Cultural and Historical Influences Found in Six Characters in Search of an Author, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Candide
Every culture has certain historical events that alter the way that culture functions and appears. For much of the world, the world wars were this historical influence. Many countries had not experienced such a sudden loss in population, and for many families, it meant the sudden loss of not one, but many loved ones. Similarly, Middle Eastern countries have been plagued by religious wars for centuries; with each rising religion, or even different interpretations of religions, the people of this region are forced to assimilate and conform to the laws forced upon them by an ever evolving government. Culture altering events do not always present themselves in the form of wars, as so drastically shown by the change brought about by the Enlightenment. Though the enlightenment period had its violent points, the change was largely in the ideas and ideals held by the citizens of Europe and a tumultuous, blossoming America. The reform seen here was philosophical and political. Through the eyes of the characters in Candide, Six Characters in Search of an Author, and A Thousand Splendid Suns the effects of these events on their authors can be interpreted. Many of the effects felt by the authors of these works show how they, personally, felt the cultural and historical changes happening right before their eyes.
In 1759, Candide was born. The height of the enlightenment was underway and the effects of it spanned from Europe to the westernmost expansions of the Americas. For François-Marie Arouet, the enlightenment only encouraged her “bold, witty, and rebellious” personality (Simon 97). The influence of this revolutionary time can be found in many aspects of Candide. The first of these is the idea that “everything is for the best” (101). The concept of God as a watchmaker was sweeping over Christianity, and from this religious alteration, the idea that god has prepared “this best of all possible worlds” (101) for his creations and those creations are now left to fend for themselves. Throughout the story, the plot is thickened with strife, slavery, and some of the worst conditions imaginable; however, since they live in the best conditions allowed by God, they are thankful that they are not worse off. Meeting people who are worse off than they are prevents them from sacrilegiously questioning God any more than they do. The enlightenment also brought about the belief that education was a right and something to be shared, cherished, and obtained no matter the costs. Voltaire held this belief close to his heart to such an extent that he would smuggle his literature to be published in countries with freedom of the press. He believed that education should be full and without censorship.
Similarly, in Candide, we see characters being formally taught (education with the censorship of the establishment in which is taught); this formal teaching is altered throughout Candide’s life through experience and testing of the philosophical ideals he was taught. Even Pangloss, who introduced the idea of “the best of all possible worlds”, alters his belief in this concept once he is cast from the censorship of the Baron’s castle. This evolution of what is taught and what is learned shows Voltaire’s belief that education is both taught formally and learned through living a full life. The difference in Candide’s education, both formal and informal, is brought about by a shift in social class. The class system during the enlightenment was a steadfast component, one that Arouet opposed. This opposition of a change seen during a cultural revolution shows that not all citizens within a culture necessarily embrace the cultural metamorphosis. In some aspects, this gives culture a more dynamic appearance and adds the effect of subcultures upon the population. Voltaire mocks the class system by sending his characters through all of them. From chapter to chapter, Candide and Cunégonde shift from wealth to poverty, from strife to worsening strife.
The turmoil seen the Enlightenment, including revolutions, political coops, and executions, is evident in every situation experienced by the characters in Candide. The story begins with a coop, is riddled with near executions, and includes a few actual executions. Arouet undoubtedly saw this tumultuous activity in his everyday life and integrated his fear of it into his works. From eighteenth century France, the influence of historical events moves to Italy during the early 1900’s. Luigi Pirandello, during this time period, is in the midst of bombs, gunfire, and unimaginable death that are inescapable in the Italian theatre of World War I. The Great War took millions from Italy and threatened the loss of many more as the Italians fought to keep the Austro-Hungarians from decimating their country. This amount of loss changes the culture of a country, and even a continent, leaving behind a broken, dark view of man. World War I emerged the way most wars do: one group of people attempted to impose their way of thought on another.
