A Study In Life:

"The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant."

Essays From School

This is a page for me to post some of the essays that I've done in school that I particularly like, or that friends have shown interest in.  Please no plagarism, I have already finished the semesters that these were graded during, but I would not like to enable cheating. Any comments, or ideas can be put in the forums. 

The Meaninglessness of it All--an essay on Cat's Cradle

 

One of the major themes that Vonnegut is critiquing in Cat’s Cradle is the human condition and its search for truth through meaningless institutions.  Throughout the world people are on a search for truth, and many find that truth through either religion or science.  The two warring viewpoints of science and religion has been a large topic of debate in recent decades, with both sides believing that their beliefs are superior.  Cat’s Cradle is full of characters that vary from those of each side, to those in the middle who give insights in to the meaninglessness of both. 

Although those from both sides of the argument relish in pointing out the differences between the science and religion, they are both similar in their desire for truth.  Both are looking for some greater understanding of the universe and the truths that govern it, whether it is through God or through Science.  The two main characters in the book that represent the scientist side of the argument are Dr. Breed and Dr. Hoenikker.  Dr. Breed’s view on truth was that “the more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”  So for him, the pursuit of truth through science was the more important thing, this opinion is shared by Dr. Hoenikker.  “The Main thing with Dr. Hoenikker was truth.”  Dr. Hoenikker though seemed to be on a search for a much more elusive truth, that he was unable to find, “he bet I couldn’t tell him anything that was absolutely true.”  From the Religious side, the arguments for truth were set out as a mockery of itself.  Vonnegut gives us Bokononism as a religion that is self-aware of its lack of truth, “all of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”  The truths found in religion, whether shameless lies or not, are  put there to fulfill mankind’s need to find some meaning to life.

                        “I wanted all things

                                To seem to make some sense,

                                So we all could be happy, yes,

                                Instead of tense.

                                And I made up lies,

                                So that they all fit nice,

                                And I made this sad world

                                A par-a-dise.”

 

            The need to understand and find meaning in life is something that mankind needs:

                                    “Tiger got to hunt,

                                                Bird got to fly;

                                                Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’

                                                Tiger got to sleep,

                                                Bird got to land;

                                                Man got to tell himself he understand.”

 

Both science and religion strive to find meaning and understanding in life, and both try to find reasons to showcase their superiority over the other.  Dr. Hoenikker is very typical of the scientific side of this; “The trouble with the world was . . . that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”  The fact that one of Hoenikker's creations brings about the end of the world is a direct contradiction of the ideal that science brings only good.  The strong inclination to cling to a belief system of any kind also brings with it a vulnerability to the unlimited influence of it. 

“These people made a captive of the spurious holy man names Bokonon.  They brought him here, placed him at their center, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God Almighty was up to and what they should now do.  The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because He was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die.  This, as you can see, they did.”

            The strongly scientific and the religious in the book are contrasted by more neutral characters such as Newt and Julian Castle.  It is from Newt’s painting that the book draws its title of Cat’s Cradle.  “A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look at all those X’s . . .  ‘And?’  No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”  Castle draws similar meaning from Newt’s painting when he sees it “so this is a picture of the meaninglessness of it all!  I couldn’t agree more.”  Newt applies his statement of comparing the cat’s cradle to different things throughout the book to show that he finds many things in life to be meaningless.  It is through characters like this and the joking nature of Bokononism, that you can see the underlying theme of the book.

            In equally critiquing science and religion, Vonnegut is trying to mocking the opinion that either one of superior to the other, and to showcase that each is a flawed system that is put on a pedestal that neither deserve.  Many characters in the book, from Dr. Hoenikker to the devout Bokononists on the island, look to either science or religion as being a universal system that they use to find the meaning and truth of life.  While in reality, neither alone is enough, as is said so well by Miss Faust early in the book “I don’t know whether I agree or not.  I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for one person.”  The black and white viewpoint that either is a perfect system is an ideal that only leads to trouble, be it ignorance and discrimination against those who believe differently, or to the end of the world, there is no one truth to the world.  Everything is relative.

