Quest for Meaning in Hostile and Oppressive Worlds Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 08:06:56
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Category: Dystopia

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Dystopian literature often presents the individuals quest for meaning in hostile and oppressive worlds. To what extent do the writers present their protagonists as successful in this quest in 1984 by George Orwell, The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde and Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi?

The assertion that all three writers present their protagonist as having a quest for meaning in a dystopian world cannot be disputed. However, the extent to which these writers present their protagonist as successful in this quest varies greatly. Dystopian literature is merely an extension of the negative attributes of the society and context in which it is written. George Orwells dystopian world is a nightmarish conception of a Britain that has adopted the very worst traits of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and Socialist Russia; regimes which were at their height of power when the novel was written.

Robert Evans defines dystopian literature as¦a warning to the reader that something must and, by implication, can be done in the present to avoid the future, This didactic reading of 1984 suggests that Orwells dystopian novel is a warning to the British public against excessive government intervention in their everyday lives. Dystopian literature thus warns the reader of the potential future of their society if they fail to protect their current freedom. El Saadawis Woman at point Zero and Wildes The Ballad of Reading Gaol are slightly different from 1984 in this respect as their dystopian worlds are based on real-life experiences.

However, they remain didactic in nature by condemning existing oppression. El Saadawis semi-fictionalised account of a woman on death row is an artistic interpretation of reality for women in modern-day Egypt. The world remains dystopian in nature due to the oppression of women by men. Likewise, Wildes poetic portrayal of Reading Gaol is based on his personal experiences of imprisonment in this dystopian environment. The oppressive nature of the gaol is depicted by the dual-protagonist of the persona and the condemned guardsman. The extent to which the protagonists are successful in their quest for meaning is dependent on their ability to maintain freedom of thought and resist the oppressive nature such dystopian societies.

All three writers present religion as an integral part of their protagonists quest for meaning in dystopian worlds. Wildes structure suggests that the persona undergoes a religious conversion as the ballad progresses and so successfully finds meaning through religion. However, Wilde also highlights the hypocrisy of the Church of England through the actions of the chaplain. Wildes persona therefore finds meaning through the underlying teachings of Christianity through Catholicism. Similarly, El Saadawi presents her protagonist Firdaus as a witness to the religious hypocrisy of men in her Islamic society. Unlike Wildes persona however, El Saadawis protagonist is not able to look past this hypocrisy and find meaning in the underlying messages of the Islamic faith. Like El Saadawi, Orwell presents his protagonist Winston as unsuccessful in his quest to find meaning through the pseudo-religion of Big Brother.

However, Orwells protagonist does successfully find meaning through his memories of Christianity before the revolution. In the first half of the ballad, Wilde refers to himself and the other prisoners as The Devils Own Brigade; he believes that they are all condemned to hell simply for being criminals. Wilde uses hellish imagery to suggest that the prison itself is hell on earth. I walked, with other souls in pain,/ Within another ring, These two lines are a reference to the hell presented in Dantes Inferno, a hell with nine separate rings located at the centre of the earth, each ring a punishment for worsening sins. Similarly, Wilde locates his hell on earth through the prison itself. However, Wilde later rejects Dantes gradation of sins by completely identifying himself with the guardsman. A prison wall was round us both, / Two outcast men we were: The prison wall has become the single ring of hell which all sinners will go to.

Dantes influence on Wilde is also clear from the structure of the ballad as in both poems, there is a dramatic movement toward intensity of horror. Dantes inferno builds up to the horror of the inner most circle of hell where the devil is to be found whilst Wildes ballad climaxes in the guardsmans execution. It is clear however, that towards the end of the ballad, the persona has experienced a religious conversion to Catholicism. He now believes that through repentance, God will forgive the guardsman for his sins. Wilde utilises the colours red and white to symbolise sin and forgiveness respectively, Out of his mouth a red, red rose! Out of his heart a white! These two lines present the personas belief that if the guardsman has confessed his sins to God before death, then he will be forgiven.

Wildes use of plant imagery suggests that through forgiveness, there can now be new life in heaven. The personas conversion is clearly inspired by Wildes own time spent in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned after being found guilty of having a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde converted to Catholicism after leaving prison and unsuccessfully attempted to join a monastic order. Andrew McCracken suggests that converting to Catholicism continued Wildes life of eccentricity because, Roman Catholicism was to poetic souls a sort of aesthetic temptation, while to many proper Englishmen the Roman Church was still the whore of Babylon, the Anti-Christ.

