Baruch Pelta 5/28/2010 Herron Literature Literature Rebels Against Society The Enlightenment was formed against a background of changing values. As Professor Paul Brians has noted, ³the general trend is clear: individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority, and tradition as core European values.´ This emphasis on autonomy is seen in both Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment literature. In this paper, I will argue that the emphasis on autonomy from society as a positive literary theme became increasingly accentuated as literature developed; Victorians sought to defy societal norms in order to redefine them, Realists attacked the social order as inherently flawed, and Modernists wrote about how societal values represent contempt for the truly virtuous. The Victorian era emphasized autonomy as a requisite to improve society; Henrik Ibsen¶s A Doll¶s House is indicative of this trend. At the end of the play, protagonist Nora comes to the realization that her upbringing by her father and marriage to husband Torvald have not allowed her to develop as a person. As with her father, she protests to Torvald, ³I have existed merely to perform tricks for you [«] You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.´ Nora¶s comment is part of a critique of society¶s unfair treatment of women by Ibsen (Takkac 3); the emblematic Nora is explaining that women should see their society as treating them with undue contempt and that they have formulated themselves in accordance with society¶s low expectations.
An important message of A Doll¶s House is that women must free themselves from the shackles of societal expectations ± as Nora does by leaving to ponder her existence -- in order to truly figure out how to actualize their potentials, and such assertive action on their part will reform society¶s weltanschauung qua women. Such reform already begins near the end of the play, when Nora assertively demands that Torvald give her wedding ring back so that they may be free of their obligations to one another. While throughout the rest of the play, Torvald makes all of the important family decisions and treats his wife like a child, here he simply submits to the newly assertive Nora¶s demand. Nora is not yet an autonomous woman, but she has begun her journey; similarly, Torvald has begun to understand that women deserve respect. Both Nora and Torvald express hope at the end of the play that they may get back together eventually. That hope symbolizes the general hope that men and women will become more egalitarian. That general hope is characteristic of Victorian literature¶s emphasis on the importance of shattering societal norms in order to positively recreate the social order. Like Victorians, Realists saw autonomy from society as essential because they believed the societal order was flawed. For example, in Leo Tolstoy¶s The Death of Ivan Ilych, while seemingly achieving his goal to be a well-to-do judge in society, central character Ivan loses his sense of purpose. Ivan soul-searches and reflects on his situation with perfect hindsight: ³It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me.´ While he had gained respect from society, he had lost a sense of purpose in his life. The characters that surround Ivan in the story are generally apathetic and uncaring. As Ivan notes when he is ill but still working, they only wish to advance themselves; they distract
from confronting Ivan¶s horrifying pain by having lighthearted but truly insensitive conversations which really point to their own superficiality: It sometimes seemed to [Ivan] that people were watching him inquisitively as a man whose place might soon be vacant. Then again, his friends would suddenly begin to chaff him in a friendly way [«] as if the awful [«] thing that was going on within him [«] was a very agreeable subject for jests. If the society which Ivan lives in is generally superficial, Ivan¶s acquaintance Schwartz represents the depths of its shallowness. While Ivan¶s general description of his so-called ³friends´ and their trivial dispositions is less than flattering, he is particularly annoyed by Schwartz¶s ³jocularity, vivacity, and savoir-faire, which reminded him of what he himself had been ten years ago.´ Schwartz is paradigmatic of the superficial values inherent in the society Ivan is so frustrated with that he was once such a respected part of. Professor David Danaher has shown in a compelling essay that while The Death of Ivan Ilych employs imagery relating to authentic light which is meant to signify truth, imagery relating to artificial light or darkness is utilized when discussing the false values inherent in the surrounding society; the fact that the name Schwartz in German means ³black´ is not a coincidence but points to the total falseness of the ideals which he stands for. When at Ivan¶s funeral, acquaintance Peter becomes ³disturbed by the truthful thought that death will come to him [too],´ he rushes out of the viewing room to a vestibule to be comforted by the look of a Schwartz who does not care about Ivan¶s death at all, but looks as ready as ever to play a card game and have a good conversation; that is what the plain meaning of the passages are, but if the German and Russian are properly translated, it is seen that with regards to Peter, ³µBlack(ness) awaited him in the vestibule¶´ and ³µBlack(ness) refreshed [him]¶´ (232). Schwartz represents the pure evil of society¶s trivial worldview which
prevents people who might otherwise seriously consider personal meaning (such as Peter and, until his final hours, Ivan) from doing so. Despite the fact that they were both published in the 1880¶s and both emphasize the importance of individuality, The Death of Ivan Ilych contrasts starkly with A Doll¶s House. The latter implies that a group of people (e.g. women) need to assert themselves and by doing so have the potential to change society; the former treats seemingly innocuous values of society as a whole as beyond redemption, or as Danaher puts it, ³For Tolstoy, to live according to social conventions is to live wrongly´ (236). Both works were published in the same decade, but in very different socio-historical contexts. The Victorian milieu which A Doll¶s House came from ³was shaped [«] by the legacy of radical Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution and, at the end, by the possibilities of a new century´ (Moran 1). The Victorian era was one full of hope for the reformation of society. The Death of Ivan Ilych on the other hand was a late work in the Realist literary tradition, which had arisen as an intellectual negative response to the Romanticism (Mclean 364) from which Victorianism had sprung; unlike those hopeful movements, the Realist tradition was founded in the pessimistic aftermath of various wars and rebellions (Wilson xv-xxiv). While Romanticism ³portrayed its heroes¶ behavior as motivated by their own ideas, passions, aspirations, and will,´ Realist literature emphasized society¶s control over people (Mclean 364). The hope for societal revolution had declined and instead an attitude which viewed society as flawed arose. The emphasis on society¶s iniquity was further accentuated in Modernist works, such as Albert Camus¶s The Stranger. The story¶s hero, Meursault, finds and kills an Arab who had earlier slashed the former¶s friend for treating his (that is, the Arab¶s) sister disrespectfully.
