|Ms. Gallagher British Literature (H)
Essay on Existentialism in Grendel
Step 1: Read the following articles: “The Twelve Chapters of Grendel” Craig J. Stromme, “Existential Philosophy in John Gardner's Grendel” Mary Kathryn Cornwell, and “Grendel and Beowulf: Illuminating the Relationship between Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes” Mary Francis Fitzsimmons. (All are in your gold packet)
Step 2: Re-read the Introduction to Existentialism that I gave to you and review the philosophies of Jean Paul Sartre
Step 3: Read the examples below that show how to apply existentialism as literary theory in an analysis paper.
Your Task: Apply your new knowledge to an understanding of this novel. Write an essay in which you discuss Grendel as a philosophical text. Consider the various philosophies, as embodied by the characters in the work, that Gardner discusses. What conclusions, if any, does he want the reader to come away with by the end of the text. Is this an existential novel? Or does Gardner actually criticize and ‘debunk’ the theory by the novel’s end? Is this novel nihilistic in nature? How? Nihilism and Existentialism are just two of the philosophies explored in the novel. Read and re-read the Stromme article for ideas.
The Requirements: Compose a well developed and well organized research essay in MLA format that has a strong thesis statement that argues in what way the novel functions as a philosophical text. You must weave into your essay quotes from 2 outside sources---I have already provided these to you in your gold packet. Of course, you must also use direct quotes from Grendel. We will use the Masuk High School Response to Literature/Research Rubric---the same one we used for the Grendel/Beowulf compare/contrast essay. I will be placing heavy emphasis on the use of effective transitions, proper use of MLA format, and detailed yet concise topic sentences.
One Catch (Well, maybe two): I want you to learn how the whole of a text can be revealed in a part. That being said, you may quote only from Chapter 2, Chapter 5, and Chapter 12 of Grendel. This means you must go back and conduct a close reading of these chapters to find just the right quotes, ones that will allow you to analyze and expand on your topic. Which brings me to my other catch: You can only use three direct quotes from Grendel; within these three quotes you must show how the entire work functions as a philosophical text. Yes, this is possible. But it will require you to really analyze the heck out of the quotes you choose. You will need to refer to these quotes throughout your paper. I actually suggest you only use one quote from Grendel.
Oh, and I’m not telling you how long the paper should be. Nope. So, as Grendel would likely say, “tee-hee”
Good luck! You can do this! Promise! Due Date: _____________ (turnitin.com required)
EXAMPLES: HOW TO APPLY EXISTENIALISM TO A TEXT
Character Analysis :Hamlet
The paradox of Hamlet's nature draws people to the character. He is angry, dejected, depressed, and brooding; he is manic, elated, enthusiastic, and energetic. He is dark and suicidal, a man who loathes himself and his fate. Yet, at the same time, he is an existential thinker who accepts that he must deal with life on its own terms, that he must choose to meet it head on.
EXAMPLE 2: In Paulo Coelho’s novel The Zahir, the narrator tells the story of his search for his self. When his wife of ten years, Esther, disappears, he is seemingly oblivious as to the reason why she would leave him; in his opinion they had a perfect marriage. As the novel progresses, however, and he authors a popular book, he begins to realize that there are parts of their relationship and his life that are far from perfect. Though he considers himself to be a reflective person, and although his authorship seems to suggest the same, he realizes that he has not understood himself or Esther for many years. As he sets out to find Esther, following the advice of her friend Mikhail, he is really going in search of himself. The meaning in The Zahir can be expanded and deepened by looking at it through an existential analysis using the themes of anxiety, immediacy, freedom, death, and story-telling, although Coelho’s conclusion that love is an overarching force that gives meaning to everything is arguably not found in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, or Sartre. http://www.american.edu/cas/philorel/pharmakon/08fredin1.cfm
EXAMPLE 3: An abstract of the paper "Lord Jim: An Existential Analysis."
