Themes in Literature

Literary Suffering


Human beings shrink from suffering. We avoid confronting the afflictions of others because it is unpleasant, and if we focus on suffering for too long, it could give us a pessimistic view of the world. Nevertheless, we remain avid fans of television dramas, intense and violent movies, and works of literature that speak to the truest of human experiences. We read stories of the tragedies of others, partly as a form of escapism from our own troubles but also to reinforce our conviction that suffering is meaningful, as the conflicts in literature are almost always resolved (though perhaps not always to our satisfaction). In this way, literature involving suffering often restores our faith in justice and aids us in grappling with the question of why we suffer at all. At times characters’ trials are a tool authors use to reveal truths about the human condition, address flaws in society, or identify ways in which suffering can function as a motivator for progress (either individual or large-scale). Portrayals of suffering in literature also add realism and drama to the work while involving, influencing, and at times even challenging the reader. The theme of arbitrary, undeserved suffering has been taken up by a number of writers, including Shirley Jackson.

In her short story “The Lottery” (1948), a quaint town prepares for an annual tradition. All of the families are present, and everyone draws a piece of paper out of a box. Tessie Hutchinson picks the one with the mark on it. The story ends abruptly and morbidly, with Tessie being stoned to death by her family and other members of the town. Her death is not redemptive, not meaningful except insofar as it constitutes in itself the meaning or essence of life. It is merely the result of a backward, empty ritual that the characters refuse to challenge. The town can also be interpreted as a microcosm of the world, in which people are capable of inflicting harm on others for no apparent reason. “The Lottery” is thus a parable about the arbitrariness of suffering, many of the traditions we hold, and of life itself. The cruelty inflicted by people or institutions, like that in “The Lottery,” is addressed in many other literary works as well. In such cases, depictions of suffering are often used in the service of social critique. For example, in her novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison confronts the reader with the harsh realities of growing up in a dysfunctional African-American family during a time of lingering discrimination and racism. The novel tells the story of a young girl, Pecola, who is tortured by abusive parents and deeply rooted feelings of inadequacy. As a result of her being raped by her father and becoming pregnant with his child, Pecola’s childhood is cut short, and she eventually slips into madness. Her self-esteem is virtually nonexistent from having grown up with the notion that whiteness is inherent in the definition of beauty. Her suffering, however, is merely the latest in a chain of human suffering as a result of the cruelty of others. Her father was abandoned by his parents and tormented by white men from early on. He is apathetic toward his marriage and life in general, while his wife, Pecola’s mother, is physically disabled and endures her husband’s abuse because she feels she is deserving of it. Like Pecola, she is vastly insecure and has adopted society’s limited standards for beauty. She refuses to believe Pecola’s account of the rape and beats her. Many of the characters in Morrison’s novel are both victims and perpetrators of suffering, which contributes to its realism. We learn behavior from figures of authority, and after being affected repeatedly by the cruelty of others or of society, it is hard not to react by mimicking that behavior for self-preservational reasons, thereby continuing the cycle. Accounts of suffering as a result of human cruelty are most powerful in stories that are based in truth. This is the case in Elie Wiesel’s account of the Holocaust, entitled Night. The atrocities described through Wiesel’s narrator are all the more poignant because we know them to be real.

The novel, which is in part a memoir, also addresses how suffering can lead to a crisis of (or loss of) faith. In Night, the main character, Eliezer, is a devout Jew who endures the horror of the Jewish concentration camps. As a youth, he learned about God’s goodness and omnipotence; however, after being separated from his mother and sister, seeing babies burned alive and children hanged, and being forced to work long days with little or no food, his faith in a compassionate God wavers, understandably. The cruelty of the Nazis and even of the other prisoners is at odds with his religious teachings. He doubts and questions the existence of God but still references biblical passages. Although his intense suffering causes a crisis of faith, he never abandons his faith, but he grapples with reevaluating it to better explain his experience. Suffering, then, can act as a catalyst for learning and for spiritual and mental renewal. Suffering can also result from social institutions and philosophies, rather than from direct physical cruelty or arbitrary, superhuman forces. Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun illustrates the suffering that is caused by class stratification and the illusions inherent in both class divisions and the striving to ascend to a higher class. The Youngers are trapped by their social class and unable to move up in the world. They hungrily look forward to a $10,000 insurance check from the deceased Mr. Younger’s life-insurance policy. Each member of the family has his or her own personal plan for where the money should go, but they ultimately decide to spend it on a new house in a white neighborhood. They are soon approached by a man who is willing to pay them to keep them from moving in. The Youngers are limited not only economically but also as a result of latent discrimination.

