Different Means, Same End: The Demise of Literary Fiction

Tara Raju's picture

Different Means, Same End: The Demise of Literary Fiction             

“Blair Gordon, an interior designer who once re-gifted an expensive bottle of Champagne at a dinner party only to find the woman who had given it to him sitting opposite him, glaring, [calling] Champagne ‘the new fruitcake’” (Wadler). There is a slight sense of anxiety associated with re-gifting mainly caused by the inability to predict if the former gift-giver will also be in attendance to the event or if the recipient was once, ten exchanges ago, the original giver. Nonetheless, it does not prevent people from whipping out their newest wrapping paper or elaborate bows and doing it anyways. It is a social faux pas but people do it anyways with mixed results. On the same token, the literary community may have taken one or two pointers from those social etiquette criminals as it seems, with increasing frequency, that writers are taking that once expensive bottle of champagne and figuratively devaluing it to the value of a fruitcake. Writers have taken the highly anticipated feeling of watching the cork pop off of a champagne bottle and reduced it to receiving a tasteless fruitcake as many themes, concepts and ideas that are present in the pages of their literary works have already been showcased to the community at hand. Through the juxtaposition of works by a constant, Dr. Seuss, and variable, Morrison, Orwell and Fitzgerald, authors, it can be observed that on a fundamental level, texts that appear to be exponentially different from each other, are in fact, delightfully similar, leading to the conclusion that the progression of the fictional literary evolution has come to a standstill.

Foremost, the presence of parallel themes in seemingly unrelated texts illuminates the idea that the evolution of fictional texts is for all intents and purpose, an extinct process. To highlight the demise of the particular literary evolution of themes, it will require the comparison of two rather distinct, yet famed texts; the first being Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987, and the other being the children’s classic The Sneetches by Dr.Seuss, published in 1961 (The Swedish Academy) (“The Political Dr.Seuss”). In an excerpt Beloved, a school teacher says to his students to list the animal characteristics that a slave possesses as he believes that “unlike a snake or a bear” that a slave is not “worth his own dead weight in a coin” (Morrison 237). The teacher uses his authoritative position to proliferate his personal beliefs to the younger more malleable mind emphasizing the widespread racism that a character, Sethe, endured. This passage, among others, contributes to validating the broader theme that Morrison conveys that slaves were dehumanized and degraded to a point where as individuals they themselves questioned whether they were worth the evolutionary title of being considered “human”. Morrison attempts to convey the importance of the effect that racism had  on an individual’s self-perception which naturally leads to the issue of  concept of tolerance being an integral component of daily life. 

Furthermore the book, The Sneetches, also seeks to illuminate a broader and more important social issue through the interaction of various literary elements. The Sneetches are a group of creatures that are comprised of two groups; one group has green stars on their bellies while the other group lacks this characteristic. The individuals that have the stars on their bellies are a part of the more popular group while the latter are shunned. Aside from the silly name and the whimsical nature of the characters, the book provides a juvenile literary framework as a forum of the larger, exponentially more significant problem of discrimination and tolerance.  

Although, the intended demographic that these two texts are for in addition to the extreme difference apparent in their complexity levels, the texts still share a common literary element- the theme. As the theme, at its essence, is the reason that an author chooses the specific characters, the situations, the setting, the plot, the motifs, the symbols among other things, throughout the book in the hope that it is contributing back to the thematic focus that the book was intended to portray. Upon first glance, one would never categorize these books within the same framework but, with further exploration, it seems that at a very basic level that these books have the same purpose- to communicate an important message to all readers about the devastating effects of discrimination and the importance of tolerating all individuals, regardless of their differences. Published twenty-six years apart and aimed at vastly different demographic groups, these two pieces of literature still share one of the most important literary elements, the theme.

Granted that there are overlapping themes in a myriad of different texts but does the overlap never get tiring? How many different ways can authors rework characters and plots and settings until, as a literary community, there are no other ways to present the theme of the importance of tolerance? At what point, does society stop and say “we get it” and therefore seizing the production of that another book that attempts to convey the same message as another one?

