The Influence of Society’s Flaws on Literature


Sujeeth Narra

Honors English III Mrs. Gothelf th 9 of May, 2002


If literature’s convoluted path was scrutinized and transitions from one movement to the next observed, it can be found that the previous movement helps to define the movement to come. For example, Romanticism was a movement which displayed the perfection of society, mind, and body. Realism, the movement developed after the Romantic period,

became a venture to display the flaws of Romanticism. Due to Romanticism’s strive for perfection of mind, body, and culture as well as the increase of poverty and arrogance in a society which contained various other flaws such as greed and misfortune, Realism developed as a movement displaying those flaws of society which Romanticism yearned to conceal. Thus, through the influx of poverty, greed, arrogance, isolation, and misfortune into society, Realism was defined as a movement which displayed the flaws and imperfections of society. These faults of society can be easily found in such selections as Loreley, The False Gems, and Germinal. In other selections, such as A Tent in Agony and The Dark That Was Is Here, the hints are more subtle and elusively placed. Regardless to how these faults are revealed, they are continuously present. Specifically, it became necessary to display the shortcomings of society due to the Industrial Revolution and growth of large cities. The shift of focus from local and agricultural to industrial and national allowed for the establishment of slums in the cities and the impoverished class who resided in those areas. Industrialization introduced millions to

poverty, greed, and misfortune of daily life. The moment the first factory revealed its dark and true nature of greed and manipulation, a new literary movement was exposed. Although society’s flaws are omnipresent, the experiences and emotions of its members are not perpetual. The flaw of disjunction, however minor it may be, is displayed in the poem The Dark That Was Is Here by Eli Siegel. Siegel wishes to express how


dysfunctional society has become through it’s strive for self-image. As William Carlos Williams says in his letter to one of Siegel’s supporters: “He wants the ‘beautiful,’ that is to say ... the past. It is a very simple and very powerful urge. It puts the hardest burdens on the pioneer who while recognizing the virtues and glories of the past sees its restricting and malevolent fixations” (Williams). Siegel feels compulsion to join his fellows, but also feels it is necessary to display the society of the time. Siegel also hopes to express the society’s lack of interest in other similar societies that have existed previously and have experienced the same afflictions as the current society presently is undergoing. Siegel portrays the

dysfunctional aspects of society through the two girls’ inability to share each others’ pain. “A girl, in ancient Greece, / be sure, had no more peace / than one in Idaho” (Siegel) Siegel is also able to represent society’s flaw of thoughtlessness for those of its members who feel lost and confused through the “moan of wind at twilight past” (Siegel). Siegel portrays society’s uncaring attitude of those who are different from its normal members. Another selection that can be used to demonstrate society’s heartlessness is A Tent in Agony by Stephen Crane. Crane attempts to portray society as a harsh critic of its members, accepting only those who meet its standards. Crane’s unique opinion of society allows him to display its accepted members as arrogant and showing contempt for those who are not able to fit in suitably. In A Tent in Agony, Crane describes a trip where several men are outdoors on a fishing trip and three of those men consider themselves to be braver and more able than a fourth man, who is portrayed as diminutive and rather cowardly. “Immediately a little man volunteered to stay and hold the camp while the remaining three should go to the Sullivan county miles to a farm-house for supplies. They gazed at him dismally. “There’s only one of you – the devil make a twin,” they said in parting malediction, and disappeared down the hill in the known direction of a distant cabin” (Crane 8-12).


The venom with which the three antagonists speak to the protagonist makes it evident of how they feel of him. They offer no respect or kind words of advice in parting; rather they shun him and expect him to botch up this simple task. Crane finds it necessary to portray this character as weak and foreign in the vast and wild outdoors due to his city roots in the slums and his own experiences with poverty and subsistence. Crane also deems it necessary to be accepted into a group as he himself experienced the same need as he matured in the city slums and looked for approval. It is the voice of the slums. It is not written by a dilettante; it is written by one who has lived the life. The young author, Stephen Crane, is a native of the city… (Garland). Eventually, Crane allows the protagonist to enter the society, where he himself learns arrogance and therefore becomes as discriminatory as those who ridiculed him. The small man’s previous fear and diminutive size are transformed into pompousness and arrogance, catalyzed by the outrageous events of the night. “He contemplated darkness and took a long, pompous puff. ‘There’s only one of me – and the devil made a twin,’ he said” (Crane 77-78). Crane communicates his shock of society’s standards and behavior effectively through the use of character development and major events, but is unable to completely convince the reader of the flagrancy of this flaw. A method in which the author is able to convey the severity of an error in society is through imagery and detailed description. Heinrich Heine uses this method in his poem Loreley to impart the sense of weakness by the society in which he resides to worldly possessions. Loreley, a fair maiden, is projected by Heine as the unattainable wealth sought by many as well as the ideal of life and culture. There sits a lovely maiden / above, so wondrous fair, / with shining jewels laden, / she combs her golden hair (Heine 910).


