October 19, 2007
Aristotle’s Poetics encourage the reader to think and feel, to put himself in the place of the characters portrayed in order to learn something about his own behavior or personality. It is assumed then that the purpose of literature, at least according to Aristotle and those that subscribe to his teachings, that the purpose of literature was twofold; one purpose being to think, the other being to feel. In doing this, the literature we read provides us with a mirror by which we are able to explore our own thoughts and feelings. While reading works by Mahfouz, Lessing and Kafka I found that all three authors used their characters to provide the reader with that mirror in order to make us connect with them emotionally; to make us feel.
Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is known for his belief in the social function of art. His stories are more often than not social commentaries, bringing light to the human condition. In the short story “Zaabalawi”, included in the larger collection of Mahfouz’s sories entitled God’s World, the protagonist becomes “afflicted with that illness for which no one possesses a remedy” (Mahfouz 2531). He makes the decision to seek out a holy man known only as Zaabalawi, who his father claimed healed him of this same condition. By not giving the narrator’s illness a name, Mahfouz provides a way for the reader to connect with him; each of us must make our own decision what the illness is, and in doing so we create a connection with the narrator. By choosing for ourselves what terrible illness could have befallen this man that he must seek out a famed holy man, we begin to feel compassion for him. Mahfouz has in this way used the protagonist and his plight to inspire the reader to feel.
Doris Lessing, born to British parents living in Persia and who later lived in the British colony of Rhodesia, also used her writing to speak to social issues and human relationships. In her story “The Old Chief Mshlanga” she tells the story of a young girl raised in an African nation, the daughter of a plantation owner who is raised to see the native people as inferior. Until the day when she comes across Old Chief Mshlanga on the road, she never questioned this, but after speaking with him she becomes curious. Nkosikaas, as we know her, begins to see her world differently. The landscape changes from the “veld that seemed unreal” (Lessing 2727) to a world in which her “footsteps struck directly on the African soil” (Lessing 2729). In describing this change in the young girl Lessing allows the reader a sense of Nkosikaas’ coming to realize that her world is a real place and not a thing of fantasies. Each of us go through a similar realization, and in connecting our memories of growing up to the young girl’s experiences, Lessing gives us a way to connect with her. Once that connection is established, we are drawn into the story; we are inspired to feel because we can see ourselves in Nkosikaas’ place.
One of the most recognizable things about Franz Kafka’s writing is the way he uses descriptions to make the settings and actions in his stories more real to the reader. In “The Metamorphosis” Kafka uses this technique to quickly draw us into the story. Anyone who has ever watched a beetle get flipped onto its back can get a sense for the frustration Gregor Samsa feels upon waking and finding himself transformed. What is even more real to us is his attempt to rationalize what has happened. “‘What if I slept a little more and forgot all about this nonsense.’ he thought” (Kafka 1999). It’s easy, despite the nightmarish circumstances, to put yourself in his place; not many people can say they haven’t woken at some point in their life and thought things would look better if they just went back to sleep for a little while longer. By taking the terrifying events and putting them into an ordinary world that we recognize, Kafka creates a connection between the reader and Gregor. We pity him, because we have all been in his shoes.
One of the goals of any writer is to draw the reader into their stories, for in doing so you give the reader a reason to care. Doris Lessing, Franz Kafka, and Naguib Mahfouz all accomplished this task, each in their own way inspiring the reader to feel through the connections they created between their characters and those that read their works.
Kafka, Franz, “The Metamorphosis,” Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. The Modern World: Self and Other in Global Context. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York : W.W. Norton & Company. 1999-2030.
Lessing, Doris, “The Old Chief Mshlanga.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. The Modern World: Self and Other in Global Context. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York : W.W. Norton & Company. 2726-2734.
Mahfouz, Naguib, “Zaabalawi,” Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. The Modern World: Self and Other in Global Context. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York : W.W. Norton & Company. 2531-2538.
I received glowing comments from the professor about this essay, and it’s one of the only ones I still have the graded essay from.
“I really admire the “scholarship” of this essay. The work you did with the editorial commentary really clarifies and strengthens your position. Your ability to synthesize that information into textual analysis of the particular story shows an extremely high level of reading comprehension and analytic / critical thinking skill. Well done. ”
“Your use of quotation marks also shows a high level of writing proficiency. I may “love” you!”
Usually, when someone says “I saved the best for last,” it is often empty rhetoric; however, here’s a case for the verity of that statement. Your essay did arrive last, and it WAS worth the wait. Thank you, thank you!
This essay shows such a high level of both reading and writing (including structure, format, documentation, and editing) skill that it is just simply remarkable.
What is even more gratifying is the plainly wonderful scholarship that went into it. Thank you. I can’t remember a more pleasurable read in student essays. You rule. cm”