The Three Aspects of Individualism

 

            The issue of individualism is extremely complex and varied.  The ideal of what an individual is becomes an issue of much debate and many different theories and definitions.  I have chosen to define an individual as someone who fits three important aspects of individualism: that they are intellectual and critical in their thinking, that an individual follows their nature, and that they are self-aware and understand the society that they come from and how it affects them.  These three aspects of individualism come from the theorists: Emile Durkheim, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ruth Benedict. I believe understanding and embodying these three ideals is the key to being an individual.  Taking the U.N. definition for overall poverty as a “lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods” (Gordon, 3) I argue that as long as someone is able to adhere to the three aspects previously mentioned, being in poverty does not affect their ability to become an individual. 

            The first of these aspects that I am going to address is Durkheim’s theory, “Yes, it is quite true that individualism implies a certain intellectualism; for freedom of thought is the first of the freedoms . . . the right for each individual to know the things he can legitimately know.” (Durkheim 280)  The importance of intellectualism comes from the importance to make use of the freedoms that are given to you.  If you do not take advantage of the opportunities for freedom that are given to you, then you cannot be an individual.  The freedom of thought and to be intellectual is available to you no matter what economic status you are living in.  One of the greatest thinkers of his time, Karl Marx, lived in abject poverty for much of his life; “the poverty of the Marx's family was confirmed by a Prussian police agent who visited the Dean Street flat in 1852. In his report he pointed out that the family had sold most of their possessions and that they did not own one ‘solid piece of furniture’.” (Marx)  Even through the struggles that his family went through, Marx was still one of the most free-thinking people of his time, and his economic situation did not adversely affect his ability to be an intellectual.

Moving on to the theory put forward by Emerson.  He speaks about the importance of being true to oneself saying “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.  Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” (Emerson 262)  The path to individualism therefore must involve being true to your nature.  Being poor does not affect your ability to follow your nature.  A great example of the, sometimes darker side of individualism, is that of Vincent Van Gogh.  He is arguably one of the most well-known artists in the world today but in his own lifetime he lived alone and unwanted by the world around him.  His nature, while being dark, is something that he kept to even when it left him alone and emotionally unstable.  While Van Gogh died alone and in poverty “he had struggled and succeeded at more than he dreamed when he wrote that he hoped to offer the world ‘some memento in the form of drawings of paintings . . . to express human feeling.’ (Letter to Theo, c. August 4–8, 1883)” (NGA Classroom) Financially, he had not been successful in life, but he did leave the world plenty of expressions of human emotion, both the good and the bad, but all of his true nature.

            Finally, we come to Benedict’s symbiotic theory of culture and the individual.  “No individual can arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates.  Conversely, no civilization has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of an individual.” (Benedict 306)   Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as The Buddha, is the very embodiment of this ideal.  Although Siddhartha was not born poor, his path to “enlightenment” and to individualism took him through poverty and starvation.  Siddhartha started life very sheltered from the world outside the palace in which he grew up, and once he saw his first glimpse of the outside world he “came to realize that he could not be happy living as he had been.”  Siddhartha was unable to understand who he himself was until he was able to understand the culture to which he belonged.  It wasn’t until he had gained sufficient knowledge of the world around him that he gained a full understanding of himself Siddhartha finally . . . and became the Buddha, which means ‘he who is awake.’” (Boeree)  By understanding the culture to which you belong, you can reach self-awareness, and without self-awareness, you cannot be an individual.

            Others may argue that in fact those who live in poverty or who are the poorer among a society are unable to be individuals.  One of the reasons that might be given for such a logic is that because of the way that this industrialized society is run.  The workers in many of the jobs available, especially those available to the poorer in society, “are managed by a hierarchically organized bureaucracy, and each person turns into a small—or large—cog in this machine.  He lives under the illusion of being an individual—while he has turned into a thing.”(Fromm 331) In an industrialized society even the people become nothing more than a part of the machine that runs life, making it impossible for someone to truly be an individual.

            The major problem with that line of thinking is that there is so much variability in human personality and behavior that is greatly influenced by the situation that they are in.  “Classifying people as one or another distinct personality type fails to capture their full individuality. . . . The consistency of specific behaviors from one situation to another is another matter . . . people do not act with predicable consistency . . . we need to be cautious about labeling and pigeonholing individuals.” (Myers 592, 598)  The way that someone acts at work and the role that they fulfill there is far from the only aspect of their personality, and it most certainly does not prevent them from being an individual. 