The actions in Candide are not unlike the actions of the characters in Six Characters in Search of an Author. The father and stepdaughter in particularly impose their view about what the play should look like on the producer and actors to the point where they begin to fight back. The father uncontrollably yells “Oh, no!” as the stepdaughter “bursts into laughter” (1275) at the acting they deem as intolerable. This theme of intolerance can be found in the theatre of this play and the European theatre of the war, particularly the antagonistic role Austria played. As the producer commands them to “shut up” (1276), the retaliatory attitude of Italy is introduced to the play. Pirandello was undoubtedly affected by the loss of so many soldiers across the continent and in his home country. These men, uninvolved in the initial confrontation between Russia and Austria that sparked this deadly war, are seen as innocent in the eyes of Pirandello. For this reason, the most innocent characters in the play, the little boy and little girl, “don’t really exist” (1279). Like the ghosts of soldiers lost to their families, the children cling to their mother and their memory “[helps] to keep [her] grief alive” (1279). To heighten this grief, many of Italy’s attempts to defend their borders were futile in the face of the mighty army held by the Central Powers. This futility is mirrored in the battle that the characters face to have their story told correctly and even told at all.
The theme of war continues on to the late twentieth century in Afghanistan where religious wars and oppression became everyday life to most families. Much of the loss seen in Six Characters in Search of an Author is also experienced by Mariam, a bright-eyed young Afghani girl, living in an environment where there seems to be “one invader after another” (Hosseini 78). Her story, along with the story of her family and those closest to her, is told in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Constant war and shifts in political power create a dynamic setting where women’s rights are dictated by the government and enforced by husbands. According to Rasheed, it is “a matter of law” and “[his] responsibility” to use her as his personal maid and slave (136). A woman is taught to “quietly endure all that falls upon [her]” (49). The oppression of mothers, daughters, and friends seen by Khaled Hosseini during his time in Afghanistan adds a feminist flair to his writing and could contribute to his main characters being female. The destruction caused by bombs, bullets, and so called freedom fighters is echoed in the emotional state of Hosseini’s characters. He acknowledges that “every afghan story is marked by death . . . and imaginable grief” (203). Mariam’s mother is plagued by a mental illness forced upon her by society; in this way, her society kills her with its oppression. Treated like a piece of property to be sold to a business man and a toy for him to play with and discard, Mariam’s emotional war has many sides to it. The loss of her mother and, symbolically her father, lead her to crave the family she knows she will never have with Rasheed. Her miscarriages lead her to resent herself because it is her fault this ideal family she pictures will never be a reality. She is bombarded by the echoes of her mother calling her Harami, and she begins to believe that she is, in fact, “an illegitimate person who [will] never have [a] legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance” (1). This self-loathing is furthered by the entrance of Laila into their family. Mariam is replaced, left to tend to the wife she could never be. No sooner can she bond with Laila, they are stripped away from her and she is left to the same fate as her mother: choosing a death she deems herself worthy of. These women are a product of the land they call home, a land Hosseini called home and brought to the rest of the world through his experience and writing. Hosseini teaches his readers that emotional wars can cause deaths more effectively than any missile; most of these deaths, however, are not of the body, but of the soul.
The religious aspect of the war in Afghanistan is also experienced at the personal level for Mariam. The war they are surrounded by, oppressed by, killed by, is in the name of God. Yet, to ease the pain and grant them hope, they pray this same God. The characters of this story use their religion to escape their religion. This loving creator who cares so deeply for his creations also believes that women should have fewer rights, serve their husband, and die if they choose to do otherwise. The irony is tangible. Every character has a piece of reality within them placed there by authors who are so affected by the events they have endured, that they cannot separate their writing from their ever-present reality.
From war, to religion, to societal movements, and back to war again, authors carry the burden of these life-altering events; they lessen this load through writing, each character taking a piece of their creators hurt, strife, and truth with them. Similarly, the common struggles between reader, author, and character allow the reader to lessen their burdens into the literature with the assurance that they are not the only ones suffering. Every reader suffers loss, physical and emotional wars, and religious confusion not unlike those illustrated in the literary works discussed previously. In shared grief and suffering, there is solace, whether it is shared by author and character or reader and character.
Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.
Simon, Peter, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Beginning to 1650.
Shorter Third ed. Vol. 2. New York City: W. W. Norton & Co, 2001. Print.
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