Concerns and Conventions in Works of Differing Literary Genres - Literature Essay Example

Concerns and Conventions in Works of Differing Literary Genres

     The works of three authors: Moliere’s Tartuffe, Voltaire’s Candide, and Shelley’s Frankenstein are representative of the cultural milieus during which they were written and, as such, reflect the predominant literary movements of their times: Neoclassicism for Tartuffe; the Enlightenment for Candide; and the Romantic period for Frankenstein - Concerns and Conventions in Works of Differing Literary Genres introduction. Although each genre differs widely in its interpretations, the authors employ these respective conventions to great effect, thus demonstrating trends within the culture of their day.

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     Neoclassicism, popular in the seventeenth century, is fundamentally an artistic expression which surrounds an ideal. This ideal embodies the classics. Improvisation, novelty, self-expression, and spontaneous inspiration have no part in the neoclassical movement; rather, it embraces total control of the artistic work (“Neoclassicism,” 1).

     Contemporary society is one of the main themes of the neoclassic dramatists.

Because the neoclassic genre is concerned with balance and regularity, it also demands certain norms of behavior in society. The “irregular” or odd individual has to be laughed at back to normalcy. Using this construct Moliere molded actual social stereotypes so that the very subject matter for neoclassical comedy became problems implicit in society. Although social comedy presupposes a certain faith in societal values, Moliere does not  condone all the aspects of his particular society. It is humorous when a character has differing behavior from the sanctioned norms of society, but humor is also  frequently created from the “norm” itself. (Wiley, 1).

     In Tartuffe Moliere repeatedly uses the word  rational. This reasoning ability, a concern with things making sense is commonly emphasized in neoclassical comedy, yet there is a certain level of detachment from the audience. However, Moliere takes great pains to produce laughter in the audience, and  to obtain that effect utilizes rhetoric, stereotypes, situation comedy and dramatic irony.

      As one of the most famous French plays in history, this five act comedy was written in Alexandrine verse and rhyming couplets. It  underwent several revisions before King Louis XIV, although seeing the play in 1664 and personally liking it, finally accepted it in 1669 as suitable for the general public. The problem was with the Catholic clergymen, the devots of the court  who felt that the play ridiculed religion. (The word devots referred to those persons who proclaimed they were very religious, but were often hypocrites and this is exactly what Moliere demonstrated with Tartuffe). However, Moliere lived his entire life as a Catholic; it was not his intent to belittle religion. Rather, the play’s purpose is to show hypocrisy, the very hypocrisy at which the devots were offended by because it took aim at them (“Tartuffe,” 1).Thus, hypocrisy is the fundamental theme found in Tartuffe.

     Tartuffe is a work centered around the titular main character. Although a miscreant who is constantly up to no good, he pretends to be righteous and holy, fooling many other characters in the process. Ingratiating himself into a friendship with an unsuspecting family man, Tartuffe fools both Orgon and other characters as to his true intentions. So taken is Orgon with the rogue Tartuffe, believing that he is an upstanding and moral man, that he even offers his daughter’s hand in marriage. This offer arrives despite the fact that his daughter loves another and Tartuffe is secretly making overtures to Orgon’s wife, Elmire! Although the rest of the family is on to his true character, the dramatic irony that permeates the entire play is that Orgon is so gullible  to his supposed friend’s true purposes. He even allows Tartuffe to inherit what he owns, but help arrives in the nick of time with the king’s intervention, Tartuffe is arrested, and Orgon and his family have their fortune restored.

      Not only Tartuffe, but also Orgon embody fanatic traits. While Tartuffe is a trickster who claims to be a religious perfectionist, Orgon is so vehemently obsessed by Tartuffe’s “righteous” qualities that he becomes completely flummoxed . So taken is he with Tartuffe’s pronouncements on religion that he desires to become his father-in-law, ignores his ill wife, and disinherits his son in favor of the charlatan. During a period when men such as Tartuffe really existed-preaching a severe form of religion that narrowed the path to heaven- Moliere truly knew there was need for remedial laughter to expose these hypocrites and their distorted obsessions (Tartuffe Studyguide, 5).

    Through his characterization of Tartuffe, Moliere was exposing a renegade Catholic movement called  Jansenism. Proclaiming excessive zeal, this movement followed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination coupled with a severe, almost unforgiving moral standard. The group was fanatical in its practices and Pope Innocent X in a papal edict condemned it. With his play Moliere also condemned such groups, along with fanaticism of any kind (Tartuffe Studyguide,6 ).

    The French writer Voltaire was one of the most famous advocates of the Enlightenment, a movement during the eighteenth century that is frequently termed the Age of Reason. This period advocated rationality as a method to create an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. Voltaire, along with other leaders of this movement, believed his purpose to be that of leading the world toward progress and away from a time of doubtful tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny

(“The Enlightenment”,1).

     Although there were widely differing streams of thought during the Enlightenment, one of the main conflicts during this time was on the role of theology. Previous doctrinal differences between the Protestants and the Catholics became more divisive and partisan  debates grew from those controversies (“The Enlightenment,” 2).

     While in England the multiplicity of Protestant sects that Voltaire saw make him skeptical. Yet during his sojourn there he also became transformed, seeing that the bourgeoisie could reach higher, that liberty and order were compatible, and that religion was tolerant of philosophy. England revealed to him the potential that a society could have (Herriot,134).

     Like Moliere, Voltaire condemned the practices of the Church. He also criticized those of the State. Unlike Moliere, however, he did not hold to the tenets of the Christian faith. In an age where the French bourgeoisie were being tempted by Jansenism, Voltaire was raised, along with a fanatical brother, by a deeply devout father. As a result, he obtained a horror of religious practices (Herriot, 133). Voltaire became a Deist who believed in God as a sort of divine watchmaker, one who wound up the universe, then left it to run on its own.

