Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Sometimes fiction draws us on toward a light, and when it glows brightly, we experience delight in our mutual understanding, in shared communication between the writer, his characters, and the reader.

Sometimes fiction turns corners, spins characters 180-degrees, sending them back upon themselves and their natures as first set forth. They betray themselves and the ground rules invented by the author himself. Such character turns disappoint; we readers feel betrayed, the contract broken.
Looking Up at the Pemaquid Lighthouse Lamp 2010
Photo by Al Griffin

Sometimes fiction is one long arduous march from event to event with only the author’s posturing, pontification, rumination, and observation in between. At such times, through such works, this reader feels used--as if the author would grant me no mercy, no counterpoint, no interaction. I feel as if the young teen on trial before an elderly relative determined to share his life story for my edification while I stubbornly believe I need no edification.

Sometimes authors conceive of an epic, vast in scope and time and place. We readers travel far and beyond the horizon, glimpsing along the way human nature and truth.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a bit of all these types of fiction. Occasionally, the prose narrative delights, and the book is certainly of epic length. It begins with a catastrophic loss in the life of a preteen boy and continues until he has reached manhood. Along that continuum, the man-boy seems wise beyond his years but makes childish, self-interested choices with only the thinnest of rationales provided. Worse, much of the novel, especially the last chapters, are pontification and rumination. The author hopes to strip away the fa├žade of culture and clothes of identity to show us the raw, naked truth: the world continues to turn, life itself is more struggle than joy, happiness is often drug-induced, and bad things most certainly happen to good people while good things definitely happen for bad people. These are truths told elsewhere and better, in my opinion.

Reading Challenge:

One passage from Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, delights. Read it below:

But those sparkling blue shallows--so enticing at first glance--had not yet graded off into depths, so that sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step off into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.

And/or read reviews other than mine above:
Writing Challenge:

Write a review of the prose passage above, focusing upon the style elements that make it delightful. Or, if you read Tartt’s tome, write a review of your own.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Literature Tells the Stories of Human Needs, Including Stories about Those Who've Met their Needs

Stories become timeless, read centuries after their creators have ceased, because those stories tell us about ourselves, about human needs. In previous posts, I described stories that feature characters trying to satisfy physical, psychological, and social needs. The third category suggested by Abraham Maslow and applied to literature includes characters in search of esteem and those on a path toward actualization.

Often plagued by uncertainty and existential questions, such characters struggle toward esteem, toward the very substance and spirit of self. A man’s quest for the truth, for example, and his willingness to stake his own life for something larger than himself are the stories pitting men and women against their circumstances, in pursuit of their natures and their purposes. If these characters succeed in becoming enlightened, they often make the world better for the rest of us. If the characters fail, they crumble before our eyes, returning to dust and ash, pathetic figures holding up a mirror from which readers turn.

In The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Adah illustrates each of Maslow’s hierarchical levels.

When we first meet Adah, we learn she is a twin sister to Leah, born whole, without disability or challenge, an energetic girl living in the shadow of her father, Nathan Price. Adah, on the other hand, struggled in the womb and continues to struggle with her physical needs. The left side of her body fights to be left behind; she thinks, reads, and writes backward and forward; and she rarely expresses her complex, critical thoughts. Foremost among those thoughts is the belief that her deformities are permanent and diminish her worth on this earth.

As a result of those physical challenges, Adah knows psychological uncertainty intimately. When Army ants march into and through her village, the Price family flees. Adah, slow and unsteady, needs help, but her mother, Orleanna, picks up the baby, Ruth May Price, leaving Adah to keep up or be trampled. Adah interprets her mother’s choice as a judgment, but she also discovers that she wants to survive, thinking “…even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious” (Kingsolver)

Lioness. Al Griffin Photography
Being different and disabled, Adah is also insecure socially. She cannot run and play with other children her age. She doubts her father’s faith, even asking a Sunday School teacher why God would oversee a world which condemned Africans to hell for never having been saved or having chosen not to be saved in the Christian church. For her question, she's punished. But when a lion preying upon the village pursues Adah and lets her live, the Congolese believe she is blessed, special, and extraordinary. Readers already know that she is because she is so intuitive, well-read, witty, and strong. What remains is for Adah to believe, and she finally does when her mother chooses her, this time when the family must flee Africa after Lumumba’s death. Grief-stricken over Ruth May’s death, hungry, and weakened by malaria, Orleanna must lead her daughters to safety. She leads Leah to the man who will become her husband. She lets Rachel fly away, but Adah, she pulls close and carries her back home.