However, McCracken also suggests that this was not Wildes main motivation in converting to Catholicism because ¦his time in prison brought Wilde ¦ face to face with the Catholic themes of sin and suffering. Now they were purged of any tinge of romanticism they were facts of daily life. This idea that Wilde is attracted more by the themes of the Catholic faith than by the hierarchical structure of either the Catholic Church or the Church of England, is supported in the ballad by the way in which Wilde highlights the religious hypocrisy of the prison chaplain through the personas first person narration. Indeed, it may be the experience of an Anglican chaplain in Reading Gaol that led him towards Catholicism. The Chaplain would not kneel to pray

By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,

Wildes scriptural imagery of the blessed Cross highlights how the chaplain fails to practice the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition. The chaplain refuses to pray for the executed guardsman even though Jesus died specifically for sinners, so that they might repent and have eternal life. Thus in this sestet Wilde condemns the chaplains hypocrisy. The protagonist of the ballad successfully finds meaning in his dystopian world through the underlying themes of the Catholic faith but does not find meaning in the religious authority of the Church of England, personified by the prison chaplain. Similarly, El Saadawis protagonist Firdaus recognises the hypocrisy of those who practice the Islamic faith in her society but is unsuccessful in her quest to find meaning through religion because of this hypocrisy.

Firdaus recognises religious hypocrisy among men of all social groups in Egyptian society. She first sees it as a child in the actions of her peasant father who knew how to beat his wife and make her bite the dust each night. in spite of his discussions with other men that ¦defaming the honour of a woman was a sin ¦ and beating another human being was a sin It is clear therefore that her father breaks the commandments of the imam and beats his wife even though he knows it is a sinful action. Likewise, her uncle, a middle-class man, also beats his wife. The religious hypocrisy in Egyptian society is so deeply engrained, that even her uncles wife accepts being beaten and does not see it as conflicting with the Islamic faith, She replied that it was precisely men well versed in their religion who beat their wives.

The precepts of religion permitted such punishment. The use of the word punishment suggests that women in this society feel that it is justified that they are beaten and that domestic violence cannot be criticised as simply abuse and random cruelty. Finally, Firdaus recognises religious hypocrisy amongst the male leaders of Egyptian society who use Islam as a way of persuading their people that they are respectable and morally sound. Looking at a newspaper picture of such a ruler at Friday morning prayers Firdaus states that, I could see he was trying to deceive Allah in the same way as he deceived the people.

Firdaus rejection of religion mirrors Saadawis own views of religion and holy books; that they have little to do with morality. The Old Testament, the New Testament or the Quran, are, for her, political books. They speak about war, invasion of other peoples countries, of inheritance, of money, this, as a focus, for Nawal, has little to do with justice, morality, or spirituality. A didactic reading of the novel may be that El Saadawi exposes her criticisms of religion and the double standards of men when it comes to the Islamic faith. It is this deeply engrained religious hypocrisy practiced throughout her dystopian world that contributes to the futile nature of Firdaus search to find meaning in the Islamic religion of her society.

Likewise, Orwells protagonist Winston is unsuccessful in finding meaning through the pseudo-religion of Big Brother. The idea of Big Brother being a
pseudo-religion is supported by Karl Marxs view that religion is the opium of the people . This sociological reading suggests that, like a drug, the comforting figure of Big Brother oppresses the people by distracting them from their dismal reality. Whats more, the omniscient third-person narration used by Orwell throughout reflects the God-like status of Big Brother as an all-knowing and all-powerful force. Orwells protagonist does not find meaning in this pseudo-religion however because Winston views Big Brother as the personification of an oppressive regime, rather than as a comforter.

This is demonstrated in the 2-minutes hate because Winstons hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but ¦ against Big Brother, the Party and the Thought Police; Having said this, Orwell presents his protagonist as successful in finding meaning through his memories of religion before the Ingsoc revolution. Mr Charringtons rhyme about old London churches fascinates Orwells protagonist because ¦when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten.

One reading of Orwells protagonists obsession is that the rhyme brings back vague memories of church bells, and thus of Christianity and a more loving and empathetic set of beliefs than that of Big Brother. Another way in which the writers present their protagonists as successful in their quest for meaning in dystopian worlds is through the freedom that comes with death. Death is a form of freedom in a dystopian world because the protagonist is released from the oppression of their environment, society or political regime. The guardsman in Oscar Wildes The Ballad of Reading Gaol successfully finds meaning and freedom in death. His soul was resolute, and held

No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangmans hands were near.

