World Literature Essay
Name: Audrey She-Sum Lai
Subject: English A1 Higher Level
Title: A Man On an Island: An expedition for true happiness
Although the renowned poet John Donne from the Renaissance had pointed out that “no man is an island”, isolation is a part of the quest for true happiness. It allows us to see how sensual stimuli have diverted our attention from spiritual realization. Human are indeed connected to one another as a whole. Yet, no matter how close we are physically, we are the only ones who are accessible to our own mind. Exploring for the truly happy mind is like a solo on an isolated island. In the novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichby Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, three men’s expeditions for their true happiness on their isolated islands are revealed. The nature of their isolation, the process of their realization, and their achievement of happiness are shown in front of our very eyes.
First, let’s compare the nature of the three protagonists’ isolation. All three men were on an “island” isolated from the society, in which sensual stimuli like warmth, cigarettes, food and sex were reduced to the minimum. In ODITLOID, Ivan was a prisoner in a concentration camp in Siberia. Apart from its remoteness from cities, the camp was surrounded by fencing and barricades and guarded by soldiers. Such setting made physical freedom impossible. Siberia was very cold and snowed heavily in winter. However, the prisoners were not allowed any extra clothing and there was no such thing as heat system. Physical warmth, thus, was a privilege. Psychological warmth was of virtual non-existence as well. The prisoners did not dare to expect any favors without a favor in return. An example would be when Ivan offered to queue up for Markovich, in return for the food in his package. There was simply no altruism in the camp. One could only depend on oneself to survive. Food rations were meager. There were no women in the camp, either, which made sex impossible. Even cigarettes were rare. In the cold remote camp, sensual stimuli being viewed as necessities in our world become legendary luxuries.
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Meursault’s “island” in The Stranger was also in isolation. His prison cell was dark, cold and empty except his presence. He did not have the freedom to choose the choice of visitors. Even if he got to see anyone, he could only see, with not much body contact. An example would be when Marie visited him. This made sex impossible for Meursault. There were no cigarettes in the cell that he had given up smoking. Choice of food was no longer available because he had lost that privilege. Like Ivan, Meursault’s right to these goods was deprived, living in an isolated world where sensual stimuli were minimized.
Gregor’s “island” in Metamorphosis was his room at home. No one would enter the room because he had turned into a cockroach and that his family was unwilling to see him as that. He failed to escape, too, ending up in the room isolated from the world. His physical form of a cockroach prevented him from food and cigarettes. Delicious food that he used to enjoy when he was a human being was not edible to him anymore. He had to feed himself on leftovers and spoiled food. Cigarettes, because of his form, were no longer accessible to him. Similar to Ivan and Meursault, pleasure from sensual stimuli became impossible. Somehow, such austerity did not discourage them from achieving their happiness. Instead, they gradually diverted their attention to their minds.
The men silently carried out their solo expedition, or their process of realization, on their “islands”. In isolation, the three protagonists became accustomed to life without sensual stimuli, beginning to understand the importance of individual mind and attitude. As Ivan realizes that he could not escape the day by going to the infirmary, he tried his very best in finishing his tasks. He gained psychological satisfaction from acknowledging what he was able to do. An example would be when he laid the bricks, he commented,
“It was a funny thing how time flew when you were working!”
The word “funny” contains a connotation of amusement and happiness. The significance of this scenario is that it reveals Ivan’s evolution from the desires for sensual comforts to mental comforts.
Meursault had been very passive throughout the novel up till the point when he heard himself talking after telling about the news story about the Czechoslovakian in the following passage.
“I gazed at my reflection one more time. It was still serious—and what was surprising about that, since at that moment I was too? But at the same time, and for the first time in months, I distinctly heard the sound of my own voice. I recognized it as the same one that had been ringing in my ears for many long days, and I realized that all that time I had been talking to myself.”
Before then, Meursault took everything as fate had predestinated for him. However, the moment he began talking to himself, he changed. He became active of his own life. In the isolated prison cell, he became aware of the power of his own mind, which was demonstrated by his rejection of the priest.
For Gregor, he ate less and less, and began to drive more and more attention to his family. It was somehow giving him a pleasant feeling, despite of his starvation. For instance, when he listened to his sister’s violin performance, it said,
“He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.”
This scenario, which described Gregor getting nourishment from a feeling for his family rather than food, marked that he no longer sought happiness by satisfying physical needs. Being isolated from the society, he began to realize his feelings for his family. Summing up the three protagonists’ process of realization, their isolation had somehow granted them an opportunity to realize the power of their minds. It was only then that they began to see an alternative way in obtaining happiness.
On their isolated “islands”, the protagonists gave up to achieve their happiness through physical body, but freed themselves from it instead. All three of them came to a realization that they could achieve true happiness through mind. As Ivan reviewed his day before he went to sleep, he accounted the satisfaction he had gained from the action decided by his own mind. Despite of the lack of food and physical discomfort in the morning, these feelings of physical discontent as the mental satisfaction became greater and greater as he gained essence of himself through living it. As he fell into sleep, “he was very happy”. Ivan’s happiness was not from his physical state, but his mental state. It was his own decisions that brought him the satisfaction. His physical isolation had indeed deprived him many luxuries, yet it was the absence of these luxuries that led him to discover a happiness that could be achieved simply through mind.
In the case of Meursault, he realized why he did not cry on his mother funeral. Isolated in his prison cell, he meditated and came to a conclusion that life was never predestined. The world was just there as it was. If he could put down the “mind forg’d manacles”, forget the rules of the society; he was indeed a free person. Summing up his thoughts, he claimed,
“I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”
Like Ivan, although the physical isolation prevented Meursault from many pleasure possible by body, he found happiness by freeing himself from the values of the society. Such isolation had indeed provided him an opportunity to reflect his thoughts about life, leading to a mental happiness.
As Gregor died, he discovered his love for his family, as hinted in the following passage.
“He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning.”
Despite of his family’s hatred towards him, he still loved them and wished his death would bring them happiness. In isolation, he dwelled in a meditation with peace. Peace implied a freedom from violence. For Gregor it would be the violence in life to satisfy his physical needs. It was at the last moment when he freed himself from his body and achieved happiness through mind. All the protagonists in the end realized that they were all free individuals on their “islands”. They freed themselves from the rules of the world. Those were the very moments when they achieved happiness.
Concluding the three protagonists’ expeditions to true happiness, in isolation, they all discovered a satisfaction in the mind instead of body. While sensual stimuli were reduced to the least, they saw something beyond. One may argue that they were resigning to life in their inevitable isolation, but they had indeed grasped an alternative happiness in such isolation. Like a walk with many people holding one long stick, “no man is an island”. The stick connects us all. As we proceed to the front, no matter what speed we are at, we move as a whole. Yet, we take the steps by ourselves. Happiness may be realized when we see our strength in taking that step, like the Ivan, Meursault and Gregor in the three novels.
Word Count: 1412 words
A phrase from Meditation 17 by John Donne in 1624
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Bantam Books, 1990. (Hereafter ODITLOID)
Albert Camus, The Stranger, Vintage International, March 1989. (Hereafter TS)
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis, W W Norton and Sons. (Hereafter M)
ODITLOID: pp. 73
TS: pp. 81
M: pp. 874
ODITLOID: pp. 202
TS: pp. 123
M: pp. 878