Heine’s own views upon wealth and perfection are tainted by his experiences in business, where he was unable to enter the market and thus became bitter. Due to his previous limitations, Heine displays Loreley as his unrealized goals, which are distant and far above him, as if placed far above the Rhine. Heine’s specific position allows him to recognize the human need to reach unattainable goals, that human nature will ultimately recognize those goals as perfect and ultimately providing extreme satisfaction if they were to be achieved. She was the incarnation of libidinous obsessions, dreams, wishes, and delusions. She was well suited to be a figure of identification and a reflection of an unwilling temptress, a warm-hearted maiden, a scheming sorceress, a melancholic murderess, a man-eating angel. She promised the magic of love but also the curse, the revenge - these two introducing the moralistic aspect (Scholz) Heine succeeded in becoming trapped in his own delusions, but at the same time, succeeded in warning the reader against succumbing to the pitfalls of society and its basis upon wealth. Heine’s delusions of wealth and comfort were never achieved and left him bitter and disappointed in life, thus displaying his journey for great expectations to be futile in the lines “The boatman in his small skiff is / seized by turbulent love, / no longer he marks where the cliff is, / he looks to the mountain above” (Heine 911). Although unable to prevent his own descent into pining towards wealth, Heine is able to advise future readers of the danger of obsession of the monetary aspects of society. Many authors have fallen into society’s pitfalls, lured in by the attraction of wealth and high society. One of these authors includes Guy de Maupassant, the author of The False Gems. Maupassant, unlike most [writers], is a shrewd business man, and writes for money. A good thing for Maupassant but an unfortunate circumstance for art! Everything which he writes is sold in succession to various publishers……No wonder Maupassant lives elegantly… (Hearn)


Guy de Maupassant is able to transfer his self-earned knowledge of the workings of greed in mankind to his writings. He is able to display the deepest feelings and thoughts that occur in a man driven by yearning and desire. M. Lantin is driven by deep feelings of desire and want that push him to limits where few other men would tread. Jealousy and envy of the elite class and their freedom free M. Lantin to sell off his late wife’s most prized possessions. Observing them, M. Lantin said to himself: “The rich, indeed, are happy. With money it is possible to forget even the deepest sorrow. One can go where one pleases, and in travel find that distraction which is the surest cure for grief. Oh! If I were only rich!” (de Maupassant 945-946) After committing acts few would attempt, M. Lantin continues further still in saying “ ‘I have – I have other gems which I have received from the same source. Will you buy them also?’ (de Maupassant 946),” as greed for greater wealth and security imposed upon him the need to release a greater and greater number of jewels to satisfy the insatiable craving for aristocracy. M. Lantin’s greed is based upon similar feelings experienced by de Maupassant as he struggled to earn a comfortable living as the bourgeois had. Eventually, all of M. Lantin’s shame and sorrow are eradicated as he expresses great joy to have entered a comfortable existence, where his previous sorrows can be forgotten and left by the wayside. As M. Lantin leaves his past, he leaves his humanity and emotions as he succumbs to the overpowering emotions of greed and jealousy, and thus lives his life in interminable sorrow. A final and major way in which society has fallen short of perfection is through its inability to shelter its members from adversity and misfortune. This blemish in the fabric of human nature is displayed vividly in the novel Germinal by Émile Zola, in which poverty and suffering are displayed in immense detail. Zola’s inspiration to write this novel came from his own life story, where Zola existed in pauperism. Due to his life experience, Zola has poverty


play a major role in this novel to display the suffering that many go through within their lifetimes. He displays poverty through detailed description and harsh presentation, such as Étienne’s shabby clothing and Bonnemort’s reduced health. The man had set out from Marchiennes about two o’clock. He walked with long strides, shivering beneath his worn cotton jacket and corduroy breeches. A small parcel tied in a check handkerchief troubled him much, and he pressed it against his side, sometimes with one elbow, sometimes with the other, so that he could slip to the bottom of his pockets both the benumbed hands that bled beneath the lashes of the wind (Zola 931). Due to his father’s death, Zola felt a need for a father figure within his life, and being not able to be provided with one, thus created a figure in his literature. This figure is represented by Bonnemort in the Germinal, who provides support and guidance to Étienne. Zola wrote as he did to “make us look where we are standing, and see whether our feet are solidly planted or not. What is our religion, what is our society, what is our country, what is our civilization? You cannot read [Zola] without asking yourself these questions, and the result is left with you” (Howells 586). Zola forces his readers to consider the society which he writes about, pushes the reader to question whether the society can be improved or altered to improve the quality of life for all involved. All five selections are capable of bringing to light one or two of every civilizations shortcomings and flaws. Most are written by those who have experience with those particular flaws, while several have the capacity to bring about innovation and permutation. These selections oppose Romanticism in that they challenge and dispute the morals of perfection established in literature of Romanticism. Without the influence of Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution, Realism would not have been displayed as a movement that explained the flaws of society.


Crane, Stephen. A Tent in Agony. Gonzaga University. April 28, 2002 <> Garland, Hamlin. Crane. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 11. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1983. 121. Hearn, Lafeadio. Critical Commentary by Lafeadio Hearn on the Writings of Guy de Maupassant. April 24, 2002. Montgomery College. April 24, 2002 <> Heine, Heinrich. “Loreley.” Literature and the Language Arts, World Literature. Ed. Laurie Skiba. St. Paul, MN: EMCParadigm Publishing, 1998. 910-911. Howells, W.D. Zola. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 1. Eds. Dedria Bryfonski and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978. 586. Maupassant, Guy de. “The False Gems.” Literature and the Language Arts, World Literature. Ed. Laurie Skiba. St. Paul, MN: EMCParadigm Publishing, 1998. 942946. Scholz, Hannelore. The Loreley Project: Scenarios of Seduction in a Network of Electronic Texts. Humboldt University. May 4, 2002 <> Siegel, Eli. ‘The Dark That Was Is Here’ by Eli Siegel. Aesthetic Realism Foundation. April 27, 2002 <> Williams, William Carlos. A Letter by William Carlos Williams. Aesthetic Realism Foundation. April 27, 2002 <> Zola, Émile. Germinal. Literature and the Language Arts, World Literature. Ed. Laurie Skiba. St. Paul, MN: EMCParadigm Publishing, 1998. 931-938.


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