The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter revolves around Nathaniel, a grad student, who meets a man that is known for mimicking everyone from his neighbor to famous philosophers and writers. Every word, mannerism, and quirk belongs to someone else, so in effect the man “steals” personalities. When this “soul thief” sets his sights on Nathaniel he absorbs every detail and tic with unnerving accuracy.
While the creep factor on this is bad enough, Nathaniel is at the precarious point in his life where he is trying to define who he is and what he wants to do with his life. He is in college but finds academics pretentious, he wants to fit in but isn’t sure how or why, he wants love but is trapped by lust and infatuation, and he wants direction but can’t find his way. The antics of the soul thief only exacerbates his internal angst to the point of a complete and total breakdown.
Baxter’s almost allegorical story plays with the idea of identity theft by putting a spin on the actual meaning of identity. His characters and their stories pose the question of whether there is even such a thing as individuality. As the soul thief himself puts it, “Someone, believe me, is clothing himself in the robes of another. Someone is adopting someone else’s personality, to his own advantage. … Somebody’s working out a copycat strategy even now. Identity theft? Please. We’re all copycats.” Essentially, society is a conglomerate of clones and people only think they are individuals. There’s that moment where we choose to surrender what makes us unique for the sake of fitting into the grand machine.
Nathaniel’s ultimate fate will appeal to some, while others will question whether he has truly found himself or has simply found another place to hide. Regardless, Baxter has pieced together a riveting tale that offers both harsh and hopeful observations of humanity. In what could easily be a harsh criticism of society, The Soul Thief instead offers sly optimism towards the notion of being more aware of the influences that shape our perceptions.