The aim of this paper is to make a case for Lord Jim as an existential novel. I examine here Jim's character within the matrix provided by the word 'existence' which recurs with remarkable frequency at strategic points in the novel.
The following few existential premises are worth mentioning here since they constitute a useful framework for such a study:
(i) Existence precedes essence; (ii) the responsibility, therefore, of living a meaningful existence lies squarely on the shoulders of man; (iii) man has been granted the freedom to choose; (iv) because he is free to choose, he is likely to make a mistake and thus bring on anguish and a sense of guilt in his life;(v) this may isolate him from his fellow beings and from his own 'Being' as well, and finally, (vi) he may still commit himself to a renewed effort to rise once more to the level of an authentic existence.
Satre's statement, "Man is condemned to be free," is also of great relevance to this inquiry since, according to him, this freedom to choose may bring anguish or guilt as a result of choosing a wrong path or object. Wrong choice (Jim's jump) becomes one of the cardinal problems in the novel. The problem of choice is viewed in this paper in the light of the existential paradox of affirmative negation and negative affirmation.
In choosing a man has so to choose and act that it may become something valid for all. A wrong choice or act may be the result of a contingency of situation or any other circumstance. But existentialism admits of no alibis in a man's failure, in his betrayal to a meaningful existence. Like Camus' Sisyphus, an existential hero teaches a higher fidelity which believes in raising the rocks and negating the gods. "Man," in the words of Sartre, "becomes his own project," and even in guilt and defeat may retain his courage and will to regain his lost identity. Man alone is responsible to himself and he alone can thus make or mar his destiny. In this way he strives to become what he has decided "to be," and in doing so he confers an essence upon his existence.
Jim's life in terms of the above mentioned existential terminology like freedom to choose, anguish, guilt, isolation, commitment to the ideals of an authentic existence etc., seems to echo through the pages of the novel. It is interesting to note how these words ring through the storm-troubled life of Jim.
Jim is such an existential character, according to the present author. His jump into the sea from the "Patna" amounts to the breach of faith with the 800 pilgrims and with that he becomes a man condemned to and cut off from all and himself. Isolation fogs him and the sense of guilt haunts him wherever he goes. He has violated the code of mariners and in doing so has proved himself to be an abject coward. The fact that in spite of the contingency of situation he decides in a momentary impulse to desert the ship, doesn't make him free from the criminal weakness that he has exhibited thereby. But this is no place for a detailed analysis of the validity or otherwise of this most controversial of all the jumps perhaps in the entire world literature.
It is Jim's life after the jump that acquires existential overtones. His willingness to face the trial when the others have in a dastardly manner disappeared from the scene, strikes the first existential note in his decision to wipe out a blot and earn a name. It is his existential commitment to life in search of a lost identity that impels him to face life squarely and responsibly henceforward. He commits himself to the pursuance of an authentic existence in a renewed effort to wrench himself out of the mire of guilt and isolation that has surrounded him. The farther, therefore, he wanders from shore to shore, the nearer he reaches the essence of his self. His imaginations has been his undoing, but now for the first time the romantic shakes hands with the realist and Jim begins to act like a daredevil even as a water-clerk as if to atone for his one mistake in life.
Stein is the only one (besides Marlow) to understand Jim properly and sympathetically. Jim is no enigma to Stein, as he has been to others. To Stein Jim is a romantic and a dreamer to the core who cannot realize the essence of life till he immerses himself into the destructive waters of life, only to emerge constructively. "He who would search for pearls must dive below." (Dryden). That's why Jim is packed off to Patusan which at once becomes his isle of paradise and his battleground for resurrection. Jim of Patusan is a far cry from the Jim of the "Patna." His breach of faith with the pilgrims on the "Patna," is counterbalanced by his bridge of faith that he so assiduously builds up amongst the people of Patusan The arrival on the scene of "Gentleman" Brown, proves to be fatal for Jim in as much as it forces him to betray those who trust him. Jim by now appears to be well-adjusted to his new environment and appears to have become one with the people of Patusan. His devotion to the people has the intensity of a commitment to an existential code of ethics embodied by faith, courage and loyalty.
