Literature is most valuable for what it helps us understand about the world and to help us come to realizations about ourselves as we learn and grow. Although time and culture evolve, human nature does not, which is why humans often still read and connect with pieces written at different points in history. Literature that has no personal relevance to our lives, is only interesting as a historical fragment. Over the last three weeks, we have studied realism, poetry, and naturalism in various texts. In this essay, I will be discussing realism through Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”, poetry through Emily Dickinson, and man in nature through Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.”
Realism was a French movement attempting to find a faithful representation of reality without artificial or artistic convention. Realism stresses character emotion and thought over action and plot. “The Beast in the Jungle” follows this idea, as most of the story examines the thoughts of the main character, John Marcher, and conversations he has with the character May Bartram. The story is rooted in John waiting to find true meaning, never looking beyond himself, and living without understanding the importance of love.
What I felt most connected to and what I found to be most applicable to life today is self-absorption. The reader learns early on in the story that Marcher is obsessed with a lurking feeling that something incredible is to happen to him, a predatory quality, like “a crouching beast in the jungle” as the text describes, although Marcher never explains why he believes that he has been chosen for something different. The self-absorption first appears when he is reacquainted with May and cannot recall their first encounter. On the other hand, she remembers very detailed information about their meeting ten years earlier. She remembers it in a way that she is even able to withhold information that intrigues Marcher’s interest. From this meeting and the many that follow, Henry continues to portray this theme with the two character’s relationship. May has been in love with John for years, while John cannot think of anyone other than himself and is not in love with May. When John Marcher debates whether he should marry May, his conviction and obsession with his beast isn’t a privilege he could share with any woman.
Humans are complex creatures. We are self-aware and perceive ourselves through every aspect of ourselves we’re conscious of. I am not denying that self-perception is 100% natural in humans, I just feel that self-absorption has gotten to dangerously high levels in today’s society more than ever thanks to social media. Digital platforms provide men and women from any background the opportunity to advertise themselves. This is done through words in comments, likes, status updates, and private/group messages, however, it is most clearly seen through pictures. Photos are no longer for memory purposes, but more so being taken for self-promotion purposes. Many are experiencing life simply to snap the right photo to receive likes and comments to support their self-absorbing agenda. Adding to the problems, apps like Snapchat and Instagram offer photo-editing filters to achieve the illusion of a perfect appearance. These altering tactics help people look and feel extra fit and happy. Comments from others confirm this more. To reinstate, self-perception is natural and healthy, however as we saw through John Marcher and see in people today, it can be the destruction of the self and relationships with others.
While fiction and the essay were important literary genres during the latter part of the 19th century and into the first years of the 20th, poetry also flourished during the period, particularly in the works of Emily Dickinson. From class notes, we learned she lived in almost total physical isolation from the outside world and we can see that her poetry reflects her loneliness. Several of her poems focus on death as her principal subject. During Dickinson‘s early years, she experienced the death of many people close to her, including that of her cousin. It is easy to see why she felt familiar with the topic. The two poems I want to discuss with this theme are “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died.” In “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” Death becomes a driver and arrives to take the speaker on a supernatural journey beyond the grave. Death is made out to be kind, driving with care, and has formal politeness about him. This ride appears to take the speaker past symbols of the different stages of life, before coming to a halt at what is most likely her own grave. In my opinion, this poem explores all the uncertainties and questions of what happens once you die. “I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died” describes the atmosphere of a room where someone is dying, with a weird twist; the sound of a fly buzzing around the deathbed. She tells us about the people standing around her, who are calmly preparing for her final moment. She mentions the will to show us that everything is truly ready. Right at the end, the fly interposes, coming between the light and her. While some have argued this shows dissatisfaction with the end, I think it represents the last vision she sees before death.
My connection to these two poems by Dickinson comes from my background as a Christian. Although she doesn’t state this directly, I feel it’s safe to infer through Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she called ‘my closest earthly friend”, that religion goes hand and hand with death in her writing. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” examines one of life’s greatest mystery is what happens when people die. Death is at the very core of the Christian religion. There is an anticipation of a heavenly Christian afterlife as the bible describes heaven far more glorious than anything we can even begin to imagine on earth. I felt very at peace reading this. The “kindness” of the driver (Death) was comforting and I felt reassured hearing eternity. People often think of death to be scary, however, I think the image of death created in “I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died” as not ruthless, or brutal, should ease the fear that people have. Death and acceptance are the major themes of both of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Unlike realism, which focuses more on literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophical position. Naturalistic writers, created characters beings governed by their instincts and passions as well as how the characters’ lives were governed by forces of heredity and surroundings.
The relationship between humans and the world is a central theme in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” The four men in the dinghy are trying to justify their survival in the struggle against the sea, but their values and calls to the heavens go unanswered. The prevalent idea in Naturalism is the belief that humans are creatures and subject to the same laws of nature that all creatures are, despite the characters’ courage and brotherhood. Nature does not have emotions and cannot show care for the four men in the dinghy. Waves are going to crash and the ocean is going to do what the ocean does even without human presence. Throughout the plot of the story, we see a drastic change in how the men understand this relationship. The men go from thinking that the universe is intentionally making them suffer to thinking it’s completely indifferent.
While I enjoyed the read, I think man and nature no longer have the same relationship today as they did when Stephen Crane wrote this story in 1897. “Nature is a force to be reckoned with” is a common expression however I believe this is understated and has been slowly losing credibility. Naturalism often depicts a human situation in which the individual is insignificant in the universe they live in, however, it doesn’t look at how humans can affect nature. Examples include deforestation, coral bleaching, pollution, and poaching-driven animal extinction.