A Quote on Adversity

"Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers" -John Wooden

Monday, April 14, 2014

Waiting for Happiness: Examining Waiting for Godot and Adversity

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is unique. It is unlike any other play to have ever hit the stage. The characters, the setting, and plot are increasingly static and lack life. However, the play, like an onion, has many layers to it. There is an abundance of meanings, archetypes, and interpretations beneath the surface of Beckett’s tragicomedy. Some might point out that the characters fail to encounter misfortune and that Beckett’s masterpiece is completely devoid of any kind of adversity. This is not the case. The very adversity that Didi and Gogo come face to face with is the vicious, seemingly unending cycle they go through everyday; and, when confronted with this cycle, they fail miserably.

The lives of Didi and Gogo are perpetually in a state of stasis. There is no change. There is no growth. There is no action. They go through the same detrimental cycle each day, all in hopes of meeting Godot. It is this “waiting” that is the source of their distress. By waiting, Didi and Gogo are stuck longing for the next day. Most of all, they fail to truly live life to the fullest. The tunnel vision that they develop blocks out the beauty of life and places the their focus solely on one thing, Godot. In essence, they are focusing on the backdrop of the Mona Lisa and ignoring the true beauty of Mona which is right in front of their eyes. Although the adversity they encounter isn’t the prototypical dragon or evil mastermind, they still come face to face with catastrophe. The only problem, however, is that they fail to detect even this. 

When faced with certain doom, Didi and Gogo fail in a way only they can. The main reason for their failure is that they fail to take action and be proactive in their quest for Godot. The duo decide to leave it all up to destiny when it comes to Godot and they pay dearly for it. They pay in that are stuck in Groundhog Day-type of day in and day out living. Things fail to advance because they don’t seek out change, despite the numerous opportunities for innovation that present themselves. As the play moves along, the two become increasingly static and this is what makes them fail when confronted with extreme challenge. Nothing will change unless they do.

Waiting for Godot is a story about the greatest adversity of all time, living without purpose. Sadly, Didi and Gogo succumb to this disaster and prove to be poster boys for the life without meaning. They put their happiness with a man that never shows up, instead of putting it where it counts, within themselves. As Aristotle once said “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

Destiny's Darling: The Challenges within Slaughterhouse Five

The life of Billy Pilgrim is a life of suffering. The “hero” of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is seemingly running into adversity at every turn.  Whether it is the Firebombing of Dresden, abduction by aliens, or spastic time travel Billy Pilgrim is in a perpetual state of suffering. Despite all these unfortunate events, Pilgrim somehow finds the resolve to prevail. He draws on the past present and future to beat the challenges in front of him to ultimately stare down misfortune and win. Pilgrim’s victories can also be attributed to the man who created him, Kurt Vonnegut. This is because he is Vonnegut’s grand literary mechanism and proverbial looking glass through which the atrocities of war can be glimpsed. He serves too much of a higher purpose to not fail. In essence, Billy Pilgrim is a darling of destiny.

Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has been blessed-or cursed-with the amazing ability to time travel. Although, it is not at his own command as to when he can travel or as to where Pilgrim finds himself moving back and forth in time. This proves to be extremely advantageous for Pilgrim because it fosters resolve and strengthens his will. He has seen the full scope of his life and fully comprehends the path in front of him. In essence, he can see the dawn of an amazing,rejuvenating day in the pitch black of night. One example would be Billy’s death. Billy, having several times experienced his death, is comfortable with the prospect of his demise: “It is time for me to be dead for a little while-and then live again,” (Vonnegut 143). Although this may be viewed as failure in the face of adversity, it is not. There is something graceful and wise about Billy’s words. He is not fighting death nor time. He is simply greeting death as an old friend and going graciously into the night. His words evoke a comparison to Jesus, who conquered adversity despite dying. Billy Pilgrim has all the answers to the test in Vonnegut’s novel. However, it would not be the same impactful novel without this trait. It keeps Billy resilient and moving forward at all times. It allows him to stare down the barrel of the challenges that face him and not blink.

Another aspect of Billy’s triumph in the misery is the fact that he is Vonnegut’s mechanism against war. Pilgrim serves a key role throughout the entirety of Slaughterhouse Five and not just because he is the protagonist. Vonnegut needs Pilgrim. He needs him so that he can deliver his anti-war message. Billy is Vonnegut’s vessel and looking glass. A bridge between the world of fiction and reality. It can be contended, however, that this case can be made with all the protagonists of every piece of literature ever put into print, with Pilgrim it is different. It is different because Pilgrim survives despite greeting death at every turn. For example, he is one of two survivors in a massive plane crash, then is able to survive the severe skull fracture caused by the crash, and this is all wrapped together with the fact that he survived one of the deadliest bombing in the history of war. The odds of surviving one of those is infinitesimally small, let alone all three. He is always finding himself in an increasingly bleak state, yet somehow is able to beat the odds and escape. This pattern is not coincidental in the slightest. It is Vonnegut at work, preserving his dear character til the bitter end. Without Pilgrim, the book falls apart. It loses any connection between fiction and truth with the loss of Pilgrim. For example Pilgrim’s interactions with the Tralfamadorians contributes heavily to the anti-war theme in the book. None of which could ever be realized without Pilgrim. Billy’s victory against adversity is not all attributed to himself. He had a little bit of help, but sometimes it is better to lucky than good.

