54 pages 1 hour read

Elif Batuman


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Either/Or is a work of autofiction (autobiographical fiction) published by American author Elif Batuman in 2022. It is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel The Idiot (2018) and a continuation of the story of Selin, The Idiot’s protagonist, as she makes her way through an undergraduate degree at Harvard College. Born in the United States to Turkish parents, Batuman earned a BA in literature from Harvard College and a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University. In addition to her two novels, Batuman has also published a genre-bending collection of memoir-tinged essays and literary criticism entitled The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010). Batuman’s first two books take their titles from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s eponymous novels published in 1869 and 1871, respectively. Either/Or takes its title from Kierkegaard’s eponymous work published in 1843. Russian literature is an area of particular interest for Batuman, and her PhD dissertation includes analysis of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, both of which figure prominently within the narrative of Either/Or. In her memoir/essay collection, Batuman argues that the novel is about the struggle of the protagonist to transform their many “fragmented” lives into a narrative that is as coherent and meaningful as their favorite novels. Thus, both The Idiot and Either/Or can be read through the same lens: They are Batuman’s attempts to fictionalize the events of her own university days and to turn her memories into a cohesive bildungsroman.

This text refers to the 2022 hardcover edition by Penguin.

Content Warning: This guide describes and discusses the source text’s depiction of mental health and depression.

Plot Summary

Either/Or closely follows the sophomore year of Harvard student Selin Karadag. Selin is an American student majoring in literature and was born to Turkish émigré parents. During her freshman year, Selin was involved in a confusing, ill-defined pseudo-relationship with Ivan, a Hungarian math major whom she met in her Russian language class. Ivan had been a senior, and as Either/Or begins, he is in California pursuing a graduate degree. Selin and Ivan both spent a portion of the summer in Hungary, Ivan visiting family and Selin volunteering as an English language instructor in a small village. The summer ended with a cryptic series of conversations that, although she is not sure if they had truly been dating, feels like a breakup to Selin, and she is crushed.

Selin moves into overflow housing with a group of classmates and reconnects with Svetlana, a Serbian student whom she also met in Russian class the previous year and who is her closest friend on campus. The two are taking an accelerated Russian course together and share an interest in both languages and literature: Selin is a literature major, and Svetlana has chosen to major in history and literature. In addition to the Russian language course, Selin registers for a “chance in literature” seminar and a “tutorial,” a small discussion-based course required for literature majors. Although Selin is an avid reader and a passionate literary analyst, she is often troubled by the overly abstract, history-focused way that literature is discussed in academic settings. Her own interest in books is much more personal: Selin wants to become a more astute observer of the “human condition.” Her approach to literature is rooted in the interpersonal relationships of various characters and in the ways that those relationships speak to her own experiences. Either/Or focuses in large part on Selin’s inner monologue, and much of her narration features quick summaries and in-depth analyses of the books she reads both on her own and for her courses.

The first book she encounters for her chance in literature class is Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. It is a meditation that contrasts the “aesthetic life” with the “ethical life,” and in its pages she finds parallels to aspects of her own life. It sheds light on her troubled relationship with Ivan. It also illuminates the key differences between her own way of being in the world and that of her friend Svetlana: Svetlana has more than once observed that Selin is devoted to the “aesthetic life,” whereas Svetlana strives to lead an “ethical life.” Selin’s observations about Either/Or as well as the film The Usual Suspects cause her so much distress that Svetlana suggests she see a therapist: Selin is clearly struggling in the wake of her “breakup” with Ivan, and Svetlana is worried about her.

Selin divides her time between her classes, reading, attending Harvard’s Turkish Club, and working at the Ukrainian Research Center on campus. She has wanted to be a novelist since before she learned to read, and much of her reading and self-analysis focus on how she might translate her experiences into narrative and her friends and classmates into characters. She does not want to create explicitly Turkish or Turkish-American writing; rather, she seeks inspiration primarily in classic works of literature and philosophy.

Selin emails Ivan, and their correspondence continues to be as cryptic and difficult to parse as it was last year. Through speaking with one of Ivan’s ex-girlfriends, Selin learns that Ivan was living with his current girlfriend during the entirety of the previous year. In other words, Selin and Ivan had never been dating; he had been leading her on. This knowledge plunges Selin into an even deeper state of depression. She is constantly in tears and finds upsetting parallels to her experiences with Ivan in the text of Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. At home for Thanksgiving, Selin relents when her mother suggests she see a psychiatrist. After a few sessions, Selin’s mother further suggests that Selin ask about medication, and Selin begins to take a low dose of Zoloft.

On campus, Selin’s friends and classmates seem to be pairing up. Although she does not engage in anything that could be construed as “dating” and her relations with men lack the romantic quality she found in Ivan, Selin begins to experiment with sex. She first hooks up with a friend of a friend at a party. After a few other such trysts, she wonders how such actions speak to the idea of the “aesthetic life.” She also experiments with alcohol, and although she initially does not enjoy it, she comes to understand why people use it as a social lubricant: She is always ill at ease in social situations, and drinking does help her to relax around other people.

Selin signs up for a creative writing seminar, and although she enjoys the published works of short fiction that they read, she finds the student-authored work largely uninspiring. She is pained by how awkwardly bad all of their writing is and continues to ruminate on how to produce compelling works of literature. She continues to email Ivan periodically, but his messages are always, in some way, upsetting.

Selin is hired by a travel guidebook series called Let’s Go to write a portion of their guide to Turkey and receives a grant to study abroad in Russia. She leaves for Turkey at the end of the school year. After first staying with her grandmother in Ankara, she then proceeds along her planned route through a series of small, off-the-beaten-track towns and villages. She continues to experiment with men and alcohol and has a series of alternately meaningful and bizarre hook-ups with Turkish men. At the end of the narrative, she leaves for Moscow and is struck by the fact that it is the first journey that she has undertaken completely of her own accord: Her previous travels had all been to places where she, her family, or her friends had connections. She is traveling to Russia because she, on her own, fell in love with its literature. For the first time in the narrative, she feels free.