Themes in Literature

Literary Hope


Hope is closely related to desire, faith, and possibility. Stories about hope are central not only to the study of literature but also to psychology, social movements, and religious studies. In literature, hope tends to center on the belief that positive change— either individual or societal change—can or will occur. Hope is an exceptionally common theme in literary works for several reasons. The theme of hope directly addresses one of the foremost characteristics of human experiences: anxiety about the uncertainty of the future. Furthermore, many literary works have plot events spurred on by characters that pursue something they want. Hope of attaining a goal is thus a central part of almost any traditionally structured novel or play. Holding onto hope when confronting seemingly impossible odds is another important theme in many texts; hope in these cases may be closely related to faith in human nature, faith in oneself, or religious or spiritual faith. Additionally, hope can be both an emotional state and also a perspective on reality; as the latter, hope is an example of how a worldview can shape one’s actions, often in profound and life-affirming ways. In Greek mythology, “Hope” is part of the story of Pandora’s box.

After Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, Zeus gave Pandora as a “gift” to Prometheus’s brother, but she was actually a punishment for Prometheus’s crime. Out of curiosity, Pandora opens a box (or jar) containing all the world’s evils—diseases, envy, vengeance, and more—and thereby lets them loose upon the human race. The evils spread throughout the world, but Pandora manages to close the lid before the last one—Hope—escapes. The myth provides an explanation of why hope remains even when all other ills seem to be insurmountable. Some versions also suggest that Hope was by far the most important to keep in the box; if Hope escaped from human possession, human beings would have no way to cope with all the other ills, because without hope human existence would be unbearable. Hope is also a central theme in the Judeo- Christian tradition, and it is especially notable in the Bible in Exodus, Psalms, and the Gospels. Other hope-centered works include stories of the lives of saints as well as the larger body of religious-themed works in Western and related literatures.

Often the emphasis is on the hope for salvation or deliverance; this may be the hope for eternal life, for the coming of the Messiah, for deliverance from sin, or for other forms of spiritual or religious salvation; these narratives are often connected to hope for earthly deliverance from persecution, one’s enemies, great hardships, or even the material world and the limitations and desires of the human body. Narratives of the miraculous often emphasize that hoping for the impossible, or for what merely seems impossible according to earthly knowledge, is a sign of one’s moral rectitude and spiritual faith. This emphasis can also be seen in genres that lean a little more toward the secular, such as medieval romances about the quests of Arthurian knights. In these stories, hope is an important part of moral character because it stands fast in times of great adversity, and because it allows courage to triumph over fear. Hope in the Western Christian tradition is also one of the three Christian virtues (or the three theological virtues), which are faith, hope, and charity. These virtues are sometimes personified as three sisters whose mother is Wisdom. The personification of the virtues (of varying number) is also found in many medieval works of literature. For example, Hope is a character in Hildegard von Bingen’s Order of the Virtues (ca. 1151), which is sometimes called the first morality play as well as the first European opera. In it, a human woman must choose between the virtuous way of life and the temptations of the devil; Hope therefore is part of the victory of good over evil. St. Thomas Aquinas, who founded the discourse on the three theological virtues, similarly argues that hope is a virtue that keeps one tending toward the divine and spiritual rather than focusing on fear and despair. It is notable in these religious traditions that despite the importance of hope to individual believers, the fundamental or underlying hope is for the ultimate deliverance to or reconciliation with God of all of Creation.

The use of light or fire as a symbol for hope is seen in both Judeo-Christian and other traditions. Light is used as a symbol not only for life but also for the hope of renewal or restoration of what has been lost or separated; it may be for this reason that winter celebrations often use light or fire to symbolize hope that the spring (and new life) is on its way. This imagery of light as a symbol for both hope and life may also be seen in the metaphorical use of the phrase “the light at the end of the tunnel,” as well as literary works such as Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1951). Many authors and scholars have considered the nature of hope. In his 1732 Essay on Man, Alexander Pope writes: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (1.95) Emily Dickinson writes of the beauty, comfort, and constancy of hope in a poem usually identified by its first line, “↜‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” More recently, the author Barbara Ehrenreich has argued that the constant pressure to demonstrate a hopeful attitude is part of the “cult of positivity” that places an undue psychological burden on those who must suffer silently and absolves those with the power to lessen suffering; she uses her experiences as a cancer patient to argue that “[t] o be hope-free is to acknowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one’s moves accordingly” (11). The Czech playwright and essayist Václav Havel defines hope differently, however, describing it as “a dimension of the soul .╯.╯. not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.╯.╯.╯. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.╯.╯.╯. Hope .╯.╯. is not the same as joy that things are going well .╯.╯. but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed” (181). The American philosopher Cornel West cites Havel to expand on the distinction between hope and optimism, arguing that hope is far more profound and significant, and that it is acting in a belief even when there is no reasonable expectation of success. Clearly, the more dire the situation, the more important it is to maintain hope; wilderness survival experts often emphasize that keeping one’s hopes up is absolutely imperative. A literary example that shows the importance of hope to survival is Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus must maintain hope for his eventual return home, and for reunification with his wife and son, through 10 years of war followed by 10 years of hardship and danger while lost at sea. Even as gods and various supernatural beings conspire against his return, as disaster after disaster hits him, and even when every other member of his crew is killed, Odysseus keeps his eye set on his homecoming. His wife, Penelope, undergoes a similar story at their home in Ithaca as she holds on to hope that her presumed-dead husband will return, and she cleverly works to stall the aggressive suitors who conspire against her family. Again, hope is necessary for maintaining courage, dedication, and perseverance, which suggests that it is a fundamental survival skill.