The guardsman has accepted death and does not fear it. The protagonist is glad that death is coming because it means an escape from the monotony of day-to-day prison life and from the relentless surveillance of the warders. Wildes use of the word resolute to describe the guardsmans soul suggests that the guardsman has repented his sins and therefore his soul will be saved when he dies. Wilde thus juxtaposes the dystopian and hell-like world that the murderer is leaving with the utopia of heaven where the man will go to once he has died. This eschatological reading gives added gravitas to the ultimate freedom that the guardsman will experience in death. In his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis, Wilde describes how on earth he has found ¦ not merely the beauty of Heaven, but the horror of Hell, also , supporting the idea that the condemned man, through death, is escaping a hell-like existence in prison.

Similarly, El Saadawis protagonist Firdaus also successfully finds meaning through the freedom of death. Like the guardsman, Firdaus is sentenced to death for the crime of murder. However, she is not repentant for this crime but is proud of her actions. The act of killing her pimp, Marzouk, is her final victory over the oppression she has felt her entire life by different men in her society. She realises that she has always been afraid of her oppressor and that, The movement of my hand upwards and then downwards destroyed my fear.

Thus Firdaus is proud of her punishment as an outward sign of her inner victory over her dystopian world. She embraces death like a martyr for the cause of enslaved and oppressed women. This journey to an unknown destination, to a place unknown to all those who live on this earth, be they king or prince, or ruler, fills me with pride. Like Wildes condemned man, El Saadawi presents the idea that through death her protagonist will enter a utopian world or an unknown destination where she is no longer oppressed by the society of the dystopian world she lived in.

In contrast to these two protagonists, Orwell presents his protagonist Winston as unsuccessful in finding freedom through death. As a result of the brainwashing process he undergoes in the Ministry of Love, Winston truly loves Big Brother and the Party. Unlike Firdaus, Winston does not die as a martyr for his cause. Instead, he is completely converted before he is killed. His betrayal of Julia is a dismissal of his greatest rebellion against the Party: loving another person. He knowingly puts himself before Julia and wishes that she should endure his torture in his place because ¦he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats.

This psychological shift means that when Winston is killed by the Party, he truly loves Big Brother, the personification of a political regime not interested in the good of others ¦ interested solely in power. Through the nature of his death, Orwell shows that Winston has lost this moral struggle and that the party have succeeded in oppressing him mentally, as well as physically. Typical of Orwells literary style, Winston paradoxically believes He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. Winston does not, therefore, die free. In truth, Winstons reintegration into the Ingsoc regime and the annihilation of Winstons difference is the restoration of the pure positivity of Big Brother. This Marxist reading stresses how the power of a totalitarian state rests on the destruction of any individuals who might rise up against it. The structure of 1984 finishes with Winstons proclamation of love for Big Brother and thus highlights the cruel infallibility of the Ingsoc regime.

All three writers present love and relationships with others as crucial to their protagonists search for meaning. In Wildes ballad, the sense of comradeship amongst prisoners that Wilde conveys, suggests that the persona of the ballad finds meaning in the shared nature of the prisoners dystopia.

We tore the tarry ropes to shreads
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails.

The repetition of the pronoun we emphasises the collective nature of the hard labour the men carry out, and how the persona of the ballad feels part of a team of men, going through the same painful and monotonous tasks together. The regular six-line stanza used throughout the ballad with alternate lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter reflects the relentless monotony of the painful physical labour of prison life. This relentless monotony is reinforced by the regular ABCBDB rhyming scheme throughout. The idea of comradeship through collective monotony is built upon further when the persona empathises completely with the condemned man and enters his ring of hell, showing that they are both sinners, A prison wall was round us both,/ Two outcast men we were: Later in the ballad, the night before the guardsmans execution, all the prisoners pray for the condemned mans soul as the warders, ¦wondered why men knelt to pray/ Who never prayed before.

This action shows a sense of solidarity between the men as well as a Christian conscience; they truly believe that the condemned man is capable of salvation. As Carol Rumens comments, the central charge of the Ballad is sympathy, sympathy with the condemned man and his fellow inmates. , it is this sympathy that allows Wilde to evoke collective feelings. This emotive reading suggests that as well as giving the personas life meaning, feelings of comradeship and sympathy for fellow prisoners were a significant catalyst for Wildes consequent zeal for penal reform. The ballad itself was published to highlight the injustice of the British penal system and conveys this didactic message throughout.

