Monday, April 22, 2013

Understanding Through Literature

For the past week, our entire nation has been glued to our television sets.  From the horrific bombing in Boston last Monday to the tense lockdown and manhunt on Friday, it seems like our lives were consumed by what was happening on the 24 hour news channel.  But though our attention to the constant stream of information kept us in the loop, it didn't help us wrap our minds around what was happening.  It brought us knowledge without understanding.  For that, we find ourselves turning to literature.

During the lockdown, Liesl Schillinger over at the Daily Beast pored over Leo Tolstoy's final novel, Hadji Murat, to discover the lengthy and volatile history of the Caucasus.  Katie Roiphe at Slate Magazine discusses how the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist can help give us a clearer picture of the bomber brother.  And during a lecture on the writings of Flannery O'Connor that I attended, the speaker mused on how the compassion shown by the grandmother to The Misfit in her story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" might encourage us to also receive grace through compassion towards those who mean us harm.  There is perhaps no other medium or art form that can bring us solace and understanding quite like reading can.  In a world where cold hard facts are bombarding us constantly from every direction, seeing it all played out in literature can help us process it and see it from a different perspective.  We look for our own desires, hurts, and fears in the lives of fictional characters.  We feel that by understanding their stories, we might actually come to grips with our own.

Have you ever found a way to understand your own problems through a book?  Have you come across a novel that can help us heal and understand this recent tragedy?  How do you find comfort in a good novel?  Share your thoughts here.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.  - G. K. Chesterton

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.” 

In 1940, a novel was published that would skyrocket on the best-seller's list and eventually find itself on many "best of" lists including TIME Magazine's TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.  Who would have expected that a story that could grip a nation like that would come from the pen of a 23 year old woman living in Charlotte, NC.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the debut novel of Carson McCullers who would go on to create other works that gave a voice to the outcasts and misfits in the American south.

The Plot:

John Singer is a deaf/mute living in a small Georgia mill town in the 1930s.  He used to live with a friend and fellow deaf/mute named Spiros Antonapoulos until he was institutionalized.  Singer then rents a room from the Kelly family which brings him into contact with new acquaintances.  There's young Mick Kelly, a tomboy on the verge of womanhood who craves music and the luxury of a piano.  Jake Blount, an alcoholic and labor agitator.  Biff Brannon who owns a local diner and has a front row seat to the lives of the various townspeople.  And Dr. Benedict Copeland, an African American physician whose idealism puts him at odds with his family.  Each person comes to see Singer as a confidant who listens to and understands their deepest problems.  But will they realize that Singer has problems of his own and a desire to be understood as well?

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I have to say that I find it incredible that a story with this much depth and realism came from someone so young.  It certainly shows what an observant and understanding person McCullers must have been.  The way she captures the brutal reality of the Depression era south is at once beautiful and sad.

Loneliness is definitely the main theme here (though prejudice, racism, and poverty also play their part).  There is something in the life of each character that puts a barrier between them and the outside world.  Singer has a physical disability, Mick lives in poverty, Jake is drowning in alcohol, Biff works all of the time, and Dr. Copeland is a black man in a white man's world.  None of them have anyone to whom they can really bare their soul.  But each of Singer's acquaintances believes him to be the one person in the world they can talk to.  He is the one person who "listens" to what they have to say without judgement, advice, or ridicule.  Nothing but pure understanding.  But even they do not see the man inside, and they don't realize that he is crying out for the same understanding and finding none.

This is not a "fun" novel by any stretch of the imagination.  It has the brutality and grotesqueness of a Flannery O'Connor story without the grace and redemption.  None of the characters are able to break out of their loneliness and realize their dreams.  And Singer's suicide is one big punch in the gut that is certainly capable of bringing one to tears.  Like the other characters, I had grown emotionally attached to him and found his death to be shattering.

I would not say that this is a book for everyone, nor would I say that it is one I "enjoyed".  But it is certainly a classic of American literature and deserves the high praise it has received.  If you enjoy novels in the Southern Gothic tradition, or even just sad books, I suggest you give this one a try.

The Movie:

The book was made into a 1968 film starring Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, and Cicely Tyson.  It is a good adaptation, though perhaps it has a somewhat happier ending for some of the characters.  Worth watching, with or without reading the book.