Billy Pilgrim is a literary character for the ages. Although he is not the hero commonly seen in literature, he is the hero the book deserves. His ability to conquer adversity is uncanny because it is unique in every way. He is the exception to the rule that heroes must seize victory in a flashy, epic climax. Pilgrim seemingly gets lucky and somehow is able to seize adversity. He is winning ugly. Plus it doesn't hurt to have the author on your side.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Keep Moving Forward: The Adversity of Beloved

Toni Morrison’s Beloved may as well be renamed Adversity because adversity, much like the title character, haunts every single crack and crevice. No character or setting is exempt from turmoil, and there seems to be no end to vicious cycles plaguing the two main characters: Denver and Sethe. That is where the similarities stop. Despite both women confronting the same challenge, the vengeful Beloved, one woman succeeds and the other fails. Denver, in the face of adversity, thrives. She becomes a working class individual with real aspirations and dreams; college being one of them. Sethe, however, crumbles and withers away when dealt with disaster. She allows her life force to be taken away from her and is reduced to a shadow of what she used to be. The glaring question in this is why does the young Denver prosper, while her older much more experienced mother whither away? Denver blossoms when facing the challenge because she decides to take initiative and be proactive, while her mother remains passive towards Beloved.

Much of Denver’s triumph against the forces of adversity can be attributed to a burst in initiative and her ravenous gung ho spirit. Seeing the writing on the wall, Denver must leave the house. Abandoning her reclusive ways in a last ditch effort to save her mother, Denver shyly and hesitantly prepares to take her first steps, “She stood on the porch of 124 ready to be swallowed up in the world beyond the edge of the porch,” (Morrison 286). Although extremely uncomfortable and new, Denver moves past her comfort zone and into a realm of growth. Symbolically, Denver represents a post-slavery America stepping into the great unknown, emerging from the shadow of adversity. And, as it turns out, both parties are better off because they took an initiative and became proactive. A major part of adversity is shifting from neutral to drive. There is something dangerous about staying put. Denver does amazing things when faced with certain adversity because, to her, the “world beyond the edge of the porch,” is the only chance she has to save her mother. 

On the other hand, Sethe deteriorates in the face of adversity because she remains stagnant and indifferent. Obeying seemingly every command dictated by Beloved, Sethe fails to break away from her ghostly daugher. She puts Beloved before her in almost every phase of her life and never once takes a stand against her. This creates an aura of passiveness about her. It is this habitual apathy that becomes the root cause of Sethe’s degradation. And in the end, Sethe becomes a shriveled shadow of her former self: “He is thinking about her wrought iron back… The mean black eyes,” (322). Where Denver represents the positive future of post-slavery America, Sethe embodies the flip side of that coin. She is the negativity and bitterness of a nation still divided. She cannot seem to let go of her past no matter how hard she tries, so much so that she just becomes docile in her own standing. Part of achieving despite the challenges that present themselves is to become enthused and energetic. Sethe, however, fails to do this and pays dearly.

The dichotomy presented with Sethe and Denver is fascinating. They are two separate generations dealing with a similar problem much bigger than a hostile spirit. That issue being dealing with the past, while moving towards the future. Winning in the face of certain doom is somewhat a similar motion. There is a level of exorcism of demons that needs to take place for one to conquer misery, a sort of burning the bridges of the past and building new ones towards the future. Because “Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward,” -Victor Kiam.  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I Will Survive: Adversity in Invisible Man

Adversity is no stranger to the nameless Narrator of Ellison’s novel. The Narrator effortlessly encounters adversity in every endeavor he undertakes. The seemingly endless barrage of adversity molds the Narrator profoundly and forcefully; more so than any of its contemporaries. The ending, instead of giving the reader some much needed closure, opts to leave the reader desiring more. Most prevalently, it leaves the reader asking the question: did the reader prevail or fail in the face of adversity? In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the Narrator survives in the face of adversity because he sheds his detrimental labels yet, fails to obtain anything of value during his journey.

Near the end of the book the Narrator finds himself trapped in the bottom of a sewer with three matches and his briefcase. In an effort to survive, the Narrator decides to burn the items of his brief case and use them as a torch for his exploration of the sewer. This small act of survival plays a major role on the figurative stage. The burning of the items associated with his past is analogous to the shedding of the exasperating labels bestowed upon the reader. One by one the reader burns the things that defined him: his high school diploma, his Brotherhood name, and the threatening letter he received while in the Brotherhood. All of these items pushed the Narrator down a new, more injurious path, ironically culminating in a fiery exuviation of each item. In the case of the Narrator, the end did justify the means. The Narrator was met with fierce challenges as a result of having each item however, the Narrator became at peace with himself, gained a greater awareness, and was able to see past his own illusion; glimpsing the truth.

Finally, despite the Narrator becoming a better man in the face of adversity he fails to win anything or achieve anything of value. Over the course of the novel, the Narrator is a firmly in neutral. Just when the Narrator is about to grasp success and overcome his tribulations, he manages to let it slip through his hands. For example, having been expelled from his university, the Narrator is given what appears to be a route back to the realm of higher education. The Narrator, now motivated more than ever, has the rug pulled out from under him when he opens one of the letters; revealing that the second chance was actually a wild goose chase with nothing at the finish. Similarly, the Narrator, having just gained the burrow of Harlem as his own territory in the Brotherhood, enjoys great success and becomes a prominent political figure. This success is short lived when the Narrator is reassigned to another territory, never to regain his fame again. Ironically, the only thing the Narrator is able to gain is the innate ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The adversity the Narrator faces yields both positive and negative results. He fails in prevailing and prevails in not failing when he comes face to face with catastrophe. One positive is matched with one negative and in essence the Narrator simply survives when encountering calamity; and it only seems natural that a man invisible to all is a master of survival.