EXAMPLE 4: John Gardner’s intelligently written Grendel is a commentary on the merits and flaws of both types of worldview: the existentialist "meaning-free" universe, and the heroic universe, where every action is imbued with purpose and power. Indeed, the book raises many philosophical questions in regards to the meaning of life as well as to the way humans define themselves. Additionally, Gardner portrays continual analysis, and final approval, of existentialist viewpoints as one observes that the main character, Grendel, is an existentialist.
After having thoroughly read the book, there is no doubt that Grendel shows proof of support in existentialism. The novel follows the life of a character who is gradually "disillusioned," turning from a teary romantic into a cold nihilist. Indeed, as the main character describes his childhood/adolescence in the beginning of the novel, his naiveté and innocence clearly stand out. “And so I discovered the sunken door, and so I came up, for the first time, to moon light”, recalls Grendel, remembering his first days out on earth as he analyzed and discovered various creatures and his surroundings with blatant ignorance (16). With the story of his first encounter with men, after getting his foot stuck in a crack where two old tree trunks joined, Gardner demonstrates Grendel’s innocence (he yells for his mother and cries “Mama! Waa!”) as well as his urgent need to define things and find a meaning for himself.
Through his eyes are shown the futility of a romantic outlook and the destruction of a dream. "If the Shaper's vision of goodness and peace is a part of himself, not idle rhymes, then no one understands him at all," thinks Grendel, recognizing the divergence between reality and the heroic ideal (53). His defeat of Unferth marks the symbolic destruction of heroism, at least in his head; "So much for heroism," he concludes (90). Even Grendel's existence would seem to disprove the notions of the Shaper, who preaches the virtues of honor and courage. If the world is based on right and wrong, how can Grendel continue to survive? How can he kill senselessly every night, bring so much grief and torment to humans, and yet nothing come of it? "It's all the same in the end, matter or motion, simple or complex," whether he kills or not (73). In the beginning, Grendel decides that life must be devoid of meaning. Nihilism is, of curse, a rather depressing, if liberating, way to go through life, but such would seem to be the conclusion of the book.
In order to understand what Gardner intends by this, one must look at the process through which Grendel turns nihilist. Psychologically, Grendel is an interesting character. He spends his entire life practicing the denial of truth. His first interaction with humans, conscious, thinking beings like himself, forces him to turn to philosophical solipsism in order to cope with their existence. Life stays much simpler if he can still pretend that he is the only thing that matters; “he exists, nothing else" (28). With the coming of the Shaper, Grendel's inner romanticism awakes and he briefly pulls back from the edge of cynicism. The Shaper's "honeysweet lure" has a kind of meaning beyond truth for which Grendel longs (48). Despite his inner arguments and the evidence of human brutality all around him, especially as he recollects the growth of Hrothgar's Kingdom, Grendel surrenders himself to romantic ideals. “Now and then some trivial argument would break out, and one of them would kill another one, and all the others would detach themselves from the killer as neatly as blood clotting…” (32). But he cannot keep this up in the face of so much human cruelty, and slowly begins the conversion to cynicism. When the dragon arrives, his vague cynicism takes a new direction: nihilism. “Futility, doom, became a smell in the air, pervasive and acrid as the dead smell after a forest fire; my scent and the world’s...” (75). Yet Grendel still protests the idea that his actions are meaningless, refuses to commit himself fully to the world of the Shaper or dragon, or even an internal notion of truth.
