Thursday, September 16, 2010

Oedipus Rex

Fate was a force to be reckoned with in Greek society. No matter how far one runs from it, destiny always catches up to a person and wreaks the same havoc it would have done otherwise.

Case in point: the tragedy of Oedipus. The man was destined to kill his father and marry his mother; an atrocious situation that no sane man of any society would even attempt to cause wittingly. Wishing to avoid his fate, his parents gave him to a shepherd to be left in the wilderness to die. Yet Oedipus is “saved” by the same shepherd, who gives him a life. Unwittingly, however, Oedipus performed all the atrocities he was destined to do. Everything appears hunky dory from the eyes of any person watching from the eyes of the citizens until the unexplained murder of Oedipus’s father must be explained. Oedipus had no idea what he had done, so he put together clues that came from various civilians to eventually realize his tragic fate. He then gouges out his own eyes and banishes himself from the kingdom.

Greek Tragedy 101: The main character always experiences a fall from status that stems from a tragic flaw. Oedipus experienced many such falls; a fall from status, a fall from pride, and a fall in happiness. As the audience learns from the prologue, Oedipus was a great ruler that managed to keep his domain in relative prosperity for most of the time he was ruling. Yet the second the plague beset the kingdom, his prosperity fell as he put together the pieces to the mystery of the murder. While Tiresias warns him of the danger of wanting to know more about the murder, Oedipus keeps asking questions to him and to everyone around him. When the truth is revealed, however, Oedipus is devastated and “blinds” himself to everything.

His parents wanted what would be best for, not only their sake, but for Oedipus’s sake. To their knowledge, they could alter their son’s fate simply by sending him off to some far away mountain to die. Yet in altering one simple event they actually set the prophecy in motion. No one knows whether or not Oedipus’s fate would be the same if they were blissfully ignorant of the future, but in actually trying to find happiness his parents ultimately caused the events they feared. If fate destined one’s unhappiness, then there is absolutely nothing to mitigate the events of the future.

If fate is ultimately unhappiness, then ignorance of it is happiness. The tone of Oedipus Rex starts out fairly cheery, but as the story progresses and Oedipus realizes his fate, the tone becomes progressively darker in character. Even as act 1 unfolds, Oedipus is very prideful and overly confident that he is innocent. As Tiresias, Kreon, Iokasta, and the messengers gradually reveal his fate, the king quickly realizes what he had done and his mood dampens to a much more somber and serious tone. Once the truth is fully revealed, however, he becomes ashamed of his actions and wants to return to a happy time when he was not aware of what he had done and does so by blinding himself.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Sun Also Rises

Let’s just get this out of the way nice and early; no one is happy in this novel.

I mean, sure that doesn’t mean each character is doom and gloom every sentence of every chapter, but even when the characters seem happy it almost seems like they are faking the emotion. Part of the problem is that Hemmingway’s writing style is brief, to the point, and leaving no room for description of emotion of any sort. But even then, the topic of any conversation changes so fast that it is impossible to get any sense of emotion from any character. The reader knows that the characters have some sort of feeling going on, but outside of anger each display of emotion seems to carry a very “distant” quality; it’s there, but it is not a strong showing.

One of the underlying reasons for the unhappiness is WWI. While it is only mentioned a handful of times throughout the plot, it seems to have had a profound impact on society as a whole. The most prominent representations of this are Nick’s injuries. It is never bluntly said what happened, but it is implied through some passively revealed information that it was likely a plane crash of some sort. While it is only mentioned only two or three times, it apparently had a profound impact on his character as a whole. In fact, a lot of information about the war is given in this manner. One image that comes to mind is the one legged soldier that appears at the very end of Nick’s travels. It’s not hard to spot a soldier with one leg, but instead of the huge spectacle our society makes of it Hemmingway shows us this image as if he was just saying something as petty as “The sky is blue.”

Perhaps this is just his way of showing what society wanted to do at that time; circumnavigate or forget the past. At the time, World War I was the largest conflict that the world had ever faced and, also unique to this war, nearly nothing positive came out of the war unless one really wanted World War II. War injuries, damages, and deaths are not the sort of images that can go unnoticed, yet that is exactly what Hemmingway is suggesting. Even to non-war topics, every character wants around their past as if, somehow, they could reclaim the happiness they had before the war. Brett wants to evade her past with her first husband who was extremely violent to her. Robert wants to recover the confidence he lost in his first two relationships. Each character has these types of scars that are either diminished in importance (they wanted to forget it) or expanded to where their character is altered (they wanted to change the past). Only by changing the past a character could obtain happiness.

And no one could. The war left a huge scar in society that was seemingly impossible to hide or heal. Sure people tried to forget the past conflicts, but the secret in hiding is the easiest one to be reminded of. Symbols of the repressed past appear everywhere and the reminder releases the stress and pain locked inside of a person. That is why the society seems angry and angst-y to an audience who does not have the same vantage point as Hemmingway. Brett is the best example of this. Her controlling and violent husband caused Brett to become extremely cautious of any man who wanted to have her as his and his alone. This causes not only her adulterous personality, but she runs away from any man who could not let her, as Romero said, “Go away from him.” Because she falls in love so frequently, her experiences are brought to the surface and her character becomes cowardly and defensive.