To further this discussion, the utilization of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and the George Orwell’s 1984 are pertinent as evidence to the conclusion that overlapping themes are getting as tiring as receiving a fruitcake. The characters in both texts are used to depict a relationship of an authoritative entity to the subjects being effectively ruled over. Both authors utilize their characters as vehicles in a greater goal to showcase the effects of rebellion under varying degrees of authority. Published in 1949, 1984’s main character Winston Smith is a man that lives his life under the authoritative party, a party that has effectively erased any traces of free will and individual identity (“Nineteen Eighty-Four”). Winston Smith is the specific character that Orwell uses to explore the effects of a highly authoritative environment. Concepts like “thought crime”, thinking outside the confines of what the party approves of, are against the law or even “face crime”, having the wrong expression on one’s face, are all serious crimes, among many others, that are against this higher authority figure that exists in this totalitarian state.  This environment where there is no chaos, no free will, and no room to do anything that may upset the order of things has obvious detrimental effects on Winston Smith. The result of this oppressive environment is Smith exhibiting rebellious tendencies including having an affair, an action that is strictly prohibited by the authoritative party. Orwell’s character’s actions within this literary framework serve to convey the importance of the serious consequences of having a vastly overpowering entity. These effects are observed by the reader and the creation of this hypothetical situation illustrates the importance of free will and being able to think in a stream of consciousness not subjected to an outside force. George Orwell’s novel utilizes this specific character as a macrocosm of what could potentially occur if society ever reaches this totalitarian state.

 In a very foundational way, The Cat in the Hat, a seemingly innocent children’s book, has characters that share character attributes of Winston Smith, attributes which ultimately contribute to the more universal theme of the effects of authority in society. In The Cat in the Hat, first published in 1957, an asinine Cat comes to the home of two young children in hopes of amusing them with tricks and his sidekicks, Thing One and Thing Two (“The Cat in the Hat”). The children, who have been left alone to take care of each other while their mother attends to duties outside the house, feel as though the serenity of their home is being invaded by the presence of these unexpected characters. The Cat in the Hat indicates the evolving role of parents, the authoritative figure, in a child’s life. Even with authoritative figure, the mother, absent from the situation, the children are still aware of the consequences of what could occur if the chaos does not stop. This knowledge of being reprimanded leads the children to capture Thing One and Thing Two and force the Cat under their authority.

 Like Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it seems as though George Orwell’s 1984 and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in Hat are both texts that have more in common than visible on the surface. Orwell offers a vivid depiction of a totalitarian state and the consequences it would render among individuals while Dr. Seuss, some eight year later, offers a similar lesson on the effects of authority figures, in this case, on children. These books are seemingly different as they obviously cater to different demographic groups and are intended to be read with a different mindset, but it seems that if the books are brought to the same level, that they are telling the readers of the same thing.

So why is George Orwell’s 1984 taught in Advanced Placement high school English classes while Dr. Seuss is left behind in grade school? If both texts ultimately have the same message then why not save sleep-deprived teenagers the time and give them the short cut? It is obvious that Orwell and Seuss do not present the message in exactly the same way, but the essence of the thematic message, many of the same conclusions about authoritative figures and its effect on those that are ruled by these figures can be observed.            

Finally, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax are another pair of texts that share more commonalities than an individual would presume upon first glance. First published in 1971, The Lorax is a book that warns society of the consequences of exercising greed and the detrimental effects it has for the greater good. The Once-ler is a character that is fascinated by the Truffula tree and chops them down to make various goods that he sells for profit. Ultimately, the greed that the Once-ler exhibits depletes the environmental resources of the community leading to a serious reflection about the importance of preservation and continuation (Galludet University). The negative affects that greed as on a community is explored thorough the fictional society that Seuss creates.            

Famed novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, explores life through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway, who through his interactions in various situations with other individuals, allows the reader to gain insight into the lives of others. One of the most important observations that Carraway makes is the hollowness, in terms of self-being, of the elite socialites that he encounters. Carraway observes the emptiness of the characters which is especially illuminated since these social elites are juxtaposed with luxurious material goods (Pickart). The greed that these socialites exhibits is apparent but the obvious affects of these materially gluttonous individuals experience allows for Fitzgerald to impart the wisdom that satisfaction is not all it is set up to be and that one has to be careful by the means in which they acquire it. Fitzgerald also utilizes symbolism to signify the negative consequences of greed by creating a space in between two economically distinct communities called the “Valley of the Ashes” (Pickart). This valley is meant to represent the corrupt moral fabric that blanketed society during the 1920’s as a result of greedy behavior.           

 It is popular knowledge, that authors create books for some higher purpose than simply writing some words down on a page. Writers want their words to be read so they utilize various literary elements including symbolism, characters, plots, themes, motifs, among other elements to create something to be celebrated. Walt Whitman’s book is celebrated because he was himself, Charles Darwin’s book is celebrated the emergence of a new theory, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book is celebrated his because he was able to provide complex insight into individuals personal tribulations as a consequence of the overwhelming greediness that plagued society. But why do people choose to place Dr. Seuss in the children’s section of the bookstore while The Great Gatsby is placed in the American classics section? Both texts portray the importance of being a morally upright and un-greedy individual so why are these texts not placed side by side, celebrated together and regarded by individuals in the same way?            

