My name is Talia Kliot and I am in the Literature Profile of the ALC Program. I wrote this essay for a class called Literary Movements that explores the impact of current events on literature, allowing us to read novels and poetry through a more specialized lens. While literature tends to be specific to its era, certain elements, like the absurd in this essay, tend to be used by the skilled authors regardless of when it is written. In the future, I hope to pursue my passion for words and their interpretations by writing a book of my own.
An Absurd Essay
By Talia Kliot
The artistic movements that correspond to different time periods often take important concerns of the era and transform them into literary conventions. In Jane Eyre, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Atonement, we see influences of Romanticism, realism, modernism, and postmodernism, making these works fairly different both in message and in writing style. As discoveries are made and wars are fought, literature evolves to reflect what has happened as well as the fears of the future. From realism to postmodernism, we see a major shift in the self-importance that humans award themselves, which can be seen by analyzing the elements of the absurd present in the three novels mentioned above. First, Jane Eyre will demonstrate that while the absurd isn’t generally a characteristic of Victorian literature, it still appears occasionally, and leads us to important conclusions about Victorians’ skewed perception of themselves. Next, with the contrast of The Kreutzer Sonata, we can see the radical shift in ideals to modernism and its ample use of the absurd. Finally, the slightly different approach that Atonement applies to this concept will allow us to grasp the gravity of the World Wars, and see the way they have affected our perception of ourselves.
In Jane Eyre, like in most works of fiction that straddle Romanticism and realism, the absurd is not common. Since it is meant to comment on the disjoint between what we place importance on and what is actually important, the absence of the absurd in Victorian novels confirms the self-righteousness of the era’s writers. The educated population in this time period valued conformity so intensely that many literary works of the era preferred not to point out the flaws of their society. Charlotte Brontë, being ahead of her time, sprinkles criticisms into Jane Eyre, but carefully, so as to not shock her audience. She manages to do this by making Victorian notions of conventionality seem over-dramatized. For example, frequently throughout the novel, Jane comments that she is anything but “handsome” (Brontë 17), pointing out many a “displeasing irregularity” (161). Jane places great value on physical appearances, much like the Romantics and realists, but by repeating her self-critiques so often, they become an element of the absurd. Not only does Jane personally draw attention that she is “a thing rather than an angel” (262), she also emphasizes that other people share that same belief, including St. John, who reminds us that “she would always be plain” (340) and Bessie, who states that Jane “was no beauty as a child” (93). As readers, we get frustrated with her self-deprecation, and might find it ridiculous how much time she spends complaining about her looks in light of her impressive intellectual capacity. This absurdity goes hand in hand with the high regard with which the Victorians looked upon themselves after the industrial revolution.
Possibly the most prevalent instance of this commentary in the novel, however, is Jane’s obsession with the red-room incident, and the fact that she still feels “the reverberation [of it] to this day” (22). She over-dramatizes this punishment, using language worthy of true horrors when recalling the “spasm of agony that clutched [her] heart” (73) while she was forced into that “dark and haunted chamber” (73). She awards great importance to this event, and even blames it for her self-characterized undesirable qualities. From this, we can clearly see the disjoint between what we perceive as life-changing and what actually is. The few uses of the absurd in this work question the significance of humans on a larger scale, which at the time was still a relatively new way of thinking.
The greater prevalence of the absurd in modernist works like The Kreutzer Sonata reflects the characteristic rejection of Victorian self-assurance and idealism. In this novel, the absurd shows us that while we may perceive certain things to be of the utmost concern, the actions that they may lead us to take, and the emotions that they lead us to feel, are very drastic. For instance, the argument that Podzneyshev has with his wife that inspires him to “either want to kill [himself] or kill her” (Tolstoy 153) is over whether a dog won a medal or simply honourable mention at a dog show. It is surprising that something that has little relevance to their lives, or to almost anyone else’s, for that matter, could have fueled this terrible outburst. Another demonstration of the absurd is the way Pozdnyshev falls in love with his future spouse. He explains that “if […] my wife had gone around in an ill-fitting housecoat” (118), as opposed to “the tight silk of the stockinet dress that she was wearing” (114), he would “have never fallen in love and none of all this would have happened” (118). He attributes the dress his future wife was wearing to falling in love, and falling in love to the “inevitability” of murdering her. The use of this technique exposes Pozdnyshev, along with, Tolstoy implies, most men of the time, for blaming their poor actions on insignificant factors that they blow out of proportion, and puts forward the idea that we should be held responsible for our wrongdoings. Since many more examples of the absurd can be found in this novel, it reinforces the modernist tendency to point out that humans place too much importance on objects of material value.
In Atonement, the absurd is mostly used to restore order in a chaotic world, but also, in the wake of the scientific development of weapons that can wipe out an entire human race, it reminds us of the futility of our petty concerns. To illustrate, when Robbie and his companions arrive at Dunkirk, in the face of the complete disorder there, the lieutenant “[orders] the corporal to tie his laces immediately or face a charge” (McEwan 246). In the midst of the death and destruction of war, it seems futile to worry about untied laces and charges from the army, but the characters try to keep some semblance of order and civilization. McEwan suggests here that the only thing that we humans have left is reverting to a routine, even one that is completely irrelevant in the grand scheme. We can see this portrayed even more intensely in a comic scene that follows Robbie and Nettle asking a townswoman for some food for survival. Robbie affirms, in all seriousness, “that if they did not capture the pig, they would never get home” (255). Placing all that gravity in something so ridiculous, along with many other uses of the absurd found in Atonement, underlines the postmodernist realization that our existence is void of purpose.
The evolution of the absurd over these three literary movements, then, portrays the fact that human self-perception diminishes significantly as time progresses. In fact, in our current world, the prevalence of social media makes the smallest inconvenience seem like the most drastic problem, while we probably should be focusing on the more world-altering problems that we face as a society. From this, it can even be derived that the entirety of our existence is absurd, and that maybe we should all take a moment to reconsider what we value in life.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin, 2009.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Random House, 2001.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Kreutzer Sonata. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories. Translated by
David McDuff. Penguin, 2008.