    Voltaire was a fervent advocate of the tenet of natural religion. Deriving this belief from the Deists, he proposed that all things are governed by God only in accordance with natural law. Natural morality and religion are conditions in need of development  and follow an error filled course which arrives at an ultimate truth called the fruit of cultivated reason;  all that is basically characteristic of human nature is the same universally; all that depends on custom varies. Although the chief influences for change in the individual’s mind are climate, religion, and government, one should strive instead to arrive at the underlying unity. Whereas dogma promotes fanaticism; morality inspires harmony

( “French Deism,” 1).

     Voltaire is admirable when he discovers behind differing customs and beliefs the profound identity of institutions. Everywhere he views laws established preserve what is foundational to the human species, preventing it from complete ruin. Although Asiatic customs are bizarre and their beliefs absurd, their precepts are just…Dervish, fakir, Buddist and priest all say, ‘be just, be kind.‘ Custom produces variety while nature produces unity. The soil is everywhere the same, and cultivation yield different fruits (Herriot, 143). As the most prominent representative of the juste milieu and of good sense, Voltaire’s philosophy permeated European thought (“French Deism“, 1).

    Candide is a novel that mocks the philosophy that everything is for the best in this best  of all possible worlds. This belief, which the character Pangloss continually reiterates, is one that the Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz advocated. For Leibniz and others, the appearance of evil in the world would mean that God is neither all good, nor all powerful, and the idea that God is not perfect is ridiculous. These philosophers presumed that God exists, and believed that since God was perfect, the world He created was perfect also. If individuals see imperfections in the world, it is because they are not aware of God’s grand plan. Since Voltaire does not adhere to the tenet that a perfect God (or any god) has to exist, he mocks the idea that the world must be totally good, and he creates frequent satire with this idea throughout the novel, including portrayals of viciously corrupt religious figures.  Candide and Pangloss see and experience many troubles: rapes, floggings, unjust executions, and betrayals, yet they do not make realistic assessments, and thus remain optimists. Yet, by the end of the novel, even Pangloss states that he no longer believes in his own optimism, while Candide also rejects this philosophy in favor of  cultivating a vegetable garden. In the world outside the garden, people suffer without cause and are rewarded in the same manner. However, in the garden, cause and effect are more discernable. With careful planning and cultivation, one can expect good produce (Candide Themes”, 1-4).

      Creation is also a theme in Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, in this case, the result has far more reaching reaching consequences than simply producing vegetables. Shelley used not only the theme of creation, but also of destruction as Victor Frankenstein dares to create life from inanimate body  parts.

     Writing during the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, Shelley utilizes many of its beliefs. This story, which shows the creation of a mechanized human-like creature from the work of an over active scientist, contains warnings about the “over-reaching” of modern man and the Industrial Revolution. The novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus refers to that over-reaching and punishment of the character in Greek mythology who stole fire to give to man, bestowing upon him an advantage over animals. Punished by Zeus who had him chained to a rock in the Caucausus, Prometheus had his liver eaten at night by an eagle, only to have it grow back during the day (“My Hideous Progeny: Frankenstein,” 1).

      The reference is also to Prometheus plasticator who is deemed to have created mankind out of clay. The two myths merged together: the fire which Prometheus stole is the fire of life with which he enlivened his clay models. Victor Frankenstein is the true embodiment of Prometheus. Taking God‘s place as the creator, he  gets punished for his actions by his creation, seeing so much that he loves, finally destroyed by the monster: his brother, his beloved. Finally he dies, the monster weeping over “his father” in a vain attempt to receive the love he always sought.(“The Hideous Progeny: Frankenstein, 1).

     The two titles of the novel show the poles of the opposition that shape it a test. Frankenstein is a proper name, but he is also a figure who contains the principle of uniqueness”: the quintessential Romantic artist. Yet in making this novel, Shelley also acknowledges a previous text. Additionally, she references Milton and Paradise Lost, with Frankenstein as God and the monster as his subject (Holquist, 91).

     The Romantic period was one in which the British Shelley reveled. It is generally referred to as a reaction against the Enlightenment. While the Enlightenment promoted the primacy of reason, Romanticism promoted feelings and imagination.Intuition was a means of attaining knowledge. There was an idealization of nature and the belief in living in an age of “new beginnings and high possibilities” (My Hideous Progeny:Frankenstein,2).

     Shelley utilized those “new beginnings and high possibilities” to in her depictions of  Frankenstein trying to capture the latest scientific findings to develop new life. She replaces the heavenly fire of Prometheus with the spark of newly discovered electricity.The terms electricity and warmth led to the discovery of the galvanisation process, which was belived to be the foundation to animate life, and consequently Frankenstein’s creature (“The Romantic Period”, 1-17).

    Additionally, she employs the Romantic concept of nature to produce atmosphere.

Through her depiction of the frigid, bleak Arctic and the icy Alps, Shelley demonstrates the solitary aspects of her two characters as they exist in social isolation (“My Hideous Progeny: Frankenstein,” 1).The weather is cold and the characters feel abandoned.

    By pursuing forbidden knowledge,  Frankenstein tries to go beyond what he should aspire to and expires as a result. Yet he experiences atonement by confessing his actions before he dies.

    Although written in different times, places, and genres, these novels provide a common theme: the danger of relentlessly pursuing an idea. Better to live within limits, tending to one’s own life, not interfering when  jurisdiction is not allowed.

    Whether of the Neoclassical, Enlightenment, or the Romantic period, these stories still contain universal truths about humanity and they have much to offer, even today.

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References

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