On the other hand, some works of literature critique or even mock those who cling to foolish or unrealistic hopes. Often, those who encourage false hope are portrayed as cruel, while those who refuse to let go of their futile hopes are portrayed as pompous or lacking in self-awareness. In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for instance, several characters play a prank on Malvolio, a selfimportant steward, by fooling him into thinking he might reasonably hope to woo Olivia, a countess. Ironically, one of the pranksters, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is also completely mistaken when he believes that he might succeed in wooing Olivia, and he is encouraged by his “friends” who hope to take advantage of his wealth. Olivia, after a long period of mourning and despair for a deceased family member, finally finds hope for a happy future in her infatuation with “Cesario”; she, of course, will never be able to marry “him” because “Cesario” is actually a woman disguised as a man, and such a marriage would have been impossible. Through these and other relationships, the play portrays love and romance as a series of false and foolish hopes followed by confusion, compromise, and often bitter disappointment. Closely related to false hope are the themes of hopelessness, futility, and despair. In literature, hopelessness may be portrayed as an internal obstacle a character must overcome (or be destroyed by). Alternately, literary works with a more cynical or even a nihilistic perspective may portray hope as a foolish or childlike trait with no basis in reality. For example, in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953), Vladimir and Estragon wait, futilely, for the arrival of Godot. They are stuck in the same place, longing for meaning, movement, or answers, but their hopes and words are useless in altering their situation. The play suggests that existence itself is absurd and without meaning, like a game of language, and to hope otherwise is foolish. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) which is heavily influenced by Beckett, portrays the futility of hope in a similar fashion. The title characters, which were originally very minor characters in Hamlet, are both sympathetic and absurd in their attempts to evade their fate, but their ending has already been written (literally). Hope for the future, however, is necessary for courage and perseverance, especially when one’s cause seems dangerous, unsustainable, or impossible. Social movements of all kinds therefore depend on the hope that their efforts and sacrifices have not been and will not be for nothing. Especially important is the hope that the actions of a person or group can make the leap to actions of historical import; a sense of hopelessness, on the other hand, makes it nearly impossible—and seemingly pointless—for groups or individuals to continue their efforts. It is no surprise, then, that hope is an important theme in many works of social or political commentary in literature. Readers often expect that books that critique the status quo will offer suggestions for change and encourage a sense of hope for the future. Some literary works do so, while some actively subvert this expectation. Utopian literature is often quite hopeful about the possibility of a far better world, whereas dystopian literature, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, often portrays a future world that seems hopeless.

The very premise of dystopian fiction may, however, imply hope for change; the books stand as calls to action to prevent such a dystopian future from ever coming about, which suggests that some degree of hope remains. One complication in the representation of hope in politically oriented books is that literary works are often intended less as conventional arguments and more as explorations, or experiments in imagining possibilities; in simpler terms, literary genres may be better suited for raising new questions than for arguing for a position without ambiguity or contradiction. Furthermore, socially engaged literature often reveals the inequalities, injustices, and power relations of everyday life, many of which go unnoticed or are thought irrelevant to larger historical factors. When showing the extent, degree, and pervasiveness of these injustices, books often must address how (or whether) one preserves hope in the face of such farreaching problems. Some authors who discuss social change end their books not with a stereotypical sense of upbeat hope but with a more complex discussion of hope and possibility. Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place discusses the lasting impact of British colonialism in Antigua and elsewhere, as well as issues such as globalization, class inequalities, racism, and government corruption. The book ends with a meditation on the ambiguity of hope; it suggests that the global changes and individual failings that make oppression harder to identify, harder to resist, and harder to escape may also allow for new possibilities for human (and humane) connections.

Clearly, many works of literature explore how hope relates to imagination; hope, after all, fundamentally depends on the ability to see beyond the present circumstances. Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America is particularly concerned with this relationship as it depicts the character of Prior Walter, who faces AIDS, his ancestors, angelic visitors, and abandonment by his partner. Other characters also struggle for hope and restoration as the play deals with sexuality, politics, history, and religion, as well as the medical and institutional limitations of the 1980s that made treatments for AIDS largely ineffective. In addition to angels, there are ghosts, hallucinations, and a visit to heaven, all of which push characters into expanding their sense of what is possible. More down-to-earth confrontations among characters have this effect as well, often throwing characters’ worldviews into tumult. The spiritual and psychological value of imagination, and the ability to envision what others cannot or will not, relates directly to these characters’ experiences of hope or of despair and fear. Furthermore, in this play, hope often springs from the capacity to imagine and acknowledge surprising connections between vastly different individuals—and also the connections between heaven and earth, between sex and politics, and between the past, present, and future. By the end, many of the characters break into a new stage in their lives that they never imagined possible; most notably, Prior not only copes with the abandonment but also fulfills the prophesy that he would live years longer than anyone thought possible.

Angels in America is thus part of a larger trend in which authors find hope in times of great upheaval by suggesting that chaos, in addition to its ill effects, offers many opportunities for transformation. The connection between hope and imagination is thus bound tightly to the relationship between hope and survival. For this reason, it may be possible to generalize that books that discuss the relationships among hope, imagination, perseverance, and the capacity to survive and thrive implicitly argue that works of the imagination (such as literature) are vital to the wellbeing of individuals and societies.

See also Aristophanes: Lysistrata; Bierce, Ambrose: “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, An”; Chekhov, Anton: Seagull , The; Davis, Rebecca Harding: Life in the Iron Mill s; Dickens, Charles: Great Expectations; Frank, Anne: Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl; Hersey, John: Hiroshima; Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee: Inherit the Wind; Naipaul, V. S.: Bend in the River, A; O’Neill, Eugene: Iceman Cometh, The; Tolkien, J. R. R.: Lord of the Rings, The; Voltaire: Candide.

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