Comparing and Contrasting Four Characters from Classic Literature
Comparing and Contrasting Four Characters from Classic Literature
The hero of a literary narrative usually has an important purpose behind his or her existence - Comparing and Contrasting Four Characters from Classic Literature introduction. Unlike secondary characters, who provide the hero with a reason to move through the narrative and who enhance the plot with amusing diversions, the hero will inevitably reveal information of substance about the author or about the society in which the author lived. Heroes in literary narratives may become important historical figures, despite being fictional, due to the impact that their actions have on the societies in which they were created or they might already have some historical significance for their very real existence for having been living human beings. In many cases, such as that of Socrates, the hero may be the fictional representation of an actual historical figure: while Socrates actually existed, the “Socrates” being presented in the Dialogues is Plato’s interpretation of his teacher. As can be seen by comparing and contrasting the characteristics of Rama, Socrates, Miss Li, and Sudiata, each has a different purpose behind him or her and each communicates details about the society in which he or she “lived.”
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Rama is an idealized character, a mythical being. He is not merely prince of Ayodhya, but he is also “as noble as the sea is deep, as powerful as Maha- vishnu, whose Avatara he was when the treta yuga was upon the world, as steadfast as the Himalaya, handsome as Soma the Moon God, patient as the Earth, generous as Kubera, [and] just as Dharma” (Menon 4). Clearly, these attributes, as well as the tasks that Rama performs, are not attainable by the average person in Indian society. They are not, however, supposed to be obtainable; rather, he is intended to be an example of an ideal for men to strive to approximate. At the time The Ramayana was written, a man was expected to protect women and to protect their honor, to be obedient to his father, and to be virtuous through prayer and actions (class notes). Tales such as those in The Ramayana are intended to communicate those ideals, as well as others, to the members of society.
Unlike Rama, Socrates is a mere mortal, however, idealized he might be through the interpretation of Plato, formerly his student. The society that Socrates represents is a democratic republic, in which a portion of the population–male landowners–participates in voting and in the government. Socrates’ purpose is to teach and to advise the populace. Despite his claims of not knowing the answers, he has a duty from the gods to seek wisdom and, as such, is obviously a wise and good man (Class notes). Like Rama, Socrates feels compelled to do the right thing no matter what the consequences. Unlike Rama, however, Socrates ends his life in disgrace, facing an uncertain reward after his death despite his relative virtues. Rama is rewarded with eternal grace for the trials he experiences in his mortal life; he returns to his Vishnu-state and ascends to Vaikunta once again (Menon 661). Regardless of his ignominious end, however, Socrates spreads the voice of reason to society and his teachings linger even after his death.
At the beginning of her tale, Miss Li is the social and spiritual opposite of both Rama and Socrates. She is not only female, but she is also a female who has no honor or virtue; she lives by using her body instead of her mind. By the end of the story, through her virtuous actions, she is elevated to being “The Lady of Chien-kuo” (Waley 312). Although she errs greatly by bringing down the son of a noble house, who “rode in grand coaches and wore golden trappings on his coat,” leaving him destitute (Waley 309), she later helps him elevate himself to his former status once again, by showing him a hard-working and humble path to success. Through these actions, Miss Li gives the reader a great deal of insight into the society of that time: not only was there filial piety between her and the woman who she called “mother,” but there was also a similar state in the nobleman and his family despite his disgrace. In addition, his rise to a status similar to that he had held in the past shows the workings of government posts, which were available primarily to nobility and possibly to the business classes at that time (Class notes). The society in “The Story of Miss Li,” then, is similar to the society in which Socrates exists, although it is less democratic and greater restrictions exist as to who can rise through the ranks.
Like Socrates, Sundiata Keita was an actual person, a historical figure that eventually became the king of the Mali Empire. In the mythical telling of his story, Sundiata has been prophesized to become the eventual ruler who reunites his people; however, in reality, it is more likely that he used the religious beliefs of the time to establish himself in a position of power. Sundiata’s story, therefore, is a blending of fact and fiction, such as that of Socrates. Because this story comes from an oral tradition, this act of blending is not unusual, since the purpose of some stories evolved over time to conform to the needs of the then-current society. In addition, some changes might occur due to the tellers’ imperfect memories of the tales. Although his story has been imbued with magic and with supernatural events, perhaps to make the story more memorable and more appealing to the population that the storytellers would be attempting to teach, the underlying events are essentially based on fact.
All of these characters reflect the times in which they represented. Although two of them were actual historical figures and two of them were not, the stories in which they move were intended to teach the younger members of the populace. Each of these stories demonstrated the rewards that virtue brought to the people who practiced it, even when life had set a different path for them, often depending on the degree to which the character practiced that virtue. In addition, these stories demonstrate the dangers that come with defying the authority of the state or of the gods, or for living a life without virtue. Despite these characters being very different, they each serve a valuable purpose in the literary narrative. Each brings a human face, or at least a heroic face, to an otherwise unseen and unknowable characteristic. Because they obviously taught important lessons, it is unsurprising that these tales have endured for us to read today.
Hsing-chien, Po. “The Story of Miss Li.” Arthur Waley (trans.). Title of Book. City: Publisher, date.
Menon, Ramesh. The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux-North Point Press, 2001.