            Poverty is something that has a definite effect on a person’s life; however that effect is not one that prevents them from being an individual.  The three aspects of individualism; critical thinking, following your nature, and self-awareness; are things that those who are poor are perfectly capable of attaining.  The task of finding a definition for individualism is something that is very difficult to do, simply because an individual is someone who is almost impossible to define, you walk past dozens of people on the street and any number of them could be individuals but you wouldn’t be able to see it.  The task of defining something that is unseen is always going to be difficult and there will always be disagreements.  The best that anyone can do is to define what it is to them to be an individual and to strive to live up to that standard.

Twilight and the Resurgence of the Fairy Tale Relationship--Research Paper

 

            Gender throughout history has never remained constant.  Over time and across cultures, the message about what is appropriate behavior for men and women is always different and in constant motion.  Therefore there is no set way to define either masculinity or femininity other than to state that it is the role that either a man or woman plays in their own society. The importance in this issue lies in this very fact.  Throughout society, these roles are often seen as solid and unmoving, which creates many issues when an individual doesn’t comply with the expected ideals (Mead, 862-3).  Ideals about what these roles should be are indoctrinated within us from birth through the way that we observe our parents and the stories that they read to us.  There have also been studies that indicate that infants are treated differently depending on what their sex, “The boy baby learns that he can have what he wants and quickly, the girl baby that she has to learn patience (Greer, 894).”

Some of the most common of these over the last few hundred years have been fairy tales.  These stories have been cycling through societies throughout Europe for hundreds of years and have made their way into American society through Disney and other retellings.  Fairy tales for most of this time has been the most popular way of informing children of what is expected of them in the adult world.  These are ways for children to understand the world in ways that they can relate to (Bettelheim, 2-3).  Nowadays you can see many more young girls wearing shirts declaring sides in a war of choice that rages within the story that has captivated the youth of American society.  Edward or Jacob, the big debate that you see throughout even advertising campaigns is an indicator of the influence and popularity of the series the Twilight Saga.  I will use this vastly popular series as a modern comparison between the gender roles that are shown in it, and those shown in the fairy tales that have been around for so long.

Fairy Tales may mean slightly different things to different people depending on what culture that they are from.  There are some that would consider fairy tales as only those stories that come from the Brothers Grimm and other European writers who put the previously orally transmitted stories into writing.  However there are such things as modern fairy tales and so the definition as used in this essay is that of stories that are meant for children.  The type of literature that I will be comparing the fairy tales to is Young Adult literature, which is a more modern genre of fiction that has been written to relate to adolescents, or those between childhood and adulthood.  The definition of gender is the more controversial issue.  “The cultural variation of the sexes is called ‘gender’.  Gender is about behavior rather than physiology; it grows and develops because people have ideas about what is ‘natural’ for members of the two sexes to do . . . Reproductive organs aside, it is culture, not biology, that most differentiates boys from girls (Van Der Elst, 7).”  As gender, and therefore masculinity and femininity, are concepts that are developed by culture, I will be looking at them in relation to the texts and how they portray these roles to their readers.

            While stories told to children has been the way to perpetuate expected societal gender roles for a very long time, in our changing society childhood is no longer the only influential time in which to show these roles.  Even as near as the mid 1900’s there was no such thing as adolescence, with this new age group forming, and the lengthening of childhood, there became a whole new time period in which to influence the ideals of young people(Escuadro, 4).  This was something not seen before with the short life expectancy that most of human history experienced before the invention of modern medicine extended lifetimes, which has allowed for an extended childhood and the creation of adolescence. 

            In the decades following WW2, young adult literature has become a very large part of American culture.  This new form of literature developed as a result of the lengthening of childhood that happened at the time, and created a new bridge between childhood and adulthood (Escuadro,4-5).  Since the arrival of this new genre of literature, there has been another way to influence the mental development of gender roles outside of childhood.  Books such as the Twilight Saga take advantage of the influence that they have and try to show young women that Edward is the type of man that they should be looking for, much as the “prince charming” of the early fairy tales was the man that women then were told to look for.

