Sunday, January 1, 2012

Appreciate the Journey

Half my English final. I had to write an essay combining Siddhartha, Frankenstein, and Kafka's Metamorphosis, which meant that my teacher called the assignment siddfrankengregor. We were encouraged to bring in other sources, and the prompt was just, 'interpret from a mythological standpoint'.

My main regret on this essay is that I didn't find a way to bring Kamala in. She was interesting, both as a character and as her effect on the story.

A traditional hero needs three traits: a drive to act, an ability to find fulfillment in acting, and success. Failing in the first gives hardly any story—an apathetic character is, at best, a source of passive decay. Without finding fulfillment, the hero will go insane, and likely turn against his or her original goal. Failure in the third is a heroic failure, one of a tragic hero. The character in question still is a hero, but one people do not enjoy thinking of as often.

Superman embodies all of these aspects: his drive is compassion for his fellow man, his fulfillment is in feeling that he does his part, and his super-human abilities give him success. Though darker, Batman is as obviously heroic. Batman’s drive comes from empathy with the victims he protects, for he knows how much a person can be hurt from one crime, and Batman, though tortured, does find fulfillment in protecting those he has taken as charges. This hero’s success comes from the facts that he is clever, rich, and willing to use psychological warfare.

Obvious heroes are not only found in the realm of comic books. In Siddhartha, the eponymous character also fits this—demonstrably flexible—mold. Siddhartha’s drive is a general restlessness with his incomplete life. Siddhartha’s drive comes from the same place his success does: Siddhartha is gifted enough to question, and so becomes restless at even the charmed life of a Brahmin, because it does not stimulate him. Siddhartha finds fulfillment in every step of the journey because each step is new knowledge, and he loves gaining new knowledge. The end of the book may seem a break from this, where he settles down by the river, but even then he meets new people and thinks new thoughts. Siddhartha finds the ultimate fulfillment in the journey: he finds fulfillment in each endeavor. His journey is his goal.

Victor Frankenstein and his monster—whom Mary Shelley called “Adam” in her personal letters—are both fallen heroes. Adam’s drive is a desire to be around other people: to not be alone. He finds fulfillment even when only trying to achieve this goal, as he finds himself content to spend time simply watching a family and learning their language and social hierarchy, expressed most simply in Adam’s learning of the family’s different names for each other (because the girl is both sister and daughter, and the boy is both brother and son). Adam even finds a short period of success when he visits the blind father, for Adam is well spoken and kind. But the success does not last, and Adam is thrown back out into the cold. Being so lonely warps his sense of fulfillment until he no longer has it, only the drive to act—which is no longer desire to be with anyone, but simply desire to hurt his maker as much as his maker hurts him.

The warping pattern is a fairly common one. Victor Frankenstein also finds himself warped, though in the opposite direction: Victor relied upon the goal of creating life, rather than the process of scientific discovery that led him along it. Therefore, when the final product—a life—is other than what the doctor had envisioned, he breaks down. That mistake haunts him, as Dr. Frankenstein is haunted both within his own psyche when he goes into hysterics, and by his creation, who kills everyone Victor loves before finishing off Victor. This pattern also appears with more subtlety in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The stepmother (Bernadette Peters) acts as antagonist throughout the movie, yet she is not a flat villain. She reacts wistfully when Cinderella describes the ball in romantic terms, and this helps the viewer remember that, when Cinderella lost her mother, her stepmother lost her husband. In her own words, the stepmother “fell in love with love one night when the moon was full”—her story appears remarkably similar to Cinderella’s. The difference began in a lack of success: “but love fell out—with [her]!” Cinderella’s stepmother lost her love, which was her success, just as it is Cinderella’s, our hero’s. But where Cinderella keeps her love, the stepmother loses hers—and so loses touch with love altogether. The stepmother is perhaps the scariest failure at being a hero, for she does the same thing Adam does: she loses her success and her fulfillment, but not her drive. Cinderella’s stepmother does not kill people, but she does deprive them of life, in her way. She will not allow her daughters to go through the pain she went through, and so warns them away from any sort of love with an almost flippant “learning to trust is just for children in school.” This teaching is the only place she shows any love for Cinderella, for she gives her stepdaughter the same warning. Under all this flows an undercurrent—having realized that the stepmother truly loved Cinderella’s father, her hate stops being a plot device and starts being—perhaps—a reaction to a person who looks too much like what she lost.

A character needs not fall so dramatically. Metamorphosis’ Gregor appears to fall at the beginning of the book, when he turns into a vermin, but his fall came much earlier, and much more quietly. When he was young, he took the job he still had just before the book begins to support his family (journey), and was happy (fulfilled) to bring home money they could use (success). By the time the book begins, however, the family takes Gregor for granted, and the only way Gregor can find any happiness is in the thought of sending his little sister Grete to the conservatory--he finds his satisfaction from daydreaming of his goal, not walking along his journey. When he becomes vermin, he loses any hope, and then loses his drive—the last few pages in which Gregor lives describe him laying down to die, for he gives up even on living.

Within Metamorphosis’ pages, Grete is the hero. She starts out as a background character, but even then journeys firmly and contentedly—she plays the violin, and must be practicing regularly to play it as well as the other characters’ reactions imply. When Gregor repulses the entire family, she finds the drive to aid him, and the intelligence to figure out how to best help him. Though she may not enjoy interacting with the vermin, Grete actively wants to help her family, and so finds fulfillment that way. The climax of the book—when a knight in high fantasy would slay a dragon—is Grete standing up and saying that the family cannot live as they have lived. Her speech convinces Gregor to lie down and die. Though this is not as unambiguously inspiring as a knight slaying a dragon, Grete still acts as a hero because she is the primary force in the book that makes things better—for her brother, for her family, and for herself.

A hero is not a hero is not a hero. Though there are clear examples, such as Superman, there are also those whose lack of success or lack of fulfillment warp them so badly that they become unable to be heroes—Victor Frankenstein, Gregor—or even become villains—Adam, Cinderella’s stepmother. And there are those who, despite the story not revolving around them, are still heroes—such as Grete. Pinning down heroes is difficult, because they are cultural constructs that change their cultures. Siddhartha brought enlightenment, Batman and Superman safety, Grete hope. Each, through their drive, their ability to walk the journey without warping themselves, and their success, changes the world. That is a hero.

Works Cited
Cinderella. Dir. Robert Iscove. Perf. Brandy Norwood, Bernadette Peters and Veanne Cox. American Broadcasting Company (ABC), 1997. Television.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Toronto: Bantam, 1971. Print.

Kafka, Franz, and Stanley Corngold. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Toronto [etc.: Bantam, 1972. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. Print.

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