Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Crime and Punishment

A big question for a big novel...

It seems as though my big question is central to the progression of this novel. Razkolnikov is basically embarking on a journey to discover what validates his existence. The novel begins with a bleak picture of Razkolnikov's life. He lives in a cramped apartment with ominous torn yellow wall paper and does... nothing. It is clear from the beginning that he is capable of more. He is obviously intelligent, capable of great things, and has quite a few people encouraging him to improve his lot in life (Nastasya, Razumihin, Dounia and Pulcheria). So then why is he vegging out in his horrible apartment? I think it is because he has finally decided that he wants to find an answer to the question of what validates his existence. Does the love of his mother and sister alone validate his existence? Does his intelligence, his youth, or his potential? Clearly not. Razkolnikov longs for a lasting validation, something larger than just I am therefore... I am.

So what does Razkolnikov do? He attempts to find out if he is a "louse" or a "man"(360). He attempts to find out if he is an "extraordinary" man. And he does this by murdering two women with an ax... If he could successfully murder the old pawnbroker, he believed, without guilt, he would finally be able to validate his existence. He could exist in order to better humanity by ridding it of evil people. Or so goes the theory. Unfortunately, he ends up murdering an innocent woman and being torn apart by paranoia - by guilt. Not only does he discover that he is not an extraordinary man, but he also discovers that he has a conscience.
The only thing left to discover is - still - what validates his existence.

A turning point in this novel, in my opinion, was Razkolnikov's rash decision to pay for Marmaledov's funeral. Through this action, I think he could be attempting to validate his existence through good deeds, rather than bad. In doing so, Razkolnikov ends up meeting Sonia. He is drawn to her for her sin. He is drawn to her seeming desire to continue living in the face of so much hardship. At one point, he gets angry at her and tells her, "your worst sin is that you have destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing" (279). Clearly, Razkolnikov does not believe that love is a reasonable validation of existence, as Sonia's "sin" was done for the sake of her family. He had experienced the overwhelming love of Dounia and Pulcheria, and, it seems, the love of the landlady's daughter whom he planned to marry. Razkolnikov wants something greater than just the devotion of a fellow human. It seems as though settling for love as a validation is the same as saying that he is a louse. If he is able to find a greater reason to exist, however, he can finally consider himself a man. His initial instinct to do good in Marmaledov's death leads to his ultimate redemption, putting him face to face with the power of saving love and human forgiveness through Sonia. My favorite chapter in the book was Razkolnikov's confession to Sonia. It illuminated his own confusion in relation to the murder. It showed that his search for validation had failed and that he was still looking.

So in the end, what validates Razkolnikov's existence?


"... a full resurrection into a new life" (471)


"They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other"(471).


"the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life"(472).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Henry IV

Upon reflection, I have come to the realization that many of the central conflicts that arise in Shakespeare's Henry IV are partially a result of the characters' differing validations of existence. Here are some examples:

Henry IV vs. Prince Hal: Henry IV has a history of lusting after power. After taking the throne from Richard II, Henry goes on to rule England with little care for the will of the people. His validation of existence is maintaining as much power as possible . While it seems that Prince Hal also finds validation for his existence through power, he also find a certain thrill in masking his desires and motivations (his plan to hang out in the pubs so that his reign will seem all the more amazing). It seems that while Henry IV wants power over the people, Hal wants power through the people. This leads to the conflict between Hal, who plans on using the people to gain and maintain power, and his father, who prefers to remain an aloof and mysterious king. Also, through Henry IV's focus on retaining power, he largely ceases caring for the well-being of his son.

Henry IV vs. Hotspur: It seems to me that Hotspur's validation of existence is thorough dedication to what is right. He followed Henry IV loyally because his reign seemed more righteous than that of Richard II. However, once Henry IV starts ignoring his friends and ruling in a way that Hotspur thinks is unjust, Hotspur decides that he must dedicate himself to taking this corrupt king out of power. Instead of emphasizing power in his life, like Henry IV, Hotspur emphasizes justice and loyalty to what is right.

Hal vs. Falstaff: Falstaff validation of existence seems to be having a good time and doing as little meaningful work as possible. While Hal partially validates his existence through honor (such as when he decides to fight on the side of the king), Falstaff scorns honor as a pointless figment of the human imagination ("Honour is a mere scutcheon" 5.2.139). These contradicting validations lead Falstaff to deceive Hal and for Hal to eventually cast Falstaff out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Oedipus Rex

In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles comments on various characteristics of Greek society. Rather than focusing on Oedipus' personal validation of existence, I am drawn to the study of Greek culture as a whole, and its various validations.

One of the elemental validations Sophocles reveals is that of a loyalty to the Gods. By portraying Oedipus' misfortunes as a product of his hubris, Sophocles argues that men who think themselves equal to the Gods are doomed to an ugly fate. Though Jocasta urges Oedipus to stop questioning the oracle and accept ignorance, he continues to probe the blind seer, bringing about his eventual demise. This is one example of a man believing he is above the will of the Gods, a veritable sin in Greek culture. Sophocles uses Oedipus to caution Greeks against hubris, and to illuminate an integral validation of existence for the Greeks, loyalty and obedience to the gods.

