the way it could have been. For Mark, Miles was someone he met and was immediately drawn to. Mark was invited to this “interesting people” dinner party and knew immediately that he would feel more comfortable if Miles was there because Miles had a way of putting people at ease. May was an old woman that he visited every year on the same day because her daughter meant something to him and he left an impression on her life, the way no one else could have. And finally, Miles made Brooke feel like it was a good thing to be smart and to be clever and this was something that was beaten into her brain by her teacher as being a bad thing. This girl needed to find Miles, and thus Anna, to know that being clever was a really good thing to be.

So, where does that bring us? As readers, I think we’re a little disappointed that there is no resolution as to why Miles locked himself in the bedroom. In this time, we all crave the resolution of anything we read and watch. But that’s why I think this book is so brilliant- there is no resolution. One day Miles just decides to leave and he does. Everyone camped outside his window think he’s still there and Gen is refusing to let them think otherwise. But we never find out WHY. I can’t answer that question, I can only hypothesize. I think it was an effort to change everyone’s thinking and to be that eye-opener. But, truly, it’s for the individual reader to ponder.

In terms of this class, it ties in because it takes place several times in Greenwich, which is a really important part of London’s history and the idea of Englishness. This place is the 0 degrees longitude and is, for many obvious reasons, an important historical location for London. I think it was an interesting book to read because Ali Smith, a female writer, changes the structure of the novel and encourages writers to think differently, like Miles does.

I found an interesting video on Ali Smith’s speech on “Form Vs. Content: How authors should approach the task of writing a novel today.” She’s a feisty woman who is really interesting to listen to and expands the way a novel was written.

There. But. For. The. Why.


In or at that place! There is the house. There is that man, still hovering at the window. There is the world. There is a stranger in the house.
How much do we know about people really? People we met years ago, felt  a connection with, maybe spotted them some change for lunch or held the door open for them. We remember them, think of them sometimes even. Lives are bustling around us and dilemmas come and go and sometimes we are confronted by the question of life. Miles, or Milo (its sounds so much better that way) is a man who helps, answers question and cares for others, strangers even. His life is in pieces because we see it from different people, not from him. He has a fragmented life as he walks up the stairs to the room that will be his escape from life. Miles is there, he is a being who is there in front of us in a pixelated form. The rest of the novel has to work on putting the puzzle pieces of Miles together.
On the contrary! But, maybe it isn’t true. But, how does that work? But shouldn’t we choose the better path? But, how do we live a life with a man locked upstairs?
There are so many questions is life! Brooke is a perfect example of this; curious and thirsty for knowledge! When a child writes a story they tell the truth, it may be under the guise of imagination and fancy, but it is entirely and brutally honest. Brooke is Miles’s friend, she understands him better than anyone else. But, what can a child do under the shadow of a world that does not understand Miles.
With the object or purpose of.
What is the purpose of shutting yourself in a room in a strangers home? The narrative of this story is broken, there are gaps and spaces that can never be filled. For what purpose?! Miles is a man but is he masculine? Can he fill the role that society deems right for a man? He is giving and loving and caring and lost in time. He seems like a floating ghost of a man throughout the narrative, no one really knows or maybe just don’t care to know who or what he is.
Is used for this and that. The man is upstairs. The window is shut. What does the note say?
Miles is still upstairs, months have passed, time is no longer a concern. His presence is normal now, extraordinarily normal. The home is too perfect to break down the door. Popularity springs from a mans struggle with life. Silent protest doesn’t even get him anywhere. At least now, in this room, he is in control of something, even if its only within 4 walls.
If I could add a chapter to this book, I would title it WHY… It is a brilliant book with compelling narrative but I want to get into Miles head and ask him why all this happened. But, (there is that word again) maybe it is up to the reader to determine why. Because, “the fact is,” life is presented in fragments. It is up to us to piece them together to find meaning.

