Character identification with Aunt Sally (L:HtR/UtW)

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 10.18.53 AMWritten 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!

Feeling through a character’s feelings and elaborating their situation is painful, since it enables us to feel the helplessness that a character usually feels, to run our fingers against the walls they naturally construct through their limitations. In other words, it allows us to really feel what a character feels, and only that—not to provide the antidote to their experience we might long to provide if inspecting it from the Balcony. However, in completing our process we ask ourselves what we might contribute to the character’s situation now that we have seen it from the inside, but with the privilege of a differing experience—that is, what might we help the character to see since after all we are only a visitor to their ecosystem? The question which breeds this awareness is the following: What don’t I know about myself? I will answer this question in the guise of a character identification with Aunt Sally from Huckleberry Finn:

As Aunt Sally, I would rather play tricks on and chide the people I love than confess my love to them, as this latter position puts me in danger. When I look on the face of someone I love, I feel such a swell in my chest that deep down, I fear I will be destroyed—I fear that what I feel will rip me apart, or failing that, that the object of my love will spurn me, reject me.

As Aunt Sally in Huckleberry Finn, what I don’t recognize is that my behavior pushes people away, that it casts their interactions with me in turbulent light. Furthermore, I don’t know that I push people away because of the boundlessness of love I feel for them; if I were to tell them outright how much I love them, they could reject me, so instead I deliver this love askance, in the form of tricks and games. As such, I deprive myself of the very thing I want—reciprocal love—and go on living in a half-lit world. I know this as Aunt Sally because I have the privilege of guidance from Jackson, who helps me see what alone I cannot.

At the same time, it’s important to assert that in helping characters to see and articulate hidden mechanisms within themselves, we are not superimposing something as we would be if applying literary theory from the Balcony; instead, we are merely helping the character to slow down and face the fears that erect barriers in themselves, as perhaps a good friend has done for us. In other words, it is helpful to remind ourselves that any knowledge we expose in response to this question—What don’t I (as this character) know about myself?—is knowledge that already exists in the character, however buried; as Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, my searching for salvation outside myself is proof that something golden lies within; just as in the position of Sally, my tricking and chiding others is testament to the love I really feel for them, and to the fear coupled with it.

In illuminating these hidden capacities within characters, we thus come to a further question in our exercise: What would I do—or do differently—if I knew these things? In answering this question, we offer the characters a possibility of a different world, one in which they make choices based upon recognizing and processing their feelings and situation, thus breaking their self-condemnation to known fates. This is a transfiguring process, one that allows us to follow our empathy for literary characters to a conclusion that envisions how they could really, or ideally be; as such, answering this final question is a profound expression of love.

Have you imagined who a literary character would be if they could recognize and process their own feelings? Doing this, have you seen how they might change their fate? Have you perhaps done this for a friend or family member in real life? If so, how did you feel afterward? Did the experience change you as well? For more on these topics, please follow my blog or grab a copy of the book for yourself.

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