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Philosophical Ideas in Literature

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The book Nemesis by Philip Roth and The Plague by Albert Camus have great similarities as well as ideological differences in style, presentation and thematic concerns. This term paper contrasts these art pieces back to back by exploring the similarities and differences that exist between these two art pieces and later contrast the general style and diction used in both against Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The two books have been written by seasoned and experienced writers who in their own rights have lived through the historic times which are encapsulated by their writings.

The resounding echoes of voices alive in history are manifested in these art pieces that describe events during the World War II. The two books have been written in the first person narrative sense with the narrators in each case are sufferers or victims of the pandemic that strikes the regions. The books are fictional tales with a historic bearing to it. The texts concerning the actual historic happenings were thoroughly researched in a way that offers the stories great impetus when they are finally told. The vivid imagery that comes out painting a scenario of events that happened in history clearly gives the reader an emotionally moving realistic experience of the time.

The reader is forcefully thrust into the morbid sickening war times of the nations in question and the hopelessness of fighting an invincible enemy whose beginning and ending cannot be intervened. Nemesis begins with the story of a peaceful community that existed in balanced harmony with nature until a series of events broke lose causing a chain reaction of insurmountable deaths and untold suffering. Poliomyelitis is the disease that takes the center stage in the story whereas the Plague of rats is the chief enemy in the novel The Plague.

These two diseases presented by the authors are in a sense the chief animated antagonists whom the main characters in the novels must battle through. The challenge is on, and the human mortality is an element that is constantly on trial where the characters must fight back, at the very least to survive whatever period it would take for the disease to die away. The human journey has just begun. The sufferers of the plight are treated to an experience similar to that of the soldiers in war. The difference is that in these troubled times their enemy is both invisible and invincible. They can’t establish a way of capturing and destroying the enemy except to constantly flee away.

The characters of each story are split in two; the good and the bad. There are those sadistic individuals whose joy is to see the mystery continue unchecked to the depths of destruction. The demented Cottard of The Plague is painted as a grim fellow whose joy is seeing people suffer just as much as he suffers. There are those who are driven by pride and personal preservation so much so that they are willing to look for means to escape the town and leave others suffering. Cartels of human smuggling arise in contravention with the law and a huge cashing in is made by these fellows. The same grip of selfishness is highlighted by Roth in Nemesis as his narrator opens by describing the departure that saw rich people flee to the summer camp leaving behind the poor who had no choice but to stay behind and increase their chances of infection.

Roth and Camus explore the chaos surrounding the menace of the disease using literary devices that capture the mood of the times. The vivid descriptions of the events give shocking realities of the time that cannot be felt by merely reading the historical accounts from archives. The stories have used the first person narrative technique to create a first witness account and real-time experience of the morbid events that transpired. The narrative technique appeals by word of testimony to the human emotions and drives the readers to tears when such events of moving tragedies occur to their favorite characters.

Roth and Camus reveal their narrators much later in the story. Throughout the stories, the reader is not aware of the identity of the person taking them through the journey but there are clues as to the age and personality of the persona as the plot thickens. The readers relate to the emotions of the narrator, his fears, his worries, his hopes and finally his successes. Both narrators are afflicted by the pandemic whether directly or indirectly. The narrators are part of the story and they go through what the community goes through. This builds a sense of credibility for them and therefore what they disclose to the reader is believable and original.    

Symbolism and imagery has been extensively used in each book although with differing purposes. The Javelin-throwing athleticism demonstrated by Bucky that the narrator remembers fills them with hope and inspiration as they stand in awe of the champion. This is the symbolic spark of hope that Roth gives the characters that he creates in Nemesis amid a grotesque display of death’s plunder upon the innocent children. The chief protagonist himself epitomizes this hope through his outlook on life and the principles that were deeply entrenched in his being. Bucky refuses to give up hope in neither the younger sufferers nor the desire for life beyond the dark days. He has a sense of spirituality in him.

He held a primitive sanctity of belief in life and lived through a code of honor, duty, valor and discipline. Bucky, perhaps having been brought up by his grandparents develops these ideals and is meant to believe that they must come to fruition when needed most in the face of danger and calamity. The sad reality in Nemesis is that there is no contending with the doom reigning in on his people. The frustration pushes Bucky against the wall as he witnesses one child after another being maimed by the pandemic.

Bucky’s poor vision and the reason why he fails to get drafted in the army becomes a constant snare and a burrowing guilt in his life. His poor vision is also symbolic of two things; one, his blind faith in his ideologies that ruefully amount to disappointment and two, the literacy blindness of the people towards the plunder of the disease. No one knew how the disease came about, how it was spreading and to what extent it could be controlled. The efforts to flee to the summer camp proved futile even though the belief was that the environment would shield them from whatever was ailing the countryside. The Town mayor decides that the mosquitoes are responsible for the disease and therefore he launches a “swat the fly” campaign.