Having been chosen, Adah has evolved to a place of physical, psychological, and social security. She has also embraced her own worth. What remains is for her to grow into an actualized person. A doctor guides her in overcoming her diminished left side, and a college professor makes her his lover, confirming her worth to one outside her family. Adah excels, as readers knew she would, becoming a scientist researching viruses, especially those debilitating Africans.

Adah also becomes her mother’s nurturer. Orleanna breaks from the guilt she feels for having been unable to save all her daughters, from having let depression overwhelm her instincts to survive and thrive. She cultivates a garden and raises money for Africa in an effort to atone for Ruth May’s loss. Adah sees and understands even if she cannot ever make that clear or known:

"Betrayal bent me [Adah] in one direction while guilt bent her [Orleanna] the other way. We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.”

Adah has reached a place of enlightenment about herself, her mother, and her usefulness in this life. She labors to make the world a better place by studying and developing cures against viral infections. She cares about herself and for others. She even finds god--although her god is science itself, not the judgmental God of her father’s church.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, considering characters in the context of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Writing Challenge:

Consider your own characters. Which ones are in need of physical security? Of psychological or social security? Which are actualized?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Literature Tells Stories about Our Need to Belong

The need to belong sends guys and gals to bars in search of companionship. Sometimes it ends happily as it did for every character in Crazy, Stupid Love; sometimes it ends horribly as revealed in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

One of Hollywood’s favorite stories about the human need to belong to someone or something is set in high school. The poor Gleeks of Glee, often doused in slushie or dropped into garbage bins, find an outlet for their talents and their hearts in McKinley’s glee club. Both in and out crowd members find each other and a measure of mutual admiration in The Breakfast Club.

Most high school dramedies recount the experiences of teenage angst, human suffering, and painful rites of passage. Poor, alone Charlie in Perks of Being a Wallflower, transplanted 
Cady Heron in Mean Girls, and free-spirited, empathic Olive in Easy A share one key character trait. Each is razor sharp, witty, and blessed with amazing parents. Their talent is intellect, and it sets them apart, but they are still desperate to fit in and absolutely unable to do so. Theirs is a classic and universal story.

Smart is not something with which we Americans are comfortable. We seem to prize calluses on our hands, dirt under our nails, and worn denim upon our backs more than the number of facts we can recite or books we’ve read. Charlie finds an outlet, a place to reside among a clever, older crowd consisting of damaged people, their hurts keen enough to inspire sympathy for Charlie, but large enough to discourage his own from being freely or fully expressed. Charlie exists at the edge of every room and almost chooses death after realizing the nature of a childhood trauma that weighs heavily upon his subconscious.

Gifted Cady hides her mathematical genius in order to appeal to a guy, and she manipulates friends and acquaintances alike in order to advance her own popularity. So desperate to belong, she transforms herself, trying on other people’s personae and values. Her parents’ faith in her wanes as does faith in herself until she embraces being on the fringes of the majority, at home among a minority of people not easily tolerated by that majority. 

Olive is a good student. She follows the rules, including one that requires students to structure their time in order to complete homework. She actually reads the novels assigned for English, the most recent one being The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. She also stumbles into a twenty-first century version of Hester Prynne’s story when Olive falls victim to peer pressure, first by confessing to a tryst that never actually took place and later, by a series of lies based upon her willingness to play the role of tart.

Initially, Olive likes the attention as much as Hester must have until her sin, a pregnancy, became evident. Then Hester and Olive are cast out. Hester must live apart and accept derision daily. Olive has no social group to catch her as she falls from grace. Both women grow reflective, and both learn to embrace their inner strengths. Neither continues to accept society’s judgment. Each finds her own peace and forgiveness within herself.

But authors and filmmakers seem to know the American high school is a place where “ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold’s “Dover Beach") and day. They don’t allow us to believe that we’ve overcome forever. Threads of ostracism still bind us. If they did not, all that teen angst, all those struggles borne of insecurity, would be incomprehensible. The American high school, on television and film, still places kids on scaffolds for public derision.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the works cited in this post.

Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of your own personal high school hell or of your struggle to belong at any age.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Literature Tells the Stories of Unmet Needs

Abraham Maslow evaluated the human experience and declared that each of us must have specific needs met in order to reach our potential, to become whole and actualized, a term Maslow used to describe people who are tolerant and accepting, concerned less about themselves and more for their fellow man. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always made sense to me, but I’ve often wondered if literature could exist if we were a self-actualized species.

