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Some people live their lives yearning to be free and happy. In today’s world, people are born with the inalienable right to freedom which, in turn, enables them to pursue their happiness (as long as their pursuit of happiness does not go against the freedom and/or integrity of others). However, there are cases in which freedom is not a right, but an illusion. Society can take freedom and happiness away from a person, making it impossible to lead a fulfilling life. In such cases, one may try to resist, to rebel against the society, and fight for true freedom and happiness, but in the end, society’s pressure can be too much to bear. Loneliness, emptiness, and sadness will inevitably ensue stripping away the last remnants of hope. The world of today does not offer true freedom and happiness but simply the illusion of such things. This is the message that Miriam Toews sends through A Complicated Kindness, a novel whose plot, characters, and setting contribute to telling the story of the millions of people who are trying to understand the meaning of their lives in a chaotic world that deprives them of their true selves.
The novel recounts the story of the Nickel family; it is narrated through the memories of the Nickel’s youngest daughter, Nomi. The Nickels are a Mennonite family living in EastVillage, a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. From the beginning of the story, misfortune falls upon the family. Tash Nickel is excommunicated due to her rebelliousness; she leaves EastVillage with her boyfriend and declares herself an atheist. Seven weeks later, Nomi’s mother, Trudie, is also excommunicated and moves from EastVillage, leaving Nomi alone with her father Ray. After her mother leaves, Nomi begins her own plight to find her own self in the midst of a strictly religious community that censures and outcasts free spirits (as was in the case with Nomi’s mother and older sister). She becomes frustrated, because she cannot be free and engages in self-destructive behavior to try and reclaim her freedom and be happy. Unfortunately, her attempts are futile and, in the end, she also ends up being excommunicated.
Nomi tried very hard to be truly free; she tried to reveal her true self and be happy. The same applies for her father, who attempted to claim his freedom and be happy by throwing around trash and driving around in his car (activities that Nomi also participated in). In the end, nothing worked. The community remained the same; and they were again frustrated, miserable people that slowly started to lose all hope of fulfilling life. By the end of the novel, the reader finds that Nomi ended up being excommunicated and that her father left the community. Despite all of their efforts, they managed to change nothing.
The setting is another important element that Toews uses to strengthen the novel’s deeper meaning. EastVillage is a dull, monotonous, and constrictive town. For Nomi (and for the Nickel family as a whole), the town was like a prison. Religion was all that the community cared about. Fundamentalist beliefs that gave precedent to God’s bidding over man’s freedom and happiness were the norm. The setting suffocates the Nickels. It drives Tash, Trudie, and Nomi herself to rebel in a vain attempt to be free and happy. In the end, Tash and Trudie break free and leave, but Nomi stays behind. The harder she tries to fight her hollow existence, the more damage the town inflicts on her. This is why, at the end, she gives up and ends up suggesting that it is better to “trust in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life” (Toews 246).
A Complicated Kindness tells the story of the millions who helplessly try to find meaning to their lives in the midst of an unwelcoming world that imposes its will no matter what. Nomi Nickel’s story symbolizes the plight of those who realize that the liberty and happiness placed before them by the society are simply illusions. Once reality sinks in, people try to rebel against the status quo, but as time passes and their efforts become futile, their hope withers away. Today’s world is chaos, and in that chaos, man must either conform to an illusion of freedom and happiness or face the reality of despair and solitude.