By Katie Habash
If I can correctly recount the endings of most of the books I’ve ever read, I believe that almost all of them finish on a happy note, or at least some sort of resolution is presented. From Aesop’s fables, which usually end unhappily but compensate with a moral in the end, to the classics such as Little Women, in which although one of the beloved sisters dies the family still carries on with an optimistic outlook on life, to canonical texts such as Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Ithaca finally reaches peace after decades of war. Before truly delving into the field of comparative literature, I did appreciate the resolutions that eased my mind and allowed me to think the world is an agreeable place.
This semester I am taking a Comp Lit class called “Kafka and World Literature,” in which we read Franz Kafka’s works and
compare them to other pieces from around the world. This week we read Kafka’s “The Trial” and Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” both pretty depressing existentialistic novels that culminate in unhappy endings. Both protagonists, Josef K. and Mersault, respectively, enter into trouble with their respective bureaucratic institutions and are arrested for apparently no reason (in the protagonists’ point of view, at least). While both characters are eventually executed (whether fairly or unfairly, you decide), the two men come to deal with their fates in different ways. Mersault seemingly accepts his exclusion from this world and he rises above all the people who have “arrested” him in society, saying, “I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” Kafka’s Josef K., on the other hand, does not see his execution as a victory over the people in his world, shamefully deeming his death as dishonorable: “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.” While Mersault fervently embraces his departure from a world that does not accept him, Josef K. does not reach such a realization and he is not ready for his life to end just yet. The shame and hopelessness Josef K.’s fate convey a stark message to the readers: life does not always end happily.
Needless to say, this class has definitely made me more cynical over the weeks. And I think I like it.
For more posts on Life as a Comp Lit student, click here.