Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Allegory as a powerful tool of expression in twenty-first Century English Literature

Who can say, after reading some of the bestselling novels today, that the allegory as a genre is dead ! One of the earliest examples of the use of the allegory was perhaps John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which was published in 1678. An allegorical rendering of the principal character’s search for salvation. If salvation was an important theme for Bunyan,  then, what about the most popular themes for novels and short stories in the twenty-first century? Well, the only difference is that today, the theme of salvation is introduced through a more circuitous route - themes dealing with basic survival strategies. Ironically, the  spiritual justification for the existence of the soul is the very fuel that feeds the very basis for the need for basic, raw, and rather primeval needs to survive in a hostile environment. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is an allegory  that highlights the impracticality of life in a rather structured and highly defined Socialist society, one that has a rather clearly demarcated division of labour. It is an allegory because it attempts to suggest a deeper, moral and spiritual meaning for the whole story – the idea  that human beings in their present state of mind might not be fit enough to live in Utopia! it is rather naive of us to think that human beings would be honest and complacent enough to live in a well regulated cooperative farm society.  Perhaps, the most popular allegory for the twenty-first century is survival.
One short story that strikes me as a good example of the use of the allegorical form is The  Lottery, written by Shirley Jackson way back in 1948. The short story shook my students and me when we read it. The question that arose in our minds was, why would one use a lottery system to select the sacrificial victim? Was it so that Mr. Summers could absolve himself of manslaughter ? A washing off his hands from the whole affair and  blaming fate for choosing the victim? You can blame fate, you can blame luck, anything but the man who is overlooking this game! It is surely a strange way of using the lottery, to end a life, and not to win a huge sum of money. Well I guess the death of one person wins a reprieve for others, so yes, maybe it is a lottery that brings luck to those who are not going to be stoned that season! When Mr. Adams says to Old Man Warner, ‘who stood next to him, “ that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery” ‘, Old Man Warner replies, ‘ “Pack of crazy fools,… Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody works anymore, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about, ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ “ The idea of the Sacrifice as a means to ensure a bumper harvest has in itself a very strong allegorical significance to the idea of the Crucifixion on the Cross as a means for achieving salvation and a washing away of sins. Thus according to Old Man Warner, having a Lottery in the month of June would ensure a bumper harvest. The very characters present in the story are a symbolical representation of the figures that appear in the scriptures - all actors in the Christian journey towards redemption. The allegory in The Lottery also has a lot to do with the pagan ritual of sacrifice, such as that practiced by the Mayans in South America. Woven within the allegory of Sacrifice are various strands from mythology, pagan rituals, fertility rites, and  blood letting and culling as a means for ensuring the continued health and prosperity of the community. The overwhelming feeling of sadness and the irony of the death of Mrs. Hutchinson, and the fact that it was Bill Hutchinson who held up the slip of paper that marked his wife as the sacrificial victim, questions the very need to follow rituals customs and traditions so blindly. After reading the short story, one is left wondering whether Mrs. Hutchinson deserved to die after all! Well this is what happens when we become blindly enslaved to tradition. Mrs. Hutchinson ends up shouting, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” and thereafter the people ‘were upon her.’ This is a short story that is also an allegory which draws a lot from mythology pagan traditions, the Christian Idea of salvation and it questions the very need to follow traditions which might not be relevant after all!