The sign for restitution of life in The Plague is the same as the encroachment of death, the rat. Rats are vectors of the disease plague and therefore when the first rat dies as witnessed by Doctor Reux, it initiates a chain reaction of untold death and later at the close of the novel the first sign of relief is the emergence of rats that symbolize the restoration of life and the end of the pandemic. The Plague as a novel is itself a symbolic piece embodying the times of the German occupation. The disease that launches on Oran puts the country under siege and a quarantine seals off the people from going out or others going in. The people suffer in seclusion and are to either brave the disease or die away to extinction in exclusion. The terms of survival were set and the challenge is on. The ability to stay alive and survive the disease would be rewarded by the reunion of families.

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The plot in both books is itself symbolic of life in general. The stories of the characters in these two books bring them to a convergence. It expressly pits each man and woman against his or her mortality. The philosophical background upon these two art pieces is perhaps the fact that we all eventually die. Whether it is in armed combat or in the battle field of a diseased body the fate of humanity is one, death. Death’s ugly glare over the mortals cannot be escaped. Each must go the way of old whether young or old, strong or weak, intelligent or otherwise. Roth and Camus are obsessed by the stealth uncanny spite of death. Death is arrayed in expensive garments and she comes without mercy and respite to lure and relentlessly come at mortals again and again. The poor children of the polio are said to ignore every possible warning and go back to the very caves that death crawls from. It is of no consolation for the rich and capable families because despite the measures they take, death by the plague still follows them. Doctor Reux of The Plague also suffers casualties and could not save his wife regardless of his expertise in ‘warding off’ death as a medical practitioner.

Perhaps it is the need for penance in the face of hopelessness that drives bad people to do good deeds, or so Camus seems to tell. A significant happening is the unity that seemingly begins to take shape among characters of cross-purposes. Grand and Lambert, who wanted to escape on their own slowly experience a transformation of heart and they decide to stay and help the weak and dying. Their diligence and determination to help out is commendable. The priest, Father Paneloux, who breaths fire speaking of the doom of the people for their sins also has a change of heart and decides to preach on sermons of comfort and direction.

Camus’ belief in the good and the god in everyone is not exactly shared by Roth. This marks the great philosophical departure between these two writers. Roth fails to reconcile the faith of his protagonist with a ruling of victory as the story comes to a close. Bucky is driven to the wall and to a point of losing his faith in the good in people and everything around him, even his faith in God. His spirituality does not hold in the face of the mortal combat between the disease and humanity. Such battle calls for the intervention of a supreme being since mere mortals cannot rescue his people. He believes that God will bring to an end the calamity befalling his people but the longer he waits the more frustrated he gets.

His fiancée nags him to abandon the playground and join her in the camp. That, to him, would compromise his belief in ultimate salvation from the savagery plunder of death on children and would also amount to a soldier abandoning camp. The persistence of the disease takes toll on him when he finally witnesses the death of two children he was apparently close to. He begins to question the resolve of powers from above to end the calamity and finally throws in the towel as he considers joining his fiancée.

Roth’s philosophy about faith and religion comes under intense scrutiny here. If Bucky Cantor as a representation of Roth is anything to go by, then Roth’s off-the-ink open claim to owing no allegiance to any faith underscores the actions of Bucky Cantor towards the end of the novel. It is an act of despair, perhaps a disturbing feeling that regardless of what one does there is not stopping what fate has in store for anyone. His religiosity departs him with the anger he lashes at God for not saving the dying innocent children. Bucky experiences loss and begins to turn the loss to be a personal burden.

There is a contrast that clearly comes out between Nemesis’ Bucky’s masochistic guilt over something he hadn’t done and The Plague’s Cottard’s sadistic celebration over other people’s suffering. Bucky carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and apportions blame on himself for the unabated ugly score of death. Cottard on the other hand celebrates over people’s deaths and is glad that they can share in his burden. He becomes sad when the disease passes and he is once again left in the scourge of his disease, alone.

