In one of my American Literature survey courses, my professor assigned a project, comparing and contrasting two of the stories we’d read over the semester. I wanted to write a paper comparing the oft-written about Edna Pontellier of The Awakening and a new hip writer’s (Junot Diaz) poignant short story “Drown.”
Because, it had occurred to me: Edna’s tragic story was all about waking up from a dead, insensitive life. But I asked myself, “What happens when people don’t wake up?” Many, many people don’t. Many people get stuck, or “arrested,” at a certain stage in their lives and they never move on and they never get how stuck they are.
Since literature is one of our best mirrors of life, we receive an accurate, but darkly humorous tale of this very thing with Junot Diaz’s “Drown.” The protagonist of the short story is a youngish guy, living in the ghetto with his mother. At first glance, the story seems to be about a broken friendship between him and a childhood friend. But then, you start to notice how our protagonist is growing older and he’s still engaging in petty theft, he’s still smoking weed with the neighborhood low-lives, and school is still pretty much out of the question.
It is the same with his mother. She’s imprisoned by her fear of the outside world, and hopelessly attached to an emotionally-abusive ex. These people are going nowhere. Their lives (and many lives like them) remind me of extreme birth pangs in a woman where she comes so close to having birth and then…the baby never comes.
What a contrast between them and the seemingly antagonist of the story, the best friend, who seduces his longtime bud and then goes off to college. The tragedy is, both of the boys were smart, bookish kids, but our narrator never goes anywhere with it. His friend leaves their stifling, dead-end neighborhood, moves on, grows up, chases his potential while our narrator remains in a physical and emotional prison. There will be no awakening here, at least not within the context of the story.
Coming back to real life (and speaking of life), it is not really it if you’re not emotionally, sensually, and intellectually awake. It is not life if you have no hope, no prospects, and no dreams.
In much of literature, waking up happens. It can be a bad thing (like in “The Awakening”) which culminates in the death of the protagonist. Or it can be a good thing, much of the time leading to marriage (or some equally puke-worthy variation of a romantic relationship).
Or my personal favorite, the awakening that most commonly happens outside of literature: self-awareness. Amory Blaine’s famous last words in This Side of Paradise illustrates this “I know myself, but that is all.” Where your life goes after that is your choice.
What about you? What is your grand awakening moment? And do you know people who get older and older, but remained unconnected with themselves and subsequently go nowhere?