Meursault¶s trial hinges unfairly on evidence of his detachment from emotions which the prosecutor brings up in order to make him look worse. Because he does not deny his lack of emotions and contest the prosecutor¶s description of him, the court comes to despise him and he is sentenced to death. When describing one witness¶s testimony of his behavior at his mother¶s funeral, Meursault notes that ³[«] he said that I declined to see Mother¶s body, I¶d smoked cigarettes and slept, and drunk café au lait. It was then I felt a sort of wave of indignation spreading through the courtroom, and for the first time I understood that I was guilty (56).´ Meursault the killer may not seem a likely hero, but his valor lies in his passive refusal to exaggerate and a steady commitment to honesty which makes him despised by the judges who expect a show of emotion, however false. As Albert Camus himself described Meursault in the preface to the American edition of The Stranger, ³He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened´ (19). It is merely Meursault¶s virtuous honesty which condemns him to death by those who are not so honest. In the last sentence of the novel, Meursault wishes only ³that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration (76).´ Meursault realizes that society¶s hatred of him vindicates him as a truthful individual. While Realists had coped with a background of various revolutions and wars, the devastation of World War I as well as what Professor Patricia Dwyer has called ³faith-shaking writings´ by men like Darwin and Nietzsche comprised the background against which Modernism was formulated (1). It is no surprise then than the writers of the Modernist school themselves despaired of society¶s depravity even more than their Realist predecessors. If Realists felt that the nature of a social order itself is that it is beyond repair, Modernists such as Albert Camus emphasized that society hates the values of the virtuous. Tolstoy¶s society may operate
on false principles, but Camus¶s despises the truth; while the former argues that a man must separate himself from the values of his society in order to become a righteous person, the latter makes a case that a man who stands up for the proper principles will by necessity earn society¶s enmity. It is not only autonomy but its extreme ± antinomianism ± which is an important aspect of the moral man. From Victorianism to Realism to Modernism, great literary minds waged a war on societal norms. Victorians sought to reform society, but Realists, disillusioned by wars and rebellions, saw such an effort as a lost cause. Finally, World War I as well as works which attacked religious truths resulted in further cynicism towards society¶s established values which supposedly contributed to humanity and culminated in a Modernist literary narrative which instead cast society as the enemy of the good and true. The ideal of autonomy which was such an important backdrop to the Enlightenment had evolved to become a complete renunciation of the social order.
Works Cited Brians, Paul. ³The Enlightenment.´ Washington State University. 18 May 2008. Web. 7 June 2010. <http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html>. Camus, Albert. ³Preface to the American Edition of The Stranger.´ Modern Critical Interpretations: Albert Camus¶s The Stranger. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 2001. 19-20. - - -. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. Kent School District. Web. 7 June 2010. <http://teacher.kent.k12.wa.us/kentmeridian/apulver/documents/ the_stranger.pdf>. Danaher, David S. ³Tolstoy¶s Use of Light and Dark Imagery in The Death of Ivan Il'i .´ The Slavic and East European Journal 39.2 (1995): 227-240. JSTOR. Web. 7 June 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/309375>. Dwyer, Patricia. ³Modern Literature 1915-1945 Class Outline.´ Shepherd University. Web. 7 June 2010. <www.shepherd.edu/englweb/Engl408/modern.doc >. Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll¶s House. Project Gutenberg. 13 Dec. 2008. Web. 7 June 2010. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm>. Mclean, Hugh. ³Realism.´ Handbook of Russian Literature. Ed. Victor Terras. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. 363-367. Moran, Maureen. Victorian Literature and Culture. London: Continuum, 2007. Introductions to British Literature and Culture.
Takkac, Mehmet. ³Are Women Still Regarded as the µMinor Sex?¶: Henrik Ibsen¶s A Doll House and Tom Stoppard¶s The Real Thing.´ Paper presented at the 10th International Ibsen Conference, June 1-7, 2003, Brooklyn. Ibsen Society of America. Web. 7 June 2010. <http://www.ibsensociety.liu.edu/index.html>. Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich. The Death of Ivan Ilych. Trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College, Web. 7 June 2010. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tolstoy/ivan.txt>. Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.