The books Nemesis and The Plague contrast greatly with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The approach used, style of narration and philosophical ideals portended among other things sets Crime and Punishment apart as a unique craft on a pedestal of its own. Contrastingly, Dostoevsky uses a third person narration on the novel and looks at the characters from a third eye perspective. By detaching himself from the story he is able to interact with his characters as an outsider or a creator who gives his creatures free will to make rulings on their own fates. On the other hand Roth and Camus do not accord their characters that indulgence. The fate of their characters is sealed and the challenge is to survive the inferno without playing outside the rules of life and death.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment revolves around a young man who is intoxicated with philosophies of cause and effect. The protagonist, Raskolnikov is a former student who is troubled with the need for money. He goes to a mean extortionist shylock to borrow money. He rationalizes that she doesn’t deserve to live and that by getting rid of her he can rid the world of an evil person. He also compares himself to Napoleon and believes that he was destined to kill and kill he shall. Dostoevsky takes the reader through a psychological journey of a man who shares controversial beliefs and acts on them thus changing the course of destiny of several people. The actions of the chief protagonists of Nemesis and The Plague do not directly affect other people the way Raskolnikov does. The reason may be because of the significance of the philosophical stand that the erratic ex-student takes and how that affects those around him. The concentration of death that surrounds the young man is appalling.

Dostoevsky’s focus is beyond the act of murder. It is not so much the weight placed on death that intrigues him, there is more to it than the sanctity of life. He looks to greater answers to life’s mystery on those who are left alive. This divergent view is seen as the power that drives his protagonist to kill and cover his tracks so well that he is not detected. Raskolnikov gets away with clean murder only to deal with murder from an internal perspective. Dostoevsky controls Raskolnikov’s stage so that he doesn’t get caught by authorities and then guides him to the place of personal reflection from where Raskolnikov is to take himself the rest of the journey. Even for Sonya who loses a friend by the undoing of Raskolnikov, she doesn’t seem judgmental. This clearly shows that there is more to death than the mere conventional indignation meted out against a murderer.

Instead of a murderer going on trial, a philosophy is on trial. The idea that it is rational to kill an evil person in order to wring good in the world has been put under a philosophical microscope for examination. Even though the law is still in operation and frantically seeks to bring justice the grounds for conviction can not hold against Raskolnikov as a murderer. Dostoevsky has covered Raskolnikov’s steps. A most dramatic event is instead taking place, Dostoevsky has transferred the case to another court, an internal court of personal conscience; a deadlier alternative. Raskolnikov’s philosophy is pitted against morality and he must answer to a higher conscience. He is so severely judged that he begins to give himself away by how he reacts in the real world. Counseling doesn’t help abate his fears and he is constantly tormented by his dreams. Eventually, by the help of trusted friends he confesses his crime and is jailed.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is also rich in symbolism. His lurid detail on blood everywhere is disturbing. He baptizes the acts of Raskolnikov in a bath of blood as a ritualistic process of initiation. Raskolnikov is unaware of the haunting effects of the blood letting murders he commits until later. When reaching to search his victims he stumbles upon a cross in Alyona’s pocket. These two elements, that is, the blood and the cross are symbolic. First, the initiation into evil that is sealed by the “blood smeared in his hands” and eventually the sufferings that he goes through as a result of murder is what sets the stage for his redemption later. When he stumbles from the crime scene he meets the mangled bloody torso of Marmeladov who had been run over by a carriage. It is interesting to note that in the early stages of dealing with guilt he justifies the death of bad people as deserving and a good thing for the society. He is even supported by the dead man’s second wife Katerina who believes her suffering under the man has been lifted.

The ideology is that the death of an oppressor brings relief to those who had been oppressed. The constant smell of blood however begins to revolt him and to throw him in a different direction. He battles with the blood in his hands and soon begins his search for redemption through confession. There are those who are against his confession again falling under the folly of rationalization. He knows that he can’t live with himself under the present circumstances so he prepares himself to do the inevitable, to confess voluntarily. Just like Christ, blood brings him down and blood will set him free when he embraces his cross. Blood symbolically washes away his sins by confessing away the guilt hanging in his conscience.  Of significance is the cross that he finds and the relation to the cross that he receives from Sonya when he is about to confess.

Symbolism in all the three books has been significantly used to depict philosophical divides in reasoning that are surreptitiously held by the authors who wrote these works. Beyond the ink on the paper are tales of human struggle, whether these struggles are against external forces or internal forces, they define the mortality and morality of human beings. Even though the authors differ in their philosophical approaches towards death, the basic tenets of limited choice and the sanctity of life cut across the board. The message that seems to cut across the art pieces is ”It is not the circumstance that you are in that matters rather it is what you do in the circumstance that defines who you truly are.”  

Morality outweighs any act. For the evil characters, the society expects them to redeem themselves through acts of kindness and virtue while for the good characters they expect good out of a bad circumstance. The emphasis in all the three novels is in the imagery of godliness that every character seeks to attain in the face of danger. Perhaps it is in coming to terms with ones mortality that humanity is truly what it is all about.

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