Similarly, Orwells protagonist Winston successfully finds meaning through his relationships with others. Winstons loving and sexual relationship with Julia is the complete antithesis of what the Party stands for because amongst women, Chastity was as deeply ingrained in them as Party loyalty. The Partys enforcement of chastity from a young age has a military function as ¦sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship. Winstons relationship with Julia starts simply because Winston wishes to rebel against the oppressive regime, he describes their first sexual encounter as a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act. However, Winston soon falls in love with Julia and finds a deeper meaning for living in his dystopian world.

The fact that She gave the tips of his fingers a quick squeeze that seemed to invite not desire but affection. suggests that their relationship has become more than just sexual desire for one another. The isolation of the individual within the Ingsoc regime removes the opportunity or inclination for such loving relationships. This isolation is shown through Winstons account of Katherines white body, frozen for ever by the hypnotic power of the Party. The use of the word frozen suggests that the Party members are emotionally deadened by the chastity conventions they conform to under Ingsoc. Winston rebels from this emotional death when he successfully falls in love with Julia. Looking at Orwells wartime diaries, it is clear he feared that the atrocities which civilians witnessed during the Blitz, and the newspapers reports of RAF attacks on Germany, would cause the British public to loose the ability to feel emotion.

In July 1942, Orwell wrote, I remember saying to someone during the blitz, when the R.A.F. were hitting back as best they could, In a years time youll see the headlines in the Daily Express: Successful Raid on Berlin Orphanage. Babies Set on Fire. It hasnt come to that yet, but that is the direction we are going in. This historical reading of the dystopian novel suggests that Orwell has extended his contemporary fear to create a society of emotionless party members. Orwells protagonist notices how society has lost the ability to feel emotion because of his memories of relationships before the Ingsoc revolution. Orwell thus presents the past as a time when people had the freedom to feel emotion for one another and his protagonist Winston as successful in finding meaning through his memories of love before Ingsoc.

Orwell suggests that the Ingsoc regime has removed the ability of individuals to feel unconditional love as the concept of tragedy, belonged to the ancient time ¦ when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. This is supported by the fact that Winston perceives the death of his own mother many years previously as, ¦tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. The emotional death and inability of party members to love unconditionally is brought about by the enforcement of chastity and isolation of the individual, both of which break down the family unit in Oceania.

In contrast, El Saadawis protagonist Firdaus is unsuccessful in finding meaning through her relationships. Her confused and disjointed memories of her parents suggest that they were not a loving and supportive influence. When describing her childhood in a first person narrative, Firdaus questions, Who was I? Who was my father?. Her uncle is ultimately a poor guardian as he allows her to marry a much older man and refuses to send her to university because he does not believe that she should learn alongside men. A respected Sheikh and man of religion like myself sending his niece off to mix in the company of men?! Firdaus life continues in a pattern where every man she becomes close to mistreats her and so she is unsuccessful in finding meaning through love. The repetitive nature of Firdaus misfortune in the novel reflects the Arabic oral tradition. Her hatred of men stems from her financial dependence upon them, which enslaves her.

Before killing Marzouk she describes how she hated him as only a woman can hate a man, as only a slave can hate his master. This hatred of men reaches a climax when she tears up the money given to her by the Arab prince as a rejection of this dependence. It was as though I was destroying all the money I had ever held ¦ and at the same time destroying all the men I had ever known ¦ my uncle, my husband, my father, Marzouk and Bayoumi, Diaa, Ibrahim, This rejection supports the idea that El Saadawi ¦sheds new light on the power of women in resistance against poverty, racism, fundamentalism, and inequality of all kinds. This feminist reading suggests that El Saadawis rejection of male financial support advocates the strength and equality of women.

To conclude, Orwell and El Saadawi appear to have created protagonists that are completely juxtaposed in their success at finding meaning in dystopian worlds. Winston successfully finds meaning throughout his life and is able to resist the oppression of the Ingsoc regime psychologically through his loving relationship with Julia and memories of relationships and religion before the revolution. However, he is unable to maintain freedom of thought in death and ends his life devoted to Big Brother.

Contrastingly, El Saadawis protagonist Firdaus fails to find any positive meaning in life due to the treatment she endures from men and the religious hypocrisy practiced by many in her society. El Saadawi does, however, present Firdaus as finding meaning in her death; the punishment is an acknowledgement of her triumph over male domination. Wildes dual-protagonist is the most successful at finding meaning in a dystopian world, as the persona of the ballad successfully finds meaning in life through comradeship and Catholic values, whilst the condemned guardsman successfully finds meaning through his acceptance of death and belief in a utopian world in heaven.

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