            The books that adolescent girls read give them the view of the world that they carry forward into reality.  The stereotypes in the books become the stereotypes in reality.  When the popular books for young women were those such as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, those were the types of models that those reading the books would follow.  Later when books like Sweet Valley High were the common series read by young girls, the type of girls that you found in the world were much different than before as the women took the behaviors and mannerisms in the books to heart, the middle class dream.  Books now have shifted again to the point where a simple middle class happiness is not good enough, you get books like Gossip Girl and others where the focus is on high society, and that is the extreme for which all girls strive for.  Going outside of reality there is a wide genre filled with supernatural romance and thrills (Greene, 8-17).  The most popular of these is Twilight, in which the dominant moving force is a romance that is full of more challenges than any ordinary one.   These challenges are seen as a way of legitimizing it, because with love that difficult, it must be true to keep going.  Through the years as culture changes, the literature is there, informing and influencing the way that young women think, act, and even see the world.  The books that they read in their teen years will actually go on to influence the rest of their adult lives (Greene, 8-17).

            In Anna Silver’s article on Twilight and femininity, she discusses in great length the aspects of the book that attempt to push across the very Mormon perspective on marriage and on women’s gender roles.  The feminine gender roles in twilight idealize traditional mother roles and the traditional family in its entirety.  The woman is submissive and childlike even in the eyes of the man until marriage.  Only in marriage and the following motherhood can the two be equal.  Twilight uses the entire Cullen family as a way of showing a proper traditional family and their roles.  When the woman marries the man, she doesn’t just get a husband, she gets a whole new family which is now more important than her own family (Silver, 122-130).            

            There has been a great deal of scholarly discussion on fairy tales and feminine gender roles, and the messages that they give to young girls, as well as there being a few articles on Twilight in the same regard, such as the one cited above.  However, there is a great deal of focus of the specific behaviors that these stories and books are telling girls to have.  There is not focus on the men that these stories are telling women to find.  The focus of these discussions tends to be so strongly on that of the female characters as to ignore the men in these stories.  The views that these stories are giving about masculinity are just as strong as those about femininity, and I believe that the focus should be on those roles.  Being that books such as Twilight are being read mainly by young women though, these views on masculinity are not directed towards the young men in American culture.  Instead these books are showing young women to look for a man and how to behave in relation to him.  I would argue that the importance of these stories does not lie in the specific behaviors that they encourage in women.  The message that is foremost in these stories is that the woman should find her ideal man, and then adjust her behavior according to what he wants. 

            The first point of discussion is what many would call “selfless love,” which is evident in Charles Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty as well as Twilight.  Through Twilight there are two female examples of “selfless love”, that of Bella and also her mother, Renee.  Renee is a very minor character in the books as she absent.  The story starts with Bella moving to the small town of Forks, Washington to live with her father so that her mother can travel the country with her new husband (Twilight; 3-5, 48-49).  Anna Silver, in her critique of the novel, argues that Renee is Meyers’ way to further highlight the idealism of the Cullen family, because Renee is a bad mother in leaving her child (Silver, 124).  However, though she may be a bad mother, she is an exemplary wife in dutifully following her husband in his job.  Wollstonecraft would argue that though she may not be a good mother that should not take away from her value as a wife, because not all people are fit for every role in society (Wollstonecraft, 803-804).  That idea of every role not fitting with each individual in society definitely fits with the character of Renee in Twilight as she wasn’t as happy in the role of mother as she was being a wife, “She stayed with me at first, but she missed him.  It made her unhappy (Twilight, 49).” 

Similar is the behavior of Sleeping Beauty in Perrault’s story.  Even with danger to herself, and her children, Sleeping Beauty remains a good wife, and stays at her husbands’ residence to await his return.  While her new husband is away at war, his mother, who is part ogre, has decided to begin eating his two children one by one before turning to do the same to Sleeping Beauty.  When the cook comes to get Sleeping Beauty her response is “Do it, do it, execute your orders, and then I shall go and see my children, my poor children, whom I so much and so tenderly love (Perrault, 62).”  In the final book of the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn, Bella becomes pregnant, and though she risks a horrible death in continuing the pregnancy, she is more than willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her child because it is part of Edward, “This child, Edward’s child, was a whole different story.  I wanted him like I wanted air to breathe.  Not a choice—a necessity (Breaking Dawn, 132).”  Both of these stories are setting clear standards for who should come first in your priorities, the debate between whether it be husband or child is one that could be argued a great deal, however that one fact that remains in all cases is that the female should put her own life last, behind that of her husband and children. 