“There but for the” By: Ali Smith

“There but for the” By: Ali Smith


This interesting and captivating novel, “There but for the” by: Ali Smith had an example of how women occupied the space of London. This novel is of a newer based time frame, so the woman, Anna, in the novel has more rights than some other women in other novels like in “The Emperors Babe”. In this novel on page 36 of the “There” chapter, Anna describes her work place and how she did not enjoy it whatsoever. Unfortunately the decision to keep a job differs to people of different class. Anna needed the money, so that fact would alter her decision on if she would keep her job or not. On page 36 it states, “I bet you are broke because of the recession, or are you a student or a post-graduate? No, I had a job but I gave it up, Anna said, because the job I had was rubbish.” “In my job I had to make people matter not so much. That was what my job really was, though ostensibly I was there to make people matter.” I believe Anna here s describing a therapist or physiologist job she once had in the past. Since there was a recession going on, Anna most likely needed to be working to have some money to survive.

Here Anna was occupying the working space of London with the working class. She then goes on into further detail about the job she had on page 37, “This was what my job was. First, I had to get people to talk to me about stuff that happened to them, usually pretty horrible. That’s why they were having to tell me in the first place, so that I could help them. Then, because there was pressure on me, I had to put pressure on them, to fit these true stories, their whole life stories in some cases, on just two-thirds of one side of, do you know what A4 is?” I believe that this passage shows how women of the century have much more choice in what they want to be studying and what fields they want to be working in. I believe this shows that women are more independent in society and not as dependent on a man because of restrictions they faced in the past.

Another quote on the same page states, “But they told me how good I was at the job, then they gave me a promotion which meant I would make more money. But my new job was to make people redundant, the one’s who were doing my old job and weren’t good enough at getting peoples stories to be less long. So, in the end, I left.” This shows the power a woman has that she can actually make her own professional and educational choices in her life. On page 42 it talks about when Anna was 18 and coming home from the University. This shows how Anna was involved in her own life goals in London. Anna’s personal views and goals are accepted in this century of London. These passages describe that women are treated with more respect toward their aspirations and decisions they make in their lives.

There But For The


Ali Smith’s novel, There But For The tells the story of Miles Garth who locks himself in a strangers guest room at a dinner party gone wrong. He hardly communicates with anyone except for little notes, and nine year old Brooke. One of the things that I found interesting about this novel was that the story focuses on Miles, but it is told in the perspective from the people around him, who themselves have had minimal interaction with him.

Through all of these characters you are able to see little reflection of the character of Miles. You see that he is a generous person who lives to make the lives of everyone around him easier and make them happy. For Anna he was her friend on a school trip when she isolated herself. For Mark he was a friend who would discuss musicals and attend dinner parties with, May Young he visited her every year on the day of her daughters untimely death, and for Brooke he listens to her and helps her through her teacher bullying her. These reflections of character are all shown through these outside characters that help to tell the story of Miles, who we never hear his own perspective events. The only time we see anything form Miles it is through small pieces of writing, the story he wrote for Brooke, a note to Mark, a note to May, and the story that he won the contest with that allowed for him to meet Anna.

For me the lack of communication with Miles, and not being able to hear directly from him was frustrating. I deeply enjoyed this novel, but I wish that there was more information provided about Miles. The facts we know are introduced subtly, so upon my initial reading I did not pick them up. For example I originally missed the key point of Miles being sexually molested about his grandfather. On page 166 Jennifer tells May Young about Miles’s grandfather, “He said when he was small, Jennifer says, and his grandfather was still alive, his grandfather would have him to the tunes off the soundtrack record he had at his house of the Mary Poppins film.” I do not know how I originally missed that piece of information. It took me reviewing the novel to realize what was being said. The facts that we learn about Miles are all second hand, which sometimes can be frustrating and confusing. I think though that this provides a better view of his true character. In writing classes it is always said, “show don’t tell” this is a perfect example of that. We are shown Miles true character rather than told he was a nice guy. That would make for a far less interesting story, rather than the weaving together all of these narratives in order to get a feel for Miles character.

There But For The – The Burning Question

‘There but for the’ by Ali Smith is a unique read about a group of vaguely inter-related people in Greenwich. The book has achieved critical acclaim as well as garnered a wide readership who find this book anywhere from delightful to extremely irritating. The wandering prose, lack of traditional plot, very lengthy conversations that don’t further the plot in any discernible way, and the extensive philosophical consideration into what most would consider trivial aspects of words are not even at the top of the list for the causes of irritation and frustration. The overarching complaint about ‘There but for the’ is the fact that it never explains why Miles Garth, the character around which the other characters move, locked himself in an upstairs bedroom of a strangers house. In this post, I will explore this burning question.

