Lessons Learned from Literature | By Nikita-Kiran Singh

From the time we’re children, learning is inextricably tied to reading.  While the classroom harbors carefully crafted lessons, the world of literature allows us to better understand the intangible aspects of life.  Every once in a while, a writer rejects conventional wisdom or illuminates a paradox, granting us the opportunity to question what we once believed, or at least accepted, to be true.  Here are some renowned writers, from Shakespeare to Dickinson, sharing their lessons through literature.

“O! beware, my lord, of jealousy! / It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.” ~Shakespeare, Othello

Shakespeare’s insight into the human condition is evident in his understanding of jealousy’s complexities.  Recognizing that resentment usually fails to bring about its intended effect of harming the successful, Shakespeare uses Othello as an example of jealousy burning its subject inside out.  Jealousy, at its crux, is founded on competition.  If the instinctual tendency to compare ourselves to one another was kept in check, jealousy would cease to exist.  Perhaps we are most vulnerable to manipulation when jealous, blinded by a desperate desire for attention, and failing to understand that the antidote for insecurity is gratitude.

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” ~James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Beauty is nearly synonymous with attention.  Thurber, however, throws this idea on its head by suggesting that beauty is freedom from requiring admiration.  What’s truly beautiful doesn’t need to be noticed to be beautiful, even if attention follows anyways.  What’s even more interesting about Thurber’s statement is his implication that beauty is really the reflection of a strong and stable foundation.  After all, it requires strength and self-reliance to go happily unnoticed.  Even if attention is in some cases inescapable, it isn’t always relished.

“I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of ‘living a lie.’  I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable.” ~Lynn Barber, An Education

Some people are transparent, others are opaque.  Usually the former are thought of as honest and the latter as suspicious.  But what about those who are guarded but honest, or open but deceitful, or even a mix of the two?  Barber wonders why we are so willing to take people at face value given how fickle and unreliable words can be.  Although actions can also be fictitious, at least recognizing patterns of behaviour can lead us to accept red flags instead of ignoring them.  Evidently, the complexities involved in trusting people more often than not hinge on how prepared we are to see the truth.

“There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.” ~Johnathan Franzen, Freedom

Perhaps what makes Franzen’s writing intriguing is his ability to illuminate the complexity behind the most ordinary of characters and situations.  Instead of readily accepting the idea that we all fundamentally desire happiness, Franzen challenges this notion, or at least points out that the truth might be more complicated.  If we desire the “right” kind of unhappiness, there must be some sort of value in anguish that we don’t gain from pure joy.  There does seem to be something satisfactory about emerging from struggle unconquered.  Maybe we prefer feeling something, even if it’s unhappiness, to feeling nothing at all.

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Gatsby, like many victims of illusion, epitomizes the worst consequence of failing to be honest with oneself – self-destruction.  Although most of us claim to value the truth, we are so willing to accept what we want to be true without asking critical questions.  There is something romantic about believing in an unattainable dream, but hope is so easily shattered by the practicality life demands.  It might be easier, and far more pleasant, to accept sweet lies, even if the long-term consequences are devastating.  Sometimes we may be willing to discount the important details, but the future hinges on them.

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion.  Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”  ~Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In a culture that often associates detachment and rationality with strength, and vulnerability and emotion with weakness, Kundera aims to fairly assess the two opposites of weight and lightness.  The detached may be light, but lack depth.  The attached may be heavy, but are infused with meaning.  Do our lives lack weight because we only live once, at least during one particular period of time?  Or does the fact that we only live once add a sense of urgency to our actions?  The tug of war between these ideas raises the uncomfortable existential question of what it really means to be human.

“‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.’” ~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Differences in our foundations – and perceptions of what is right or wrong – may render relationships between certain individuals obsolete, no matter how hard they try to prove otherwise.  The concept of changing one’s identity is inherently difficult, particularly because who we become is so strongly influenced by how we’ve been raised.  We are softened by compassion and empathy, yet just as easily hardened by disappointment and rejection.  Dickens explores the interface between the “good” and “bad,” suggesting an antihero who was unable to change for the better part of his life may redeem himself in the end, but with considerable sacrifice.

 “Much Madness is divinest Sense –

   To a discerning eye” 

~Emily Dickinson, Much Madness is divinest Sense

Dickinson’s poetry, full of fervent dashes and nonconforming capitals, succeeds in making a reader think twice.  Reflecting on an era during which the stigma of dissention was considerable, Dickinson challenges the notion that thinking like everybody else is “normal.”  Instead, she proposes that those who are daring enough to think for themselves aloud, even if alone, should be heard.  Society has little to gain by encouraging everyone to think the same things and to think in the same way.  Instead, maybe counterintuitively, Dickinson asserts that understanding the truth requires a divergence of views.

“She was so quiet. So reflective. And she could erase herself, her spirit, with a swiftness that truly startled, when she knew the people around her could not respect it.” ~Alice Walker, The Color Purple

There is a streak of poignancy to the idea that someone is so used to erasing herself.  In describing what it means to be marginalized, Walker emphasizes the importance of authenticity.  The inability to fully express ourselves has damaging repercussions to the way we live our lives.  Although not everyone may understand what it means to be continuously marginalized, we can all relate to the feeling of being silenced or undervalued.  As much as we try to convince ourselves it shouldn’t matter what others think, it’s difficult to disregard a never-ending cycle of subjugation.

“When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn’t said afterward. There’s nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in–that’s stronger. It’s a good thing not to answer your enemies.” ~Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

Aggression is so often associated with strength, it’s refreshing to hear Burnett suggest that there is something stronger – restraint.  Knowing when to pick your battles – and understanding that sometimes silence is loud – often sends a more powerful message than could be conveyed using words.  Of course the expression of emotion is important; Burnett merely suggests that how we express that emotion and who we express it to are important factors to consider.  Game changers don’t lay out all their cards at once.  Maybe it’s what we say, not how much, that truly matters.

A special thank you to the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta for allowing us to photograph some of their beautiful old books, including A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Photography by Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta.  Images courtesy of the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.

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