COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATION IN ENGLISH – SESSION TWO – JUNE 1999
An anonymous author wrote, “In literature, evil often triumphs, but never conquers.” Any good story needs a conflict, and throughout history, the most basic literary conflict has been a struggle between forces of good and evil. Though the forces of evil must prevail at times in order to further the plot and develop the conflict, they can never triumph in the end. Ultimate victory for the forces of good becomes that much more effective when it has had to overcome smaller victories for the opposing, evil forces. Evil may win the battle from time to time, but good will always win the war.
However, many works of literature present the ultimate triumph of evil over good. Just as in real life, the “good guys” don’t always win; in fact, some of our greatest works of literature make far stronger and more effective thematic points by having the forces of evil win out over good in the end, even after leading the reader to believe that good will ultimately prevail. An author can use such a work as a cautionary tale, as a reflection of a grim or uncomfortable reality, or simply to surprise the audience. Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural, and 1984 by George Orwell, both reveal how evil does, in fact, often conquer good.
Malamud's main character, a middle-aged baseball star named Roy Hobbs, is presented as a prototypical American sports hero: talented, good-looking, a darling of the fans and media, who comes out of nowhere to lead the second-division New York Knights into pennant contention in a single season. Yet he is also shallow, vain, shortsighted, and hungry for fame and glory while unmindful of the responsibilities and consequences that go with them, which reinforces Malamud's theme that heroes aren't all that we expect them to be. The story, largely based on the tale of Sir Perceval from Arthurian legend, along with elements of classical myth and Greek tragedy, is structured very much like a myth. As with any mythic hero, Hobbs must overcome external obstacles in order to succeed and fulfill his destiny: a mysterious, scandalous past; the seduction of a dangerous woman; a crippling mid-season batting slump; and most of all, the machinations of a corrupt team owner, who attempts to fix the climactic play-off game by bribing Hobbs and others. The tragedy of Hobbs, and Malamud's departure from the mythology, lies in his utter failure to overcome those obstacles and make good, sound decisions based on any sort of fundamental morality; he is driven instead by his immature, selfish appetites for women, wealth and fame. Though he accepts the aforementioned bribe, Hobbs later resolves to win and thwart the owner's plans, but by then it is too late and he fails, striking out in his final at-bat. The Knights lose, the scandal hits the papers, Hobbs' career is over, and he finishes the story a crushed and broken man, weeping "many bitter tears" as the forces of evil, coupled with his own tragic flaws, conquer him and any good he may have done in his life.
Part fiction, part philosophy, Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, provides as its setting a future world in the eponymous year, a conglomerated nation-state called Oceania dominated by an extreme form of socialism, with the population’s thought and actions under constant video surveillance, history and reality under constant revision (a concept called “doublethink”), and an unseen, god-like, ostensibly watchful figurehead-ruler named Big Brother lording over a nation perpetually at war with one or the other of its neighbors. This setting, a “negative utopia,” intends to warn the reader of the dangers of one-party rule, pervasive government propaganda, misguided patriotism, limited language, and other political dangers to which the author was convinced the world was headed at the time. When the main character, Winston Smith, realizes the nature of his world and hopes to become part of a resistance movement, he is found out by the Thought Police and sent to one of Oceania’s ironically-titled government facilities; these include the “Ministry of Peace,” which conducts the ongoing war, and the “Ministry of Truth,” Winston’s own workplace, responsible for falsifying history and records. Winston’s destination is the “Ministry of Love,” a torture center where he undergoes intensive mental and psychological rehabilitation. Only when he is able to say, and more importantly believe, that 2+2=5, can his rehabilitation be complete; yet once his mind has been completely re-oriented toward Big Brother and doublethink, he will be killed. As he dies, the final thought that goes through his mind is his love for Big Brother, which shows that the evil defeated him; he failed in his attempt to revolt and lost his mind, soul and life to Big Brother and the inscrutable, indefatigable ultra-socialist regime.
All of us would like to believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil, but as we see every day, on the news, in our lives, and in literature, we know that things don’t always turn out that way. Authors of great novels have a way of reminding us about things we sometimes forget, or that we’d like to forget; thanks to Malamud and Orwell, we remember that sometimes evil is stronger, and realize that it will take that much more of good to conquer it.