Compare and contrast the ways in which any two texts studied on the unit organize information to generate a sympathetic response to characters, paying particular attention to its implications for narrative meaning. Take care to quote directly from your chosen texts, illustrating the techniques used to generate a sympathetic response and explaining how meaning is affected by them.
When looking at the text The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin and Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, we find some striking similarities in the fate of Ozymandias, the great king of Egypt, and Louise Mallard, the troubled woman who meets her ironic end in Chopin’s story. The joy, passion and power that these two very different characters experience could be perceived as an illusion that is shattered when it comes into conflict with reality. In order to demonstrate these parallels that occur across vastly different timelines and how this method of characterisation creates a sympathetic response in the reader, I will endeavour to display how these characters are built up and broken back down again in order to make the egotistical seem palatable and relatable.
In The Story of an Hour, Louise Mallard finds a relief and freedom in the knowledge of her husband’s death. Her husband, Brently Mallard is not an abusive or cold man, for, as is indicated by the phrase “…the face that had never looked save with love upon her…” (Chopin, para. 13) he appears to have loved Louise very much indeed, so it is not the nature of their specific marriage that is abhorrent to her, but the nature of marriage itself is the oppressing force. The oppression that Louise is perceiving herself freed from is the partnership of marriage, the inhibition of her self-sufficiency and the denial of her desire to be completely self-governing as evidenced by this line: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” (Chopin, para. 14). This desire to take into account no-ones wishes but her own is essentially unachievable without total isolation, and the joy that she feels at her husband’s death seems cold and callous, but through this almost sublime, fragile and temporary moment of freedom Chopin rendering explicit the more shameful thoughts that, whilst perhaps not as persistent, or joyous as Louise’s, most people will have experienced at some point; that is guilty pleasure at someone else’s expense.
Whereas in Ozymandias the great king of Egypt strives to leave a lasting, powerful legacy, and it is his pride and passion for his cause that gives him solace in the face of his own mortality. The inscription is perhaps our greatest clue to the driving force of this king, based on Rameses II (Waith, p. 22), for it reads; “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Shelley, 10). He lived, in his time as the untouchable and unquestionable ruler of his world, whose works and monuments were designed to display his majesty to both people of his time and in the future. These works gave the king a legacy, or artificial immortality as a ruler that was both tyrant and sustaining force to his people, as evidenced by the line “The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.” (Shelley, 8). The illusion of immortality can be likened to Louise Mallard’s illusion of freedom; both are artificial states that cannot be sustained in the face of time and reality. The reader may not easily be able to relate to a tyrant but it is not a great leap of imagination to relate to the desire to make your mark on the world, and whilst we may not have attempted this on a monstrous scale, the idea of legacy is not alien to the human experience.
Now that we have established illusion of triumph over the separate conflicts these characters face we can look at how these very extreme, in their own ways, expressions of human desire, are made relatable by rendering them benign. Ozymandias as a tyrant and formidable ruler is rendered somewhat inert and pitiable by the distance that Shelley places between the reader and the king of old. Not only is the time since the Ozymandias’ glory years amplified by the term “antique land” (Shelley, line 1) when referring to the traveller’s country of origin but the use of the words “shatter’d visage” (Shelley, line 4), and mere fact that we are hearing this story through the filter of the traveller and the narrator puts considerable space between the reader and the king, making him appear much less threatening. Louise is also made less threatening by the inclusions of a few shows of her vulnerability that have the effect of detoxifying the somewhat distasteful nature of her celebrations. It is established very early on that Louise suffers from a heart condition (Chopin, para. 1), the heart condition which will eventually kill her, this coupled with her immediate outpouring of grief before her realisation of her new freedom breaks through the heartless surface, that the character might otherwise only offer. She concedes that grief may overcome her when she is faced with the corpse of her dead husband (Chopin, para. 13) which also gives the reader the chance of redemption to hold onto. By exposing the vulnerabilities of the characters the authors have allowed us room to pity these two people in a way that without these tiny nuggets of discourse we could not otherwise do.
To further heighten sense of sympathy we feel for these characters both Shelley and Chopin have painted a bleak, tragic and intrinsically ironic final picture of their characters; the ruins of the works of man who wanted immortality and infamy lie in isolated and all but forgotten ruins, and the woman who wanted the ultimate freedom from the will of others is granted it by her subsequent death. The “colossal wreck” (Shelley, 6) of the icon of Ozymandais’ empire surrounded by nothing but vast expanses of desert, and the “joy that kills” (Chopin, para. 3) Louise Mallard both mock the sublime delusions of the characters whose downfall, and ultimately failed endeavours they represent. Reduced down to the very basics they are two characters in conflict with cruel reality, who will eventually succumb to it; whether by death in the space of an hour, or the slow but steady decay of an empire over thousands of years.
Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s” The Story of an Hour”.” American Literary Realism (2000): 152-158.
Chopin, Kate, and Kate Chopin. The Story of an Hour. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning, 2001. Web.
Culler, Jonathan D. The literary in theory. Oxford University Press, New York (1997): 83-94.
Giovannelli, Alessandro. “In sympathy with narrative characters.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.1 (2009): 83-95.
Shelley, Percy B. “Ozymandias.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. By Margaret W. Ferguson, Mary Jo. Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 870. Print.
Waith, Eugene M. “Ozymandias: Shelley, Horace Smith, and Denon.” Keats-Shelley Journal (1995): 22-28.