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Literature and Social Change

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1160 words Published: 12th Jun 2017

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Literature written during the period between 1650 and the mid 1800s encourages us to think for ourselves rather than blindly accept the status quo. Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich reminds us to be mindful of the folly of keeping up with the Jones’. Moliere’s Tartuffe warns against the unquestioning acceptance of religious authority. Swift and Douglass condemn the unthinkable acceptance of human degradation. Whether describing the indiscriminate acceptance of authority or social norms these stories inspire us to use critical thinking as a means of restoring moral principles.

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Tolstoy’s depiction of the struggle between the physical and spiritual world reminds us that a life of integrity is a life of meaningful choices. Choices that require careful consideration about what is truly important in life, namely the people in our lives. Ivan Ilyich’s acceptance of the challenge to keep up with the status quo led him to a place of painful isolation. Each thoughtless choice cost him personal integrity until he is compelled by impending death to take a judicious look at his life.

A Modest Proposal. Historical and cultural biases and stereotypes prevent both oppressors and oppressed from seeing not only the need but the ability to change. Acceptance of poverty as a regrettable condition or an acceptable lifestyle for those people without questioning the validity of such ideas degrades all humanity. Swift’s work provoked critical thinking and discussion among the people changing expectations, reforming abuses and reaffirming the value of humanity.

Douglass’ work asserts the worth of all mankind. The practice of enslaving human beings chained not only the slave but the owner as well. Each choice to ignore was a choice to endorse slavery as a reasonable practice. Only when reason was applied, prejudices examined and stereotypes dismantled did ideas about slavery begin to change. The abolition of slavery required rethinking the value of human freedom by slave holders and slaves alike as well as society as a whole. What began as individual revelation grew into a revolution renewing integrity of individuals and a nation.

Each story draws the reader into an abusive world created and affirmed by ignorance then offers the means for change, independent thinking. Unquestioned our biases and assumptions unjustifiably impact our thought processes. Restoration of integrity comes about when we are mindful of circumstance and apply critical thinking skills to our situation. As each author illustrates, our power to reason is a powerful tool for change.

Question 3 Relevance

Still Searching for Significance

The stories we read from 1650 through the mid 1800’s all address issues that are relevant today. Religious hypocrisy, poverty and slavery still exist with long lasting and detrimental effects. I believe Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich holds the most relevance for today’s audience because it speaks to what we have the most control over, our day to day choices. We all have the potential to live meaningful lives and affect our world in a positive way.

Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich addresses me, my family, and my community. Our priorities are easily confused when trying to keep up with appearances. Tolstoy contrasts the way we usually live our life, keeping up with appearances and the way we should live our life, with kindness and gratitude.

One hundred years after the author’s death people still search for fulfillment in materialism. Years ago “He who Dies with the Most Toys Wins” was a popular bumper sticker. I rarely see it anymore. Consumed by debt we struggle to survive. “He who Dies with the Most Debt” doesn’t have quite the same laugh in the face of death attitude. It’s not just toys, we invest heavily in cars and homes, jobs and after school activities believing we are what we appear to be. Appearances are artificial. The substance of who we are, the way we treat people is deeper than appearance.

As a nation September 11th especially reminded us of the importance of the people in our lives. Listening to phone calls made to loved ones by nine-eleven victims we wondered, Who would we call first if our plane or building was going to consume us? Who would miss us if in the rescue of another human being we were to loose our life?

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Certainly the sacrifice of life would be evidence of a life well-lived, an authentic life. But even Ivan Ilyich in a sense sacrifices his life. Certainly he wanted what was best for his family yet they see him as a nuisance, they really just want him to go away. This man provided the best for his family and in return they want nothing to do with him. The material things he provided are ultimately unimportant. Gerashim’s compassion for Ivan shed’s light on what is truly important.

Both Ivan and Gershim benefit because of Gershim’s compassion. Ivan is cared for, his loneliness and pain are lessened. Gershim, having made a difference in someone’s life, is filled with a satisfaction that can not be cast off. His life has meaning. His compassion comes from his spirit, it is love in action. All the material gifts we give will disintegrate in time but compassion, love for another, has a regenerating power. Love authenticates our lives.

When we show compassion for our family, friends, and neighbors our communities are better places. Places where hypocrisy, poverty and slavery have a difficult time existing. The choices we make daily can add up to a meaningful life and a better world.

Question 5 Favorite

A Renewed Appreciation

I thoroughly enjoyed the works we read especially Frederick Douglass, Moliere, and Jonathan Swift but the work that is my favorite is Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy’s story had the most effect on me. As I read the story the first time I found myself substituting my own husband for Ivan. He, like Ivan works hard to keep up appearances and works in pain. I, like Ivan’s wife can barely be bothered with him. The story reminded me that compassion is a two-way street. Now when I think about the story it is not someone else I see in Ivan’s place but myself. The story is my favorite because it has caused me to think about myself and seek change.

The work that is my least favorite is Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock. It was my least favorite because the subject matter and the imagery felt so foreign to me. The piece was difficult to understand, yet I was intrigued, the verse was captivating. As I learned about the imagery and epic poetry I came to appreciate this mock epic.

Reading the literature from this time period has caused me to appreciate history and the changes that can be initiated through the power of words.


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