Defying Society Expectations

Society’s expectations often conflict with the views and standpoints of the individuals in these societies. The three novels, Anna Karenina, Catch-22, and The Dark Child illustrate the torture endured by the characters that fight for righteous causes against an enemy of monstrous magnitude – society. The protagonist in each novel helps to present the author’s specific criticisms of society. By depicting and emphasizing the plight of each main character, the authors were able to achieve the effect of demonstrating what they considered to be the shortcomings of society.
Through their struggles, the three characters develop an “inner good” through demonstrating a defining human quality – the ability to stand for one’s beliefs regardless of the obstacles that stand in their way. The double standard that women faced in Russian society is illustrated in the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Rarely in literature does a female character endure as much misery and pain as Anna Karenina. Anna is a depiction of the modern woman trapped in the unfortunate settings of 19th century Russia.
Imprisoned in the traditional roles of women, Anna is prevented from living the life she needs to live and loving the man she desires. She does not love her husband, Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin, but is forced under the pressure of society to appear as though she does. “The Karenins, husband and wife, continued living in the same house, met every day, but were complete strangers to one another. Aleksey Aleksandrovich made it a rule to see his wife every day… (373)

She rejects the conventional expectations of women by committing unfaithful acts against the will of society as represented by her husband and by refusing to have children after she and Vronsky begin living together. By doing so, Anna fails to fulfill the ultimate female duty and in effect breaks the ostentatious cycle of birth, life and death. Her situation is the result of society’s sexist double standard. Tolstoy makes a clear and distinctive illustration of the double standard by comparing Anna’s situation with that of her brother’s, Stiva Oblonsky.
Stiva, in the very beginning of the novel is caught having an affair with the French governess. Despite destroying his household, he continues his normal routine without regretting his affair. When Anna’s affair with Vronsky is exposed however, Anna faces a tremendous amount of scrutiny and criticism from the members of Russian high society. “The highest Petersburg society is essentially one: in it everyone knows everyone else, everyone even visits everyone else. (135)
Her situation, unlike that of her brother’s shows the double standard by which the sins committed by men are ignored while women in similar situations are unfairly punished. Anna is victimized by her desire to live a life of free will. She identifies the injustices of her society and therefore chooses to betray the “proper” role of women. As a result, Anna suffers, brutally defeated by the constrictions imposed by society. Yossarian, the protagonist in the novel Catch-22 written by Joseph Heller, similar to Anna Karenina, also faces a conflict against society’s ridiculous constraints.
Like Anna, Yossarian chooses a path of defiance and disobedience against a society that does not recognize the individuality and free will of a human being. In Catch-22, soldiers are treated like puppets in a war with an undefined purpose and meaning. This loss of individuality and appreciation for life is illustrated in several elements of the story. A primary example of this theme of loss is demonstrated in the character of Colonel Cathcart who’s one and only aspiration is to become a general.
“Colonel Cathcart wanted to be a general so desperately he was willing to try anything… e had raised the number of missions to sixty… ” (186) His approach in becoming general involves increasing the number of required missions his men are to fly thus making it impossible for his men to fulfill the requirement. Cathcart also volunteers specific men for dangerous missions so as to enhance his squadron’s record which in effect boosts his ranking. Cathcart clearly has no value or appreciation for the lives of his men and is only concerned with his own prestige. This theme of loss appears again in the character of Lieutenant Schiesskopf, Yossarian’s commanding officer in California.
Schiesskopf organizes tiresome Sunday parades for the men in his squadron. He becomes obsessively fond of parades to the point where he sees his men more as puppets than as human beings. “He manipulated boxes of chocolate soldiers until they melted in his hands and then he maneuvered in ranks of twelve a set of plastic cowboys… ” (67) He even wants to wire them together so that their movements will be perfectly precise. Yossarian is an individual trapped in a society that has no concern or regard for his life. “Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault.
The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them. ” (415) He identifies these flaws in this system and refuses to accept them. He attempts to escape the war through feigning illness and insanity. His efforts are only partially successful and after each attempt he is eventually forced to return to duty. Finally, Yossarian is offered a deal by Colonel Korn. Korn is willing to send Yossarian home under the condition that he presents a fine account of the war effort to those in the U. S. Yossarian is neither willing to die for the glory of the commanding officers of whom he despises, nor is he willing to falsely support an effort for which he is opposed to.
Therefore he escapes to Sweden under the assistance of the chaplain. The Dark Child written by Camara Laye, is an autobiography describing a conflict similar to that of Yossarian’s and Anna’s in which Laye had to struggle against the deep cultural beliefs and sacred traditions of his African village. “… because in the country everyone knows everyone else-are more strictly regulated. (21) The village that Laye grows up in celebrates many sacred ceremonies that help to demonstrate the powerful cultural values that bind together the members of this community. One of the most fascinating traditions celebrated by the village deals with the symbolic ceremony of circumcision emblematic of the passage into manhood for young men. “When I had left her I was still a child… Now I was a man! ” (131) This festival of circumcision lasts for weeks as the young men prepare for manhood by isolating themselves from their families to eventually rejoice in an elaborate dancing festival.
The extravagance of such rituals demonstrates the intensity of the customs that define Laye’s community. This community functions as if all its members are part of an extended family. The people work together in an intricate network which strives toward the common goal of preserving the welfare of the village. This system is so intricately woven that each individual’s actions have a substantial effect on the interests of the village. This is therefore the reason why careful consideration is made for every major decision confronted to the members of the village.
When Laye considers studying abroad, he is faced with the tremendous pressure of his family and from the members of his community to stay home. Laye’s mother applies an particularly significant amount of pressure and stress on Laye. This causes Laye to contemplate his decision more thoroughly. “You’ll stay right here. Your place is here… What are they thinking about at the school? Do they imagine I’m going to live my whole life apart from my son? ” she cried. (184)
Laye held his mother in a high regard for her unique and mystical character which “… was due also to the strange powers she possessed. (69) Having a high regard for his mother’s wishes and a respect for the village system put Laye in an extremely conflicting situation as he was trying to make his decision to study abroad. Nonetheless, like Anna and Yossarian, Laye did not let society’s constrictions decide the outcome of his life. He pursued his ambitions despite defying the wishes of his mothers and the traditions and standards of his society. Anna, Yossarian, and Laye have stories that illustrate the unifying theme of “inner good”. These three characters demonstrate and define this premise through their interactions within the societies that they live in.
Their struggles define “inner good” as the ability to pursue one’s ambitions and aspirations regardless of the obstacles that stand in their way. These characters fought phenomenal battles against resistances of immeasurable proportions – society. In the process of their struggles, they were forced to sacrifice the values of their societies and were forced to rebel against what they were previously made to believe as normal. Though some did not ultimately achieve success, it is their actual efforts that mark their righteousness of their pursuits.

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