Some of us are tired of vacation. We want fiction to reflect reality, with its hopes and limitations. Literary readers embrace the bittersweet nature of the human condition. Despite our best efforts, we’re trapped in a certain place in life. As if through cage bars, we see the possibility of freedom in the distance. For the moment, we can’t reach it. Truth is a comfort to our predicament, a validation of our experience, and a guide. It’s the way out.
Masterful writers are those who express the pain of life in a way that’s particularly cathartic.
Franz Kafka captured the feeling that a knock on the door is a sinister thing. In The Trial, Kafka raises the fear of being caught, even for doing nothing wrong. To a tyrannical government, your sin is simply being alive.
For Kafka, the cage is imposed by a force outside. If only the protagonist in The Trial were so lucky to be thrown in jail. Instead, he’s allowed to resume his normal life after being arrested. The man, Josef K. finds this limbo state to be unbearable. The more he tries to find clarity in his predicament, the worse he makes it for himself in the eyes of the state.
Charles Dickens is remembered as a sentimental writer, the creator of characters like Tiny Tim. It’s an inaccurate and incomplete view. Dickens is as well known for his villains like Mr. Murdstone and Miss Havisham.
The villains in Dickens are both mannered and ferocious, preying on goodness and enjoying it. In Dickens, the cages that entrap his protagonists are often the work of family, or those acting as family, such as Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist. As well, Pip’s aunt in Great Expectations knows how to hurt the noble protagonist best. False intimacy is an enemy of Dickens’s young heroes. They must wise up and break free before escape is possible.
Anton Chekhov was a writer both caring and pitiless, as unsentimental as a surgeon (he was a doctor). As a surgeon does violence to a body, in order to cure it, Chekhov lays bare his characters without remorse to release a truth.
In the short story “The Lady with the Dog,” Chekhov shows how cages are created by our own design. In the story, two unhappy romantics tempt fate by egging on an extra-marital love affair. They end up in a cage together. The man and woman hide their obsessive feelings for each other, living at a time when affairs weren’t just frowned upon, but led to the loss of everything. In Chekhov’s writing, the villain is not exterior, it comes from within. The way out of the cage may not be possible, but in accepting one’s own choices, one can ease the imprisonment.