Friday, August 01, 2008


I’ve been wondering lately whether most works of literature involve, at their centers, an epiphany of some sort – an awakening by the protagonist to a great truth that he or she hadn’t glimpsed before, a taking off of a life-long blindfold, perhaps. This idea may be an old one in literary circles, but for me it’s been a gradually unfolding awareness just this summer. I’ve been reading short stories, essays, and one-act plays in preparation for next year’s English classes, and more and more I see epiphanies as the major theme in all of them. Even the stories I’ve always classified as “dark” and pessimistic seem to involve, in the end, a new and encouraging understanding by the protagonist. For instance, in Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” – a story I’ve always thought of as bleak and ominous – I began to realize, as I read it over several times, that Krebs has had an epiphany, brought on mostly by his experiences in the war. He has come to realize a great truth – that lying is always wrong. Not just petty lying, but the kind of lying that so many people around him seemed to base their lives on –- the lying that comes from selfishness and egocentricity. He has seen a vision of a new way of living – a way that involves total honesty, total acceptance of the truth as it displays itself at any moment. At the end of the story, as I read it this summer, I see great hope for Krebs, something I never came close to seeing in this story before. Also, in Jack London’s “In a Far Country”, an ostensibly dismal story of hatred and murder in the frozen North, the two main characters experience a significant epiphany during the story, as they come to realize the smallness of their own lives in the face of the majestic infinity of the universe. I don’t see this as a pessimistic story, even though both protagonists perish in their squalid cabin at the end. Before they died they glimpsed a great truth. They had an epiphany. They saw the “big picture” after spending their lives, up to that point, seeing only the smallest and most self-centered picture.

I could go on. Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”, Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams”, Conrad’s apparently gloomy “An Outpost of Progress”, Erwin Shaw’s “The Eighty-yard Run”, Sherwood Anderson’s “Unlighted Lamps” – all involve an epiphany for the protagonists, a bringing into light of some grand truth. The protagonists can see the truth, if only partially, and so, too, can the lucky reader – including my teenage scholars next year.

No comments: