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Pain is a very human thing to feel, whether it presents itself in a physical or emotional form. As a “human” concept, it is fascinating that pain can be (and is) expressed through literature. For, as much as we would love some characters to be living, breathing human beings, they are not. I would like to explore the notion that the presence of pain is a tool, utilized by authors, in order to present their characters in a more “full”, or human, way. An exploration of this concept will be conducted through close readings of both pre- and postcolonial bildungsromane. This will assist my argument, which is that the presence of pain in the postcolonial novels, as opposed to the precolonial bildungsromane, allows the characters to seem more full than flat, and, therefore, allows them to reach closer to humanity.
First, I would like to touch on the concept of “full” and “flat” characters, which I will be referencing for the rest of the essay. To introduce a new metaphor, I would like to say that I believe characters in a novel can be viewed as a basket of fruit. The basket, itself, is a character’s shell. The fact that they are mentioned at all within the space of the story grants them a basket. But, the amount of different types of fruit that fill that basket determines how “full” that character’s personality and emotional relatability to a reader (and, ultimately, their humanity) is. Flat characters would be the basket that, say, only includes apples. It still contains fruit, and is still technically filled — but, it is not diverse, it is not as fun, and it is even a little bland. On the other hand, full characters’ baskets contain an assortment of bright colors and an array of tastes — everything from your average apples and oranges to the more fun or exotic star fruit, mangoes, and kiwi. And, they are filled to the brim. To build upon my own metaphor, I would say that the more diverse that a basket of fruit is — or the more full a character is — the more humanly relatable a character or characters will become.
Next, I would like to discuss the difference between physical and emotional pain, and the different types of weight that these pains achieve when they are present within a novel. Emotional pain is simply easier to achieve within the context of a novel, for all the resources are available for the author to create emotional scenes. All they really need are a few correctly-placed words with which a character expresses to another that they are experiencing emotional pain (normally through dialogue) and there you have it — emotional pain! Physical pain, on the other hand, is a more vivid concept that is not as easy to achieve on the page. It is not enough for a character to say that they are physically hurting, through dialogue. Normally, there is a scene preceding that dialogue — if there even is any — which allows the reader to have a much more in-depth experience. In order for physical pain to become believable within a novel, the author must put in quite a bit more elbow grease to get it just right. This gives physical pain more weight when it comes to creating a full character, though emotional pain cannot be completely discounted within the span of this topic.
And, for the last, vital part of my introduction: I want to explain that, in order to later expand upon the subject of humanity within a novel, I must first clarify that, while characters in a novel are meant to seem human-like, they are not real. This may seem like an obvious, simple fact, but many readers and writers have trouble determining the difference. In literature analysis, we often mistakenly talk about characters as though they are real people, with real feelings, who have lives outside of the story-space — which is simply not the case. Every aspect of a character that we see within a novel was placed there intentionally by the author. Within literature analysis, we must keep this fact in mind at all times, so as to provide an accurate reading of the author’s work, which explores intention rather than simply exploring ambiguous concepts that are pulled out of thin air.
The precolonial bildungsroman novels were the forefront of the bildungsroman genre. Normally, they would be referred to simply as “bildungsroman novels”, minus the specification of “precolonial”. The reason I refer to them as such here is so that I am clear in the comparison between the first bildungsromane and the postcolonial bildungsromane. I will first introduce two precolonial bildungsroman novels, and later compare the incorporation of physical and emotional pain presented within these (or lack thereof) versus two of the postcolonial bildungsroman novels, and how it affects the fullness of the characters in each. The precolonial novel I would like to introduce is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is sometimes referred to as the father of bildung. It is one of the first bildungsroman novels, and is used in classrooms across countries to teach about the bildungsroman, or, in other words, a character’s journey. What does it take to have a complete bildung? Does a novel have to be as long as this one to get the point across? — These are some of the questions we are asked in the classroom. And, more importantly, these are not questions that I will be asking or answering here. Instead, I would like to present a different take on Wilhelm Meister. My questions are the following: How much pain is presented within this novel, and is it presented physically or emotionally? How full is Wilhelm’s character? And, does the length of this novel attest to the conclusion that we come to about the fullness of Wilhelm’s character?