After I finished reading this novel I found myself flipping through the last few pages of the book for several minutes, swearing that I had missed something. What I was looking for was perhaps not a clear, simple explanation for Miles’ strange behavior but maybe I would find the answer in the subtext. I couldn’t find anything that would make sense as an explanation. I then had to turn to the idea that the Miles situation is just a literary device used to explore how people are effected by such a strange occurrence. Gen and Eric Lee, after complaining about the intrusion for quite some time, eventually begin capitalizing on it and continue to do so even when they know that Miles has left. In an article she writes about the now-famous Miles situation, Gen says, “Perhaps in some ways metaphorically we are all like this man ‘Milo’ – all of us locked in a room in a house belonging to strangers”. This gives us a bit to think about but doesn’t explain anything. There are also the people who create a kind of cult of personality around Miles because they think he’s something special. They turn him into the hero of an unknown, undecided, unspoken and individualized cause. The media have a frenzy with Miles and they even change his name to Milo because “It’s catchier… Milo, where Miles sound a bit, well, wet. A bit middle class, you know?”

I searched the web for people’s thoughts on the book and I found one review that I considered particularly insightful. “Broken down into four sections titled There, But, For, and The, it tells an abstract story that questions the meaning of those words. Which may seem slight at first (Duh!), except it’s not. Like the puns that the child Brooke is obsessed with, the book convinces us that semantics matter, words matter. And what seems an unlikely story about a man who’s locked himself into a room is really a story about how we label our world. Which is really a story about how we think about the world. Which is really about if we can even think about the world (or know it)”.

We as readers are used to having everything handed to us and explained. We are used to closing a book and having a sense of closure and finality. ‘There but for the’ doesn’t provide this, it gives us more questions than answers because it’s a story about questions isn’t it? Ali Smith questions everything, even the most basic, fundamental, and overlooked part of questions: the words. It seems that while we and the characters watch Miles in an attempt to find reason so we can ‘label’ accordingly, Ali Smith is watching and questioning the spatial politics that stem from the situation and our desire to make sense of everything. Thus I also think Smith is examining and questioning human nature itself.

Ali Smith never gave us a reason for Miles’ decision to lock himself in the spare bedroom of a stranger’s house and I realize now that this is intentional. Smith doesn’t want to take us through a wandering journey of contemplation just to give us the answers in the end, she wants us to carry these burning questions with us so we don’t just observe, we actively engage with our surroundings.

Website I found the review on: GoodReads.com/AliSmithReviews


There But For The


“Google is so strange.  It promises everything, but everything isn’t there.  You type in the words for what you need, and what you need becomes superfluous in an instant, shadowed instantaneously by the things you really need, and none of them answerable by Google….Sure, there’s a certain charm to being able to look up and watch Eartha Kitt singing Old Fashioned Millionaire in 1957 at three in the morning or Hayley Mills singing a song about femininity from an old Disney film.  But the charm is a kind of deception about a whole new way of feeling lonely, a semblance of plenitude but really a new level of Dante’s inferno, a zombie-filled cemetery of spurious clues, beauty, pathos, pain, the faces of puppies, women and men from all over the world tied up and wanked over in site after site, a great sea of hidden shallows.  More and more, the pressing human dilemma: how to walk a clean path between obscenities.”

-Ali Smith, The But For The


There But For The is a novel by Ali Smith that relies strongly on word-play and a removal of the reader from directly hearing from characters in order to learn about them. Smith focuses strongly on this overarching question of what composes our identity. In the beginning of the novel, Anna is trying to speak to Miles through the door, asking “are you there?” and partaking in conversations such as: “knock knock, she said. Who’s there? Who’s there? There were several reasons at that particular time in Anna Hardie’s life for her wondering what it meant, herself, to be there” (Smith). This focus on questioning where we are and who we are in relation to the spaces we inhabit is echoed throughout the book, continuing with statements such as “I was there. There I was” (Smith). Without getting much interaction with Miles himself, his character is relayed to the readers through Anna’s perceptions of him. Smith is making a commentary here about what composes our identity, because clearly our identity is not formed solely by how we view ourselves and attempt to compose ourselves, but also relies heavily on how other’s see us and who we become when we enter certain spaces. This concept juxtaposed with Miles locking himself in a stranger’s bedroom creates an interesting creation of his character because he has placed himself in a space that he does not belong which allows him to be isolated entirely. Generally, when forced into a space with someone we consider an “Other” would cause feelings of resentment, but Miles becomes a sort of celebrity, with everyone learning about him from a removed source.

