Written for lovers of literature interested in self-actualization, Literature: How to Read and Understand the World teaches readers how to derive principles of wisdom from literature and apply them to their lives. The book achieves this through a series of five essential steps, including identifying with literary characters, aggregating principles of wisdom from their experience, and applying those principles to readers’ lives. Along the way, the author reveals his own transformation through this process. Literature: How to Read and Understand the World will help you to enrich your life and world!
Over the next several months, I will be releasing excerpts from the book along with questions to keep readers thinking after reading the posts. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share with a friend!
Following is the first paragraph of my identification with Nick Carraway from the Great Gatsby, which I’ll analyze for the work it does in terms of two essential questions to ask ourselves when writing character identifications:
For me, feeling my way into Nick feels like certain death, which is why I so badly don’t want to do it. It feels like the death of any possibility of knowing myself, which I have to admit is a way I already know how to live. As Nick, I have so far buried my real self, and so thoroughly replaced it with my projections onto other people, that I am forever lost in a sea of delusion, groping for an anchor that will not come. I am by turn angry, grief-stricken, hopeful, and in moments, elated. When someone momentarily appears to ‘save’ me, as Gatsby does Nick, I shine on this person with the most desperate love, but this experience is only ever short-lived, and so I wind up disparaging and hating this same person, as Nick does Gatsby. As Nick, I have turned the characters of my world into a nightmare when I myself am my biggest enemy.
A few things about this paragraph’s work with respect to the first of the two essential questions (How do I feel, as this character?):
- It begins with a pair of allusions to me as the author, in the phrase “for me” as well as the admission that I “don’t want” to feel my way into Nick. This is because when I first started doing character identifications, it felt difficult for me to pose myself as a literary character, and I created scaffolds between myself and the character in my writing. This kind of move is optional; if you want, you can simply begin your character identifications with the phrase “As so-and-so,” continuing to write from the character’s perspective in the first-person and present tense.
- Rather than simply say that as Nick I feel sad or lost, I anchor my feelings as Nick through the use of metaphors: the metaphors of having “buried” my real self and being “lost” at sea. These metaphors were not constructed, but seemed to flow out of me after having made a commitment to feel my way into Nick. From here, it was easy to unlock the following line, in which I paint the full complement of Nick’s emotional cycles through anger, grief, hope, and elation. Walking ourselves through emotions like these is an embodied experience, and often the reason we “don’t want” to identify with a particular character or set of characters.
Note that in this paragraph I also begin to broach how Nick behaves, which is the second of our essential questions for Character Identification: How do I behave, as a consequence of my feelings? This is because, more often than not, our behaviors are direct extensions of our feelings: for example, if we feel sad about something, we may bury this feeling in the form of anger, then lash out at other people rather than feel the initial feeling of sadness. In turn, those people may choose to abandon us, an outcome which will accordingly re-inspire the sadness. As such, examining our feelings in response to the first question of character identifications leads naturally to the second question, and we begin to see how we behave in the world as an extension of our feelings. Further, we see that these behaviors re-inspire the original feelings.
For me as Nick, I notice that my behaviors emanating from feelings of grief, hopelessness, anger, and elation lead me to idolize people in my life, then cast them aside at the slightest failing, as I do to both Gatsby and Daisy. In this cycle, I set myself up for constant disappointment, which in turn fortifies my anger and bitterness, which in turn reproduce my isolation. As such, it is not a stretch to say that the “nightmare” in which I wind up living, is a consequence of the buried feelings that I have failed to recognize or release.
Have you ever tried a writing exercise to intentionally identify with a character from a work of literature? If so, how did that writing exercise go? Have you tried to identify with a literary character in a different way? What did you gain from it? For more on these topics, please follow my blog or grab a copy of the book for yourself.