The majority of pain mentioned within Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is that of emotional pain. It is seen time and time again, for Wilhelm is an undisputably emotionally-led character. This was clearly intended by Goethe, which is made apparent through the pure constancy of emotionality that is projected by Wilhelm — and, even more important is the consistent presentation of emotional pain, which becomes a large part of Wilhelm’s journey. From the beginning, emotional pain is highlighted as such: “Days of repeated, and constantly revived, pain followed… he had not lost his beloved entirely, and his sorrow was a series of insistently renewed attempts to hold on to the happiness that had left him” (Goethe, 41). The pain seen throughout the novel is also filtered through dialogue quite a bit. In a conversation with Jarno near the end of the novel, Wilhelm states, “We are obliged to abandon our deepest feelings and desires on his account. I will accept this commission, though I foresee the anguish I will have to suffer from Lydie’s tears and desperation’” (Goethe, 269). The presence of emotional pain is ever-looming and almost impossible to ignore.
Even though emotional pain takes the wheel in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Wilhelm’s journey is not entirely clean of physical pain. But, when it is presented, it is most often filtered through dialogue — quite similarly to the emotional pain that is presented within the novel. To stretch the concept even more, the physical pain that Goethe incorporates is not even from Wilhelm’s own experience, but the dialogue of others sharing it with him. It is almost as though Wilhelm’s character is not meant to feel physical pain, but is meant to solely focus on the emotional pain. One example of this comes to light when Wilhelm gets into an argument with Melina the first time that they meet. Melina says to Wilhelm, “‘You have to be really thick-skinned, like a bear on a chain, beaten with a stick in the company of dogs and apes, to dance to the bagpipes before children and riff-raff’” (Goethe, 28). As humans, we experience physical pain day after day, whether it be back pain, headaches, stubbing our toes, or being punched. The blatant absence of any purely physical pain within Goethe’s novel causes Wilhelm and the other characters to be unable to reach the potential fullness that they could otherwise reach.
The length of this novel is one of the reasons that I believe genuine physical pain is absent for Wilhelm’s character. To add physical pain, it would add much more length to the novel, and would add a completely different aspect that Goethe seemed to not be worried about. Goethe worked hard to establish an emotional world for Wilhelm that seemed to be complete without the more physical aspects. The most intriguing part is that Goethe consciously adds pieces to his novel that highlight the fact that emotional pain is not important to filling a character or advancing the plot. He basically makes my argument for me when, at the beginning of the second “book” in the novel, the unimportance of a certain extent of emotional pain is called to attention by the narrator themselves: “… we will not treat our readers to a detailed account of the woes and sorrows of our unfortunate friend when he saw his hopes and desires so unexpectedly shattered, but rather jump over a few years” (Goethe, 41). It is clear, in this passage, that Goethe was more worried about Wilhelm’s journey than filling him with beautiful fruits that would make him an even more delicious and full character. The absence of physical pain and the addition of the less important emotional pain leaves Wilhelm’s character with only apples in his basket.
The postcolonial bildungsroman novels focus primarily on individual’s lives after colonization of the East, and the effect that the Western influences has on those individuals. The presence of physical and emotional pain within these novels is much more prominent than in the earlier, precolonial bildungsromane. The novel that I will have conducted a close reading on is Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure.
Kane’s novel opens with the very physical discipline that the spiritual “teacher”, Thierno, instills within the protagonist, Samba Diallo. The novel memorably begins with the line, “That day, Thierno had beaten him again” (Kane, 3), and within just the first few pages, the reader experiences Samba’s pain along with him, as he is pinched in the thigh, fingernails rip through the cartilage in his ear, and he is burned. These passages are not without the contrast of Thierno’s thoughts, which give high praise to this boy whom he is physically punishing as he recites his prayer. We also find out a short time later that Samba is not perturbed by the beatings — he actually remembers them quite fondly, because, as he was taught, they were helping him to reach “the most exalted levels of human grandeur” (Kane, 5). Kane’s introduction of this way of teaching into Samba’s story, and Samba’s eventual appreciation for it, is reminiscent of how Samba begins to feel toward the Occidental occupation of Africa by the end of the novel. This presentation of physical pain is given not only a higher pedestal by the author by using it as an introduction, but it sets a bar for physical pain that places it parallel to the good things that Samba experiences. There is then an underlying belief that Kane works into his novel, which is the belief that pain is good, it gets you places, and you learn from it. This goes beyond anything seen within the precolonial bildungsroman novels.
