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Essay on Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead

Changing Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead

Everyone remembers the nasty villains that terrorize the happy people in fairy tales. Indeed, many of these fairy tales are defined by their clearly defined good and bad archetypes, using clichéd physical stereotypes. What is noteworthy is that these fairy tales are predominately either old themselves or based on stories of antiquity. Modern stories and epics do not offer these clear definitions; they force the reader to continually redefine the definitions of morality to the hero that is not fully good and the villain that is not so despicable. From Dante’s Inferno, through the winding mental visions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, spiraling through the labyrinth in Kafka’s The Trial, and culminating in Joyce’s abstract realization of morality in “The Dead,” authors grapple with this development. In the literary progression to the modern world, the increasing abstraction of evil from its classic archetype to a foreign, supernatural entity without bounds or cure is strongly suggestive of the pugnacious assault on individualism in the face of literature’s dualistic, thematically oligopolistic heritage.

In analyzing this gradient of morality, it is useful first to examine a work from early literature whose strong purity of morality is unwavering; for the purposes of this discussion, Dante’s Inferno provides this model. It is fairly straightforward to discover Dante’s dualistic construction of morality in his winding caverns of Hell; each stern, finite circle of Hell is associated with a clear sin that is both definable and directly punishable. As Dante moves downwards in this moral machination, he notes that

Like lies with like in every h…

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…akespearean Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984. 234-7.

Fort, Keith. “The Function of Style in Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.” Sewanee Review 72 (1964): 643-51. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard and Paula Kepos. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1988. 198-200.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Robert Scholes. New York, Penguin/Viking, 1996.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1992.

Ruskin, John. “Grotesque Renaissance.” The Stones of Venice: The Fall. 1853. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979. 112-65. Rpt. in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1989. 21-2.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T. J. B. Spencer. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Comparing Femininity in The Woman Warrior and King Lear

Femininity in The Woman Warrior and King Lear

What is femininity? What role should women play in society? These are questions that humanity has faced ever since the first hunter-gatherer tribes developed. Gender roles, at least in the popular imagination, were clear; the men hunted for big game, the women picked nuts and berries. There were clear reasons for this – hunting required the brute muscular strength of the male, while gathering did not. But as humanity invented labor-saving devices, physical strength became less and less important to survival, while “mental strength” – strength of character – played an ever-increasing role. This is a phenomenon that we see played out in Shakespeare’s play King Lear and Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior.

Any work of literature can be said to make a claim about the nature of femininity; even a work with all male characters would be notable in this respect for the absence of females. But these two works are notable because rather than showing females in their “traditional” passive roles, they are made into active figures. Though the two works are vastly separated in space and time, they both make the same essential claim about the nature of woman. They make the claim that women can, and should, be empowered, and that the idea of the “woman warrior” is not a dream, but a viable reality. In order to show this, the character in each work that best exemplifies this “modern spirit must be considered. In King Lear, this is Cordelia, although the choice is superficially unobvious. In The Woman Warrior, the narrator – Maxine, for the sake of brevity – is the only female character well enough known to the reader for any empowerment to be perceived.

In order…

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…o begin the essay with the quote below:

The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be

the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and

excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like

the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (68)

Works Cited

Feldman, Erica. Personal communication. 28 Sept 2000.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage International, 1975.

O’Brien, Tim. “How To Tell A True War Story.” The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990. 73-91.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Rolfe, Alex. “Fa Mu Lan: an autobiography.” The Woman Warrior reaction papers. 2000.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1608. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.

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