Another short story that drew the attention of my students, and me included, is the short story - The Most Dangerous Game written in 1924 by Richard Connel. A powerful allegory that highlights the popular theme of Man v/s Man, it questions the moral nature of the  fabric of the society that we live in! The rather predatory nature of man is revealed in the story which describes how a very rich man from New York falls off his Yacht, swims to an isolated island and then is hunted by Cossack Aristocrat. While speaking to Rainsford, General Zaroff says, “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter. My hand was made for the trigger, my father said.” When General Zaroff suggests that they might participate in the “ most exciting game in the world” with Rainsford as the quarry, Rainsford blurts, “This is a grisly joke!” The whole story ends in an ironical reversal of positions with Mr. Rainsford becoming the victor while General Zaroff has to make ‘ one of his deepest bows’. The actual killing of the General is not mentioned directly, but then, it is hinted when the story ends in Mr. Rainsford observation “ He had never slept in a better bed.” In this world of cut-throat competition for survival, there can only be one comfortable bed and that is reserved for the victor - forget about the idea of  sharing, or, for that effect, co-existence!   In this rather dystopian version of the world, you can only have the hunter and the hunted. It is a journey back to the primeval world of raw instincts for survival,  cavemen who fought each other for survival. A harsh yet touching comment on how life, even today, is about survival. Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest applies to the Society even today. Nothing has changed in spite of all the technological advancements that we have made since the times when our ancestors lived in caves! An allegory written in the year 1924, The Most Dangerous Game can be said to have provided a foretaste of the depravity and inhumanity that led to the extermination of Jews in the Concentration camps run by the Nazis. One can say, in fact, that The Most Dangerous Game has indeed highlighted t predatory in nature  man can be!
A variation of The Most Dangerous Game and The Lottery can be found in the Hunger Games series of novels, written by Suzanne Collins( which incidentally are very popular among young readers like my students), and The Kill Order by James Dashner (Which I have begun to read). The words, ‘the reaping, or food shortages, or the Hunger Games,’ or for that effect, the idea that life in district 12 nicknamed the Seam, is all about celebrating after the reaping that ‘their children have been spared for another year’ speaks volumes about the theme of survival, surviving in difficult times, especially in times when there are predators out there waiting to feed on little children. The reaping is like the drawing of chits of paper in the short story, The Lottery. What happens ideally, is that twenty-four people are imprisoned over a period of a few weeks in an outdoor location which could be a desert or a frozen wasteland and they must fight themselves to death. The last one standing would be the victor. The obvious similarities with  the short story, The Lottery are obvious. Taking the kids from the towns and then forcing them to kill each other while their parents and relatives watch a live telecast on T.V. screens is a rather strange but distorted variation of the theme of Sacrifice. It also provides a rather vicarious thrill to those who are watching in so far that they are mute spectators in a game of Russian Roulette and they can revel in the thought that they had missed the boat! Like in the short story, The Lottery, the populace of Panem are forced to treat the Hunger Games as a festival. The last man or woman  standing would  bring his district prizes including food and something as basic as sugar! Rather paradoxically, the Mayor announces that the start of the Hunger Games should be treated as a “time for repentance and a time for thanks”. It comes as a shock  to the protagonist when her Sister’s name, Primrose Everdeen, is selected for the reaping. Too shocked at the idea that her little sister would die at a tender age, Katnis Everdeen  volunteers to replace her little sister. An example of the readiness to sacrifice ones' self for the sake of someone one loves has the undertones of the readiness with which Christ offered Himself as a Sacrificial Lamb to be Crucified on the Cross. The allegorical significance of sacrifice connected to the New Testament is quite evident here!
It is clear, therefore, that the Allegory continues to be a favoured genre of writing for many writers of short stories and novels even today. It might  not  be so much of a throw back on the morality plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, nevertheless, the themes of salvation, sacrifice, renewal, re-birth, resurrection and morality continue to find expression in some of our contemporary English fiction. The fifteenth century play, Everyman probably written by an unknown Monk was an allegory based on moral truths, lessons in Christian Living and  salvation albeit garbed in an invented story. The personifications of good and evil, pagan rituals of sacrifice, the mythological rendering of a reaping, bloodletting for a better harvest are all some of the themes that are still popular today. If readers continue to be  enjoy reading novels like The Hunger Games and The Kill Order, then isn’t it obvious that they are intrigued and attracted by the deeper, symbolic meaning of the story? Are we therefore intrigued by the deeper and hidden meaning of life as opposed to the obvious? Are allegories the twenty-first century equivalent of the Morality Plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? Has scientific advancement  somehow left us  hungering for a deeper meaning to life as we know it? Are we still searching for redemption and salvation in a world that has become dehumanized and mechanical? The answers to these questions might lead us to settle on an understanding of the meaning of life, rather in the same way as Plato did in the Allegory of the Cave, in his discourse titled, The Republic.

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