Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

In his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot wrote “Do I dare/disturb the universe?”

Erin Haley looks at novels that present characters who dare to ask the same question as Prufrock. The main theme is independence, she says. Such characters “challenge the status quo.” Because challenging the status quo and seeking independence are classic undertakings of adolescence, many of the books about characters who dare to disturb the universe are in the YA (young adult) category.

Haley lists four books in which characters dare to disturb the universe:

  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  • And One for All by Theresa Nelson
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

I’m only familiar with the first two books on her list; the first is a YA novel, while the second is not.

But the question of characters daring to disturb the universe got me thinking about my own reading. I wonder if all fiction doesn’t deal with this topic in some way or other. The basic requirement for fiction is conflict, and conflict usually involves challenging at least some aspect of the status quo.

Since disturbing the universe is just about a given in YA literature, I decided to look for adult books that explore the same concept. After a quick look over my most recent reading list, I’d include these novels on my own list of books featuring characters daring to disturb the universe:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

No matter what the topic, I usually turn to this classic novel to illustrate it. Not only does Atticus Finch dare to question the status quo by defending (both legally and literally) Tom Robinson, but Scout and Jem follow his example in their unusual relationship with Boo Radley, the town recluse.

Cover: Broken for YouBroken for You by Stephanie Kallos

The two women in Kallos’s first novel dare to disturb the universe by reaching out to each other and, in the process, by redefining the concept of family. This is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman

Here’s another Alice Hoffman novel. In this one a woman must rethink the meaning of her whole existence when she discovers that her current reality is based on a lie. It takes a lot of courage and strength to redefine yourself and rediscover what you believe in.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I can’t say much about this novel without giving away a critical plot point. What I can say is that the protagonist admirably rises to the occasion of living an unconventional life.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Would you be willing to betray social conventions if that were your only chance for living an independent life? The female protagonist of this novel said “yes.”

 

I’d love to hear what books you’d include on your own list. Please let us know in the comments section.

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.