They are unable to attain the American dream: that with hard work and perseverance, one can achieve anything. Rather, they are only able to improve their situation when they collectively decide to put the well-being of the family as a whole before their individual wishes. By cooperating and working together, they can transcend those boundaries that limit them, if not materialistically then in their outlook on life. Portrayals of suffering also often serve as vehicles to redemption or moral growth. This is true in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, in which the main character, Bigger, only realizes the motivation behind his violent crimes after he is caught and doomed to execution. Bigger’s whole life has been spent suffering under the thumb of a “superior” white society, limited in what he could achieve from the start because he was black. The anger and resentment against the forces oppressing him build up and manifest themselves in violence against his friends, his girlfriend, and the daughter of the white man who employs him. The murders he commits empower him and give his life meaning for the first time, and he feels little guilt as a result. Before the end of the novel, though, he realizes that his behavior is a direct result of the racism he has experienced, and that equality is something to be strived for. Rather than defying the status quo, Bigger’s actions contribute to the cycle of racism by reaffirming the fears whites have of blacks. It is only by acting on his frustration that Bigger comes to realize the cause for them, and he finally feels remorse. Suffering is a key theme in literature because it unlocks the ethical possibilities of almost any literary text. Literature nurtures the reader’s ethical awareness and compassionate faculty with characters who may be quite different from the reader but inspire affinity and sympathy nonetheless. The emotional and intellectual responses to these characters’ suffering help increase a reader’s awareness of what is possible, and inherent, in this world—that is, suffering caused by others or by institutions.

Literature depicting suffering also inspires hope and confidence in the resilience of the human spirit. In most stories, suffering is temporary and usually resolved by the end, even if the resolution is simply death or justice served for those who have suffered. Literature involving suffering, then, is often true to life, in that it portrays suffering as inevitable and sometimes inexplicable, but often endured and overcome.

See also Bradford, William: Of Plymouth Plantation; Cather, Willa: O Pioneers!; Cisneros, Sandra: Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment; Edward, Jonathan: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; Faulkner, William: Light in August; Greene, Graham: Heart of the Matter, The; Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X: Autobiography of Malcolm X, The; Heller, Joseph: Catch-22; Hersey, John: Hiroshima; Kafka, Franz: Metamorphosis, The; O’Connor, Flannery: Wise Blood; Orwell, George: Nineteen Eighty-Four; Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country; Pirandello, Luigi: Six Characters in Search of an Author; Shakespeare, William: King Lear; Swift, Jonathan: Modest Proposal, A; Voltaire: Candide.

28 thoughts on “Literary Suffering

  1. “Brentwood Library Board Unanimous: Challenged Book Stays”: via “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” by

  2. Thanks. I think I have something worthy to add to the literature, if not necessarily groundbreaking 🙂

  3. I used to think that ‘Anon’ was an actual person who was well published. I wondered why we never studied him as extensively as Shakespeare.

  4. “Beliebers are Juliet and Justin Bieber is Romeo. Scooter is Shakespeare, because without him the story wouldn’t have …

  5. “These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die like fire and powder which, as their kiss, consume.” -W. Shakespeare

  6. I joke, I joke. I love Titus to pieces but maybe I shouldn’t have named him after the protagonist of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play :/

  7. Biro in margins helped me complete many a uni assignment! esp that Jane Eyre literary criticism one, UGH!

  8. Colm Toibin chooses PORTRAIT OF A NOVEL as a best of the year “literary criticism at its most lucid and engaging”

  9. listening to an English author Zadie (?) Smith offer some literary criticism on American writing.

  10. Another writer’s success does not diminish your chance of success. Cheer on other writers. -D.Fuhry

  11. Excellent topic. The many meanings of air and atmosphere Where do our literary ideas of air come from?

  12. Letters: Letters to the Editor: Readers respond to an article about literary Manhattan. #ru

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