These scars were impossible to circumnavigate, so people turned to monetary possessions as a way to become “happy.” The void the war left in the lives of so many had to have been filled by something and, like an old man going through a midlife crisis, the first thing they turn to are any sort of expensive object so they can try to fill the void and at least seem like they are happy to others. Bill, at one point, tries to persuade Nick into buying a relatively useless stuffed dog, saying that it might “mean the world to [Nick] after he bought it.” A stuffed dog is a pointless possession to own, but what if that one object managed to fill that void and bring peace to that person? Until a person had found that one object, they kept buying up useless odds and ends until they finally found happiness.

Yet, according to Hemmingway, that too was impossible. The war left such a huge void that there was no way to forget about it and no way to fill it. Since happiness was on the other side of that divide (in the past), Hemmingway believes that it is impossible to be happy.

So, just to clarify, none of them lived happily ever after. The end.

The Odyssey (+ Big Question)

How does the society contained within the finite walls of this story define happiness? Is it possible to be truly happy?

A man, separated from his homeland for many years, must fight foes in all shapes and forms in hopes that he can finally make it home. On his long and perilous journey, he must use his strength, intelligence, and courage to face every obstacle that comes in his way. Yet, there is a fourth force in this man’s mind; the will to return to his family, reclaim what is rightfully his, and defeat the suitors that he knows are just dying to fill his shoes in his absence. Though this man, who we shall refer to as Odysseus, had all three traits, it is only through the fourth that he is able to conquer all the trials and eventually return home. There is something very cathartic about Odysseus’s homecoming because it is the culmination of all of his willpower and perseverance that he is back in the loving embrace of his wife and his child in a familiar land. While we cannot say this about every character (Here’s looking at you, Cyclops, Suitors, and Odysseus’s shipmates), nearly every character in the novel reaches some sort of happy ending.

There must be forces at work. Some may blame writer’s intent. Others, the internet should it have been around in ancient Greece. Personally, I blame the Greek idea of fate. Wyrd up…

Look at the three examples of the characters that I listed and some similarities come up. They all either die or suffer extreme pain at one point or another, yet at the same time they all did not obey the god’s demands at one time or another. In Greek society, a Cyclops is a person that doesn’t fear the gods like a good Athenian or Spartan would (thanks to whoever brought that up in one of the discussions) and, despite the extenuating circumstance of being Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops in the poem still does not believe in the gods and got a nice stake in the eye for not doing so. Odysseus’s men disobeyed Odysseus’s and the god’s will not to kill any animal on the island of the sun and their boat was struck by lightning and leaving the men vulnerable to the swirling maelstrom Charbyds. The suitors broke Greek custom and likely ordinances of the gods in some way through their greed, lust, and overall bad conduct as a guest and were slaughtered en masse by Odysseus and Telemakhos. Despite the more human nature of the gods, their powers gave them supremacy over Greek civilians and their word was to be obeyed if one liked their life. Should their rules be broken, the human’s fate would certainly take a turn for the worst.

So what about Odysseus? Why did he survive when he certainly was not in the best of terms with Poseidon? Except for the Cyclops incident, he followed nearly every supernatural being’s demands even when those around him were intent on doing otherwise. And they rewarded him with being able to return to his homeland to be happy. It is possible to be happy in this society as long as obeys the gods.

Well, what does this look like? For Greeks, happiness can come in a variety of forms. The first and most prominent is kinship. Greek society is very communal in nature; from Homer’s perspective, feasts and parties are a very common occurrence and almost seem to be happening daily. However, until Odysseus had lost his men and dealt with Kalypso for a very long period of time, these lavish parties were nowhere to be seen. Notice how the only completely obedient man was the only one to see one of these parties let alone civilization again?

The second form of happiness stems from the first one; possessions. The idea of sacrifice stems from the idea that one is killing the best of the flock in order to repent for a misdeed. Any animal is valuable not only because it is a sign of status if one owns enough (as kings did), but they were useful as a source of food and other materials. It was certainly a punishment that most would want to avoid, but the gods could as just as easily killed off animals through other means. The suitors were such a force; while Odysseus was gone, their ravenous feasting had its toll on the royal heard, punishing Odysseus for his actions even further. However, being loyal to the gods brought in riches in all shapes and forms. One benefit to going to a feast in a foreign land is that it is customary for the host to give gifts to the guest and, as already stated, only those who are in good terms with the gods can receive such happiness.

The final form is increased strength and ability in battle. Greeks valued war heroes above most of their population and, by extent, being able to come back from war with kills was a huge status boost. Odysseus was a war hero, but it was through the grace of the gods through which he gained his strength. Athena was always with Odysseus and his son, giving them both strength and cunning in large conflicts. One interesting point to note is that, from the Cyclops to the beginning of book 5 (during Odysseus’s fall from grace with the gods) Athena made very few notable appearances and it was only when he had endured most of his suffering when she makes a re-appearance, granting him passage from the isle and strength in the final battle. While Odysseus was not killing in a time of war, the strength he gained from favor in the eyes of the gods allowed him to successfully come home and fend off the suitors.