Through the examination of books that are more or less classified in vastly different categories, it can be seen that the parallels between these texts there and certainly are not the only ones present as with further scrutiny, there are sure to be more similarities that emerge in regards to other literary elements. If authors are writing for a purpose, to speak to a larger issue, to change the readers life in some way or to have the reader think differently or in a completely new way about something, then how many of essentially the texts does the things literary community require until they believe that they have fulfilled their goal?

If these texts are explored from a very unsophisticated point of view, Beloved and The Sneetches both share a theme while The Cat in the Hat and 1984 offer hypothetical situations of how characters respond in an environment where there is an authority to answer to and finally, The Lorax and The Great Gatsby offer wisdom about the value of being un-greedy. These books, all at a very foundational level, offer the same take away message to the readers in different forms. It is true that there is definite variability among how the message is presented but is the variance enough for the literary community to continue on with the belief that they can survive forever?  When are authors going to stop repacking the old and offer society something new and revolutionary? As everything that was going to be established within the literary community already been established? Are readers to wait for the next book that repackages the old in the most entertaining way possible and deem that a bestseller?

The exploration of these different literary texts, with genres, authors, plots, characters, writing style among other elements all unique in their individual ways, have led to the conclusion that unique may not be good enough. Although the literary community has experienced the birth of new genres, new ideas, and new authors that have brought about fresh ways of writing, it seems that all this divergence was simply a unique way to wrap up the old and present it in a new more unique way. At some point, and evidence of it occurring has been explored through Dr. Seuss and other texts, the divergence that has been experienced does not have strength to survive on its own which inevitably leads back to already established literary elements.

It is noted that Beloved, 1984 and The Great Gatsby offer more The Cat in the Hat and 1984 both offer more than just the themes that have been extracted. Each in their own respect has offered a new story in the journey to simple and understanding a given concept, idea, thought or situation. It goes without any argument, that each of these authors in their own respect has offered the literary community a profound story in the depiction of each theme or end message. Each authors has offered a style in all of their own, a unique representation of themselves. But how long can these authors, among others, survive, if they are simply twisting, rehashing, and repacking an already established theme? When will writers be able to write on something that does not come back to the idea that tolerance is an important facet of life that should be practiced at the risk of devaluing identity, or of the varying affects that authority has on individuals, or even of the implications and consequences of being too greedy? The crack that was evident in the story telling process of a particular theme has been filled time and time again but various authors of different styles. The moans of English students in the hallways of Ridge High School in response to dreading receiving another book that would telling the same story as the one before were moans of disinterest or exhaustion or even ignorance? It seems that these moans served as a macrocosm of a voice that was fed up with the pretty repackaging, the different syntax or diction, maybe there was a difference in the characters but ultimately, it seemed that every book was intertwined in more ways than one which made reading them unbearable in more ways than one.

So, a challenge should be presented to the literary community to create something new, fresh, thought provoking, controversial that does not relate in any way to already published books or already established themes- a new species of literature that diverges completely and allows for the cracks to be filled producing a new set of literature that is only weakly based in its predecessor. Because honestly, it is no secret that readers never have nor ever will like the predictable taste that fruitcake offers and much rather prefer to savor every bubble of the expensive champagne.              

Works Cited

Galludet University, "The Lorax: A Review of the Story." 1 Sept 2006. 9 May 2009 http://csc.gallaudet.edu/soarhigh/Review.html.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 1991. Print."Nineteen Eighty-Four: Wikipedia." 8 May 2009. Wikipedia. 9 May 2009 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four.

Pickart, Jane. "F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"." Cherokee County School District. 9 May 2009 http://wt2.cherokee.k12.ga.us/Jane.Pickart/Gatsby.ppt.

"The Cat in the Hat." 7 May 2009. Wikipedia. 9 May 2009 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cat_in_the_Hat#The_Cat_in_the_Hat.

"The Political Dr. Seuss." Independent Lens. PBS. 9 May 2009 http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/film.html.

The Swedish Academy, "The Offical Website of the Nobel Foundation." Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. 2009. The Nobel Foundation. 9 May 2009 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-bibl.html.

Wadler, Joyce. "Re-Gifting: You Shouldn't Have. But if You Did, Here's How to Get Away With It." The New York Times 24 Dec 2008 D1. Web.9 May 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/25/garden/25regifting.html>. 

 

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