Virginia Woolf poses the same questions regarding what it means to be “there,” questioning in her essay “Street Haunting,” “Am I here or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?” Smith seems to be playing with this same question, believing that the “self” is not a stagnant being, but a fluid mixing together of multiple essences. How we act and who we are in the public space depends on which space we are in and thus which role we are assuming. However, these roles can be altered depending on which perspective one takes on the situation, whether one is the “I” or one is a third-party, looking in and available to placing judgment on this person based on prior schemas. This allows our identity to never be framed in one light, as who we are to us will never be precisely the same as who we are to those placing judgment upon us, and who we are will always alter depending on which space we enter. We find that the character who is the closest to understanding Miles throughout the novel is the nine-year-old who relays “The.” This is an interesting concept as well, because one usually associates the understanding of things and being able to relate to people with maturity; however, it is Brooke’s innocence and removal from the rest of the world that allows her to best relate to Miles.

Interesting Links:
The New York Times review of There But For The

Who is there? What makes our identity

An interview with Ali Smith

There But For The

Ali Smith weaves a complex narrative from the perspective of four characters and their individual interactions with the character MIles Garth who has locked himself in the spare room of a family he doesn’t even really know and then refuses to leave.

In this novel, the quintessential English dinner party serves as a launching point for a quirky story-line that offers a lot of absurdity, wit and humor. I guess some would describe it as what is often thought of as a dry English style humor.  Kind of subtle at times and often simple in the nature of puns or joke-telling.

So, there seems to be an underlying comedic element in this theme. The idea of someone sliding a piece of ham under a door to feed an uninvited guest is funny to imagine. The puns sprinkled throughout the novel add to this: “What do you give an elephant who’s cracking up. Trunkqullizers.” Some hard hitting social commentary disarmingly disguised as humor also appears: “Brooke is thinking about a joke about Madonna taking her babies that she adopted from Africa to Oxford Street so that they can be reunited with the clothes they made before she adopted them.”

The central theme of a guest who would not leave is a narrative that is a recurring theme in literature and media. The classic play and movie The Man Who Came to Dinner is representative of this genre http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033874/.  A recent South Park episode involving Tom Cruise locking himself in a closet and refusing to come out is another example http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155090/tom-cruise-wont-come-out-of-the-closet .

When doing a little research on this novel, I noticed that among the significant amount of praise it received there was also a recurring theme in the criticism of those who did not care for it.  That was that the novel is plot-less, that it rambles along sometimes without direction and that it can lose a reader as a result.

There is a lot of narrative detail in this novel.   From my own experience, as someone who is not a literature or English major, I find the long periods of description, detail and digression here can sometimes take away from the telling of a coherent story.  There seems to be no central plot to the story.  A lot of stream of consciousness observations and memories come from the various characters.

However, I do find the idea of four people describing their personal view of a particular individual interesting.  If an individual is seen as a blank canvass and several people describe him to someone who does not know him, what would that picture look like?  I think this may be one of the key insights to Smith’s endeavor here.  We as readers are the interpreters of who Miles is through the eyes of the others.

While the premise is interesting and the narrative and characters sometimes amusing, the novel never seems to come to a full conclusion.  The disappearance of Miles in the end and the desperate need for some characters to pretend that he’s still there, to deceive the outside world, to make money off souvenirs and trinkets sold outside his window to the throngs gathered there, seems to speak to an avoidance of closure.

There are interesting elements to it though.  The puns and odd characters can be amusing.  Also, as I noted earlier, it can be seen as an exercise in viewing a character through the disparate and different eyes and viewpoints of the ‘others’ in his life. Each of these characters created their own Miles and in the end they refused to let go when he was gone.

Most recent Ali Smith Interview: