What you do in life, good, bad, otherwise, comes back to haunt you. And the suicide of Robert X is an embodiment of that lesson.
In reading about this book, in preparation for this essay, I came across a conversation the author had with John Lowe concerning the tight narrative quality of the book, and I think in commenting about it, Gaines underscores one of the book's major themes:
WP: There's nothing wasted in that book. It's totally honest and almost foreordained from the beginning, from the first page.
Gaines: A great man falls, and what he's going to do when he gets up. He feels that even God had failed him. He could not even please God any more (Lowe 184).
This theme, or question rather, of how does one deal with failure is an important one, on the individual level as well as on the group level. How does one deal with personal failure? How does a team, a group, deal with failure? Does one take the easy way out (i.e. suicide)? Does the group give up its collective goal? These questions are integral to the process of self-examination, and that's what Gaines is asking the reader to consider (among other things, racial tensions, civil rights, the power of God, etc.)
So in briefly looking at these two literary works, one can see how they impact readers individually and as a collective.
With that said, I'd now like to discuss how reading literature specifically aligns with the rubrics set forth by universities and colleges. In short, what do colleges want their students to achieve by reading literature? Well, I am of the opinion that academia, in particular those factions who push for a "liberal arts" education, want students to be exposed to different voices, different styles of expression, different cultures, and one successful way to do this is via literature. For example,...
I've never been whaling, but after reading Moby Dick I might be able to talk intelligently about harpooning and whale oil. So, reading literature satisfies one of the mandates of liberal arts education by exposing students to otherworldly places, characters, and dilemmas.
Another objective in having students read literature is to get them to become better at reading and better at writing. And humanities courses, which ask the students to read copious amounts books and write copious amounts of papers, naturally improve the students capacity to read well and write well.
Stylistically Miller and Gaines do an excellent job rendering real and believable dialogue. In looking at the words they use, the syntax, and the structuring of the paragraphs and scenes, one can get a real sense of the work it takes to create truly authentic characters. And noticing this, in part, helps a student with his own writing. Seeing how others do it, informs one as to the range and complexity of writing, something I'm sure all professors are trying to impart.
Lastly, and relating back to the overall theme of this essay, the idea that self-examination, self-criticism, leads one to a more fulfilling life, reading literature teaches students to do this not only because it exposes students to the unfamiliar, but because it sometimes forces students to consider how familiar the unfamiliar really is. Yes, we are different than Willy Loman and Robert X in some ways, but in other ways, we are the same. We fail in life too, we struggle with our relationships, and we sometimes fight to hide from our past. So reading literature constantly forces us to examine the lives of others, and in that process impels us to examine our own. And if we don't like what we find, we can hopefully plant more seeds.
Gaines, Earnest J. In My Father's House. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
Lowe, John. Conversations With Earnest Gaines. Mississippi: University Press, 2008.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.
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