            Secondly is the way that the Bella shifts her behavior, and even personality, depending on which man she is around.  There is a big dilemma in the books about which of two men she will choose, Edward or Jacob.  In the second book Edward leaves her she goes into a four month period of depression (New Moon, 84-93) before she begins to spend time with Jacob and her behavior becomes quite different as she begins to rely on Jacob instead, using him as her purpose since she can’t stand to be alone “But I needed Jacob now, needed him like a drug.  I’d used him as a crutch for too long, and I was deeper than I’d planned to go with anyone again(New Moon, 219).”  Later when Bella is finally forced to make a decision she remarks to herself on the situation that “I’d been wrong all along. . . It had not been Edward and Jacob that I’d been trying to force together, it was the two parts of myself, Edward’s Bella and Jacob’s Bella.  But they could not exist together, and I never should have tried (Eclipse, 608).”  Bella so vastly contrasted her behavior with the two men that those parts could not function together, showing just how much she changed herself to adapt to each man.  The obvious fairy tale comparison to this would be The Little Mermaid.  She is so anxious for the love of the young prince that she will give up her family, home, and her voice, “’I know what you want,’ said the sea witch; ‘it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your fish's tail, and to have two supports instead of it, like human beings on earth, so that the young prince may fall in love with you’ (Andersen, 5211-5213).”

            The last and most harmful of the ideals that both Twilight and most fairy tales convince their readers of is “Happily Ever After”.  In contrast to most Young Adult literature, this is something that is evident in the end of the Twilight Saga.  Most young adult literature has a level of realism to it which keeps its readers grounded.  Twilight goes back to the traditional fairy tale ending, “’Forever and forever and forever,’ he murmured.  ‘That sounds exactly right to me.’  And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever (Breaking Dawn, 754).”  This ideal is the most dangerous to young readers because it sets a standard up for them that makes them feel that there should be a happy ending to life, not preparing them for the reality of the hardships of life.  The happily ever after is the ending to almost every fairy tale out there, usually showing nothing past the wedding of the couple as shown in this ending to Beauty and the Beast, “He married Beauty, and passed a long and happy life with her, because they still kept in the same course of goodness from which they had never departed (Mabie, 3789).”

Others might argue that much like the fairy tales of older times only portrayed powerful female characters as those of supernatural origins, therefore not existing in reality (Greene, 29) Meyer is portraying the sensitive intelligent man in Edward as a vampire, something that does not exist in reality, the same goes for Jacob, who is a werewolf.  So while it may be that the readers of this series fall for this character, like with the powerful feminine characters in fairy tales, they do not exist in reality.  As the message of fairy tales was that the figure of a powerful and independent woman could only exist in the realm of the supernatural, the same is being said now about this ideal man and relationship being portrayed in Twilight

            However that concept, however believable it was in the time of fairy tales, would not be the same in today’s society.  We live in a society where there is more of an understanding that characters that may not be entirely human, can still have traits that are existent in reality.  While I doubt if the influence of even Twilight is strong enough to convince all of its readers to take on more domestic and submissive roles, it definitely is leaving its mark on our society.  Many young women have fallen for the strong yet intelligent and sensitive male characters, and seek out their counterparts in reality.  The problem being that the characteristics of the men in both fairy tales and Twilight are not the same traits that American culture is encouraging in young boys.  “Let's face it, men aren't "supposed" to have personal issues, discuss them openly with other men, nor study fairy tales. We're "supposed" to wear ties, compete with other men, and study the stock market (Hindman).”   The problem that I see arising is that with so much of the female youth fascinated with one ideal of masculinity how American society will last without adapting the message it’s giving to men about what kind of man they should be to better compliment the message that is being told to young girls about the man they need to find.  While Edward’s real world counterpart may or may not exist, it is not stopping thousands of young women from looking for him. 

            The Twilight Saga is a modern world attempt at a rehabilitation of the idealism of the fairy tale romance, which is something that really doesn’t exist.  It is evident through reading these books that it is something that Meyer wants to believe in, and she has found a strong fan base that also desires this immortal and unrealistic love story.  A part of the danger of the subtext of a story like this comes from the fact that it is a supernatural fiction, were someone to write a novel that condoned these same ideals but based it in the real world it would likely receive more criticism.  The layers of fantasy are the perfect cover for the perpetuation of these outdated gender roles, which is also why fairy tales are the perfect comparison.  This model of hidden subtext in fairy stories, and now supernatural young adult literature, has been the perfect way to assert the societies preferred gender roles for hundreds of years upon the impressionable readers.  It’s not until someone goes back with a more critical eye that they can understand the problems with the stories in front of them.