As for the emotional pain noted within Ambiguous Adventure, it is strangely tied up with the physical pain in the novel: “For some days now, it had been extremely painful for him to live in the village. The teacher had become eccentric in his behavior, and it seemed to Samba Diallo that he was at once less severe and more distant” (Kane, 36). Although his physical pains are gone, he is unhappy — Samba is unable to experience emotional pain without grieving over the lack of physical pain that he had experienced. An echo of this is created through Kane’s repetition of the physical and emotional pains becoming a package deal. Later on in the novel, the knight says to Samba, “‘… one may work from necessity, for the cessation of the great pain of need which wells up from the body and from the earth — to impose silence on all those voices which harass us with their demands. Then, too, one works to maintain oneself, to preserve the species’” (Kane, 88). There is an emotional aspect that is undeniable here, but it is not without an almost physical ache from the body. The use of these echoes creates an interesting paradox that I believe Kane is using to comment on the differences between his novel and those of the precolonial bildungsromane. While the emotional aspect is seen as important, he gives physical pain a higher standard of humanity — one cannot have the emotional without the presence of the physical. And, to keep the metaphor going: as far as Samba’s fruit basket goes, it would be filled to the brim with delicious, juicy fruits of every kind. Kane gives his characters a diversity of pain that makes them more full and more emotionally relatable.
The precolonial and postcolonial bildungsroman novels both have similar things to offer: a life’s journey, an arc that their characters follow, and a growth and change that is an inevitable aspect of the genre. The differences between the time periods and cultures are what create the differences in the two — one of the most notable differences being the presence and utilization of both emotional and physical pain.
The concept of pain in literature is a strange one, because when we study and analyze literature, we are supposed to realize that the characters, themselves, are not real. Words on a page could not possibly create a notion of something so human, could they? Somehow, although the concept seems out of reach, authors are able to evoke those human feelings and emotions within their characters — quite intentionally, in fact, and sometimes very effectively. That is why studying the utilization of both the physical and emotional pains within bildungsroman novels is so important. The use of emotional pain or physical pain to exemplify a character’s fullness within the context of the novel is intentional, and I wanted to find out which model was more effective — the precolonial or the postcolonial approach?
As for the precolonial novels, the depth of Wilhelm’s character is hindered by the inhumanity of overlooking the physical pain that humans go through within their daily lives. Due to Goethe’s inability or unwillingness to add a concrete layer of physical pain to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (and by sheerly honing in on Wilhelm’s emotional pains), his characters are not full characters to the extent that they potentially could be. Is this a problem? Maybe not. But, in the grand scheme of the bildungsroman genre, the precolonial novels may not be up to par with the depth that the postcolonial novels are willing to delve into.
The raw truth of the extent of pain that is experienced in Ambiguous Adventure is so fascinating, because the instances are simply words on a page. How is Kane able to communicate these instances to his reader? While both emotional and physical pain are present within his novel, he creates a different relationship between them. The presence of the physical pain is vivid, right from the beginning, when we get the physical impact of Thierno beating Samba during prayer. Interestingly, Samba is not discouraged by the pain, but instead he believes that it brings him closer to God, which is a positive thing. for him When emotional pain is brought into the novel, however, it does not stand alone. It is consistently tied in with physical pain, so as to comment that emotional pain is almost physical, and that his characters can truly feel it, physically. Considering this idea, it brings Kane’s characters as close to humanity as they can get, and makes them full. Even though the characters are not real, he provides them with very real traits that do not leave them flat and unrelatable, as is sometimes experienced within the precolonial bildungsromane.
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