Literature seems to churn upon a sea of unmet, archetypal needs, tying one work in the 21st century to a much older classic in the canon of human experience. The very nature of literary conflict is the human’s struggle to meet one or more unmet need. For example,

  • Characters feeling insecure, unprepared, or vulnerable confront unmet physical and psychological needs. Their struggle to meet needs and overcome opens a gate to inner peace, personal growth, and reader satisfaction because we too have faced inner demons and now and then, vanquished them.
  • Characters feeling put upon, misunderstood, and pushed outside the social circle struggle to belong in a story pitting one against another or even a large group or entire nation. The struggling character will seek others like himself to form another, smaller group, perhaps even a shadowy one, unnoticed, possibly invisible, in society. If the struggle ends with the character in the arms of one other, at home some place, then the story concludes pleasantly for us, but if the character is forever cast out, the story ends with a wince and a tear.
  • Characters plagued by uncertainty and existential questions struggle toward esteem, toward the very substance and spirit of self. A man’s quest for the truth, and his willingness to stake his own life for something larger than himself are the stories pitting men and women against their circumstances, in pursuit of their natures and truth. If these characters succeed in becoming enlightened, they often make the world better for the rest of us. If the characters fail, they crumble before our eyes, returning to dust and ash, pathetic figures holding up a mirror from which readers turn.

With today’s post, I will illustrate the first set of needs (or conflicts), physical and psychological, as literature portrays them. Two posts to follow will offer examples for two more categories of need: social and esteem.


Physical jeopardy is a fine story line, one that leads us to stories about treachery, war and poverty.

Greek myths are fraught with physical jeopardy leading to treachery, especially in father-son relationships. Kronos, for example, retains his tyrannical hold by destroying his own children until their mother saves one. That son, Zeus, once endangered by his father’s treachery, overthrows his father, seizes power, and begins to retain his own tyrannical hold by deflecting any real and perceived threats to his reign, often using treachery.

Many, many years later, a scop will tell the tale of Beowulf, an epic figure in harm’s way by choice and circumstance. Though extraordinary, Beowulf is mortal; he needs serendipity, tools and armor to augment his nascent talents. These carry him to glory, but Time enfeebles us all, and Beowulf succumbs in spite of his courage, shield, sword, and helmet, proving that no mortal can overcome physical jeopardy forever.

Several centuries later, Arthur, Gawain, and Lancelot will test their physical limits and prove their psychological health by standing against evil and for God, King, country, and virtue. They too will require armor and strategy, but raw courage will be their first and best weapon in physical and psychological jeopardy.

Many hundreds of years after Romance tales featuring Arthur, William Blake and Charles Dickens place characters in physical and psychological jeopardy. Small children fight for the most basic biological needs: food, shelter, and water. They have few weapons against disease, and they often die too soon.

Today, the tales use as many platforms as the classic pieces from the canon of literature. War places men in physical jeopardy and tests their psychological mettle. Some break and run. Some do as they have been trained; they fight for their side, regardless of the cause. They also fight for each other, but none endures the threat against his life unchanged. All return home changed as depicted in TheThings They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien, The Yellow Birds (2012) by Kevin Powers, Coming Home (1978), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and La Grande Illusion (1937).

Other stories recognize man’s frailty. He may have the gifts of reason and opposable thumbs, but he is not well-equipped to endure. Wolves and want, monsters and maniacs, a single storm or tiny cell can defeat him. Writers as diverse as Jack London and Peter Benchley have delivered tales juxtaposing characters against ice or beasts in Nature. Their lives and their psychological well-being are at stake as their trials prove the measure of their courage and wit.

Action-adventure films and many Young Adult titles turn upon the need for psychological safety. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia need family and home as do Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. The 2013 book by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, places the protagonist in both physical and psychological jeopardy from beginning to end. His is another quest for family, home, and safety.

Writers write about us. They spin tales from a center of unease, often the disquiet deriving from the need to be safe both physically and psychologically.

Reading Challenge:

Carl Jung believed that literature represents the collective unconscious, revealing the timeless human experience. He has synthesized that unconscious mind through an analysis of literature, uncovering and articulating literary archetypes. Review literary archetypes by reading posts from this blog dating from October 22, 2010 through February 4, 2011.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story of your own physical and/or psychological jeopardy.