Additionally, Sophocles characterizes honor as a validation. Though Oedipus's life became steeped in shame, his decision to exile himself, thus removing his burdens from his people, appears honorable to his fellow men and to the audience. In order to be validated in existence as a Greek, Sophocles argues that you must have a strong sense of honor.

The last great validation for Greeks is respect for the well-being of Greek society. Oedipus remains respectful of his people, understanding that his own happiness is subordinate to the happiness of his people. He is constantly working to improve the lives of his people. When he learns of the plague, his sole focus becomes solving this plague and freeing his people from unhappiness. For the Greeks, this loyalty to one's people represents strong leadership, and even strong citizenship.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Okay, this is a youtube sock puppet rendition of the plot of Atonement in case you are curious... it's not completely accurate or serious but it's funny

With so many complex and interesting characters in Atonement, this post could go on forever, so I am going to focus on Briony, because of her various and contrasting validations for existence throughout the novel.

I would like to start out by saying that I related to Briony throughout the first part of this novel in many ways. I myself have experienced the intense and difficult emotional transition from "childhood" to something beyond it. I also share her passion for writing and her desire to find a real life experience to bring truth to her works. I found this passage extremely revealing:
"She severed the sickly dependency of infancy and early childhood,
the schoolgirl eager to show off and be praised, and the eleven-
year-old's silly pride in her first stories and her reliance on her
mother's good opinion"(McEwan 70).
This passage strikes me because it reveals Briony great desire not only to seem mature but to actually become mature. Before this point in the novel, Briony's validation for existence was praise from others, "her mother's good opinion," and the childhood notion that no one was as "valuable to [himself] as Briony was" (34). As Briony's play falls to pieces, her validation for existence switches to an ability to write the truth, to be independent, and to abandon any childish dependency on her mother. This seemingly innocuous transformation , in my opinion, actually makes her eventual accusation a little easier to comprehend. I feel as though she does not accuse Robbie for the limelight it will bring her as much as she does it in the name of truth - that enigmatic entity she has decided she must discover in order to no longer be considered a "child." Though this does not completely rid her of guilt, I feel like it replaces any malicious intent with a complex emotional response to this difficult transformation from child to adult.
Additionally, I find Briony's validation for existence very interesting in the later half of the novel. Most people would automatically say that her validation is the possibility of atonement. Throughout the time that Briony was a nurse, I found her validation to be not so much a desire for atonement as an attempt to isolate herself from any intimate relationships with other people, thereby keeping her volatile imagination from destroying yet another life.
"Sometimes, when a soldier Briony was looking after was in great pain,
she was touched by an impersonal tenderness that detached her from
the suffering, so that she was able to do her work efficiently and
without horror... She could imagine how she might abandon her
ambitions of writing and dedicate her life in return for these moments
of elated, generalized love"(McEwan 287).
I do not view Briony's decision to become a nurse as an attempt to replicate or get close to Cecilia, but rather as an attempt to replace the kind of intense, territorial love she once possessed (towards Cecilia, thus causing her accusation) with a "generalized love," which leaves little room for personal deceptions and betrayels. Though she cannot eradicate her wild imagination or love for praise completely (as is proven by her decision to submit the vase story to a magazine), she realizes the devastating effects of these character traits and fights with as much pugnacity as she can muster to control her impulses. Briony, the same Briony that once jumped at the chance to be in the limelight, tries as hard as possible to dissolve herself into the sea of humanity, while still keeping her vital passions in a secure and controlled environment. This validation is opposite to those that she held as a child, and reveals, in a greater sense, Briony's ability to adapt to changes in her life and her constant effort to perfect - or at least control - herself.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Odyssey

Existence: Continuance in being or life.

As I think back on the lengthy epic poem that is The Odyssey, I begin to see Odysseus's journey as a search for those beliefs, relationships, and actions that validate Odysseus's existence. In his first adventures, he seems to think that glory validates his existence. He enters into situations for the sole purpose of naive curiosity and unnecessary blood lust and comes out of them having lost a little part of himself - among other things. He begins to see the futility of these adventures and begins relying on the wisdom of Athena to guide him home. For me, one of the turning points of Odysseus's journey his visit to the underworld. His conversations with fallen heroes, victims of wrongful death, and his Mother awake in him a new found desire for continuance in life, now that he has experienced firsthand the true nature of death and afterlife.

After this point in the poem, Odysseus begins to understand that his survival, and eventual arrival home, will not only heal him, but also heal the loyal and broken people he has left behind - especially Penelope and Telemachus. The encounter with his Mother in Hades reveals the devastating effect his absence has had on those he left behind. From this point onward, he has a clear goal in mind, and stops at nothing to find his way back his loved ones.

When Odysseus finally arrives in his homeland, his plan for revenge has a larger purpose than just vengeance. His purpose is to heal the lives of Penelope and Telemachus through the destruction of the suitors, who poisoned Odysseus's house all the years he was away. Without destroying them, Odysseus could not pay back the loyalty of his son and wife. When he carries out the deed, he is acknowledging the affect his existence has on others, and - in a roundabout sort of way - rewarding them for all they have done to keep his legend alive.

By the end of this epic, Odysseus has stopped validating his existence with glory and has begun to validate it with loyalty to his family and a passionate respect for life. The continuance of his life is no longer in question, for he is strong in his decisions and surrounded by the support of his loved ones in a place he can finally call home.