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.