His indecision combines with his feelings of rejection and Grendel becomes angry at the world for being so confusing. "An angry man does not usually shake his fist at the universe in general. He makes a selection and knocks knocks his neighbor down" (69). Because of this anger, Grendel kills. But even though he acts without regard for any moral implications, his killing, like any action, still has meaning, if only by the fact that he chose to kill. It is, in essence, a misguided attempt to deny the meaninglessness of life by destroying it. His continued attempts at reducing meaning are illustrated in many forms. He eats the priests, reducing religion to something that "sits in the stomach like duck eggs" (129). He humiliates Unferth, reducing heroism to a whimpering man. This ultimately comes to Grendel's attempted murder of Wealtheow, their queenly female ideal. Even though he concludes that killing her "would be as meaningless as letting her live," the fact that he willingly chooses the former proves that he has not fully accepted nihilism. Through it all runs a current of desperation and denial; if life is meaningless, why must Grendel go to so much effort to prove it? Why not just do as the dragon advises, "seek out gold and sit on it," (74) wrapped up in ultimate self-centeredness? The irony of nihilism, and one reason Grendel can never take it into his heart completely, is that it preaches ultimate relativity, yet the end result is non-objectivity, perspective and meaning limited solely to the individual. Confused by what truth is, what meaning is, and what definition is, Grendel finds comfort as he unconsciously embracing the existence of free will. Grendel does not really find meaning to life as the Dragon and Shaper have dictated to him, nor does he seem to veritably believe he is the monster by which the humans define themselves; especially towards his death which he qualifies simply as an “accident”. In the absence of true meaning, Grendel defines himself partly by conflict. He is the “meadhall-wrecker”, the “kingdom-smasher”. He is not human and not normal and not accepted. He is a force of destruction. Even though he has now turned in to what the dragon and shaper have been describing since the beginning of the novel, Grendel, however, has the impression that because his own will, logic, and decision has he turned into what he is. He has given himself meaning, with no other aid but that of free will. Consequently, at this point of the book, Gardner cleverly promotes existentialism as he turns Grendel into a true philosopher appearing much more intelligent and correct than the humans.
Gardner's refutation of existentialism reaches its rhetorical climax during Grendel's death. Beowulf whispers to Grendel, "you make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point" (171). Once again Gardner poses an interesting question as he introduces Beowulf’s point of view. The Geat warrior does not defend existentialism, but rather challenges it. Beowulf's point is that the purpose of life lies in meaning, not truth. To Beowulf, existentialism is something completely different in the sense that it is a self-contradiction, for the individual has the power to give life meaning, yet life is meaningless. A conscious being, a "pattern maker" like Grendel, can never accept this fully (27). The belief in nihilism, for any human (or Grendel), is in fact not belief in the absence of meaning, it is belief in the opposite of meaning. In a way, it is the antithesis to meaning and it is neither satisfying, nor objective, nor true for Grendel. Beowulf's point is that the things, graves, gardens of roses, monsters, and heroes, are no more or less than the meaning given them, which in turn stems from consciousness and life. "The world will burn green, sperm build again. Time is the mind, the hand that makes," not destroys (170). While Grendel looks for a purpose and reason to life, Gardner's answer is that life and free will are the source of all purpose and reason, once again promoting an existential viewpoint.
Gardner provides us with a conclusive answer to the existentialism debate in the final scene. The key difference between Grendel and Beowulf, like that between heroism and existentialism, is meaning. Grendel kills without meaning, and Beowulf kills with meaning. A small difference, indeed, but it is the symbolic distinction between he that dies and he that survives. From Grendel's point of view, even his own end is meaningless; it is only an "accident" which happens to him (174). To Beowulf, it is a victory, a triumph, and a rebirth for humankind. Is Beowulf's perspective, according to Gardner, necessarily more valid? No. But Gardner also remarks that nihilism, true or not, must end in denial. Finally, he implies that existentialism is very different from nihilism. In a world where definition and meaning are not always clear, many, including Grendel, find comfort in existentialism and the assumption that people are entirely free in their, hopefully optimistic, quest for meaning.