By Talia Kliot
After two years in English literature at Dawson, I have noticed that the works we study tend to be analyzed from a melancholic angle. Examples of such works include Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), a heartbreaking story of a fallen woman, and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), an unfortunate tale of two lovers. While the material itself is certainly important, I have had trouble with the constant onslaught of tragedy, and have thus tried to find ways to detach myself critically from the texts by employing the concept of the absurd, which calls attention to the rupture between what we view as important versus what actually is. Although some writers, such as Kafka, use the absurd to deliberately distance readers from the tragic events of their stories, others require the readers to implement this strategy themselves. Following a scholarly survey of the literary absurd, this essay will examine this dichotomy between the absurd as a literary technique and the absurd as a technique employed by readers. Through an analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915), Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I will argue that it is salutary to apply this technique to novels that do not apply it themselves.
In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2008), Chris Baldick defines the absurd as “a term derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus, and often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value”. The concept of the absurd emphasizes that humans over-dramatize the trivial aspects of life and highlights the futile quest for meaning and purpose through the presentation of ridiculous situations.
Some writers anticipated the movement of the absurd in literature as early as the end of the nineteenth century (Cornwell 67). However, this movement truly took shape after World War II (Abrams 1), thus making the absurd a convention of literary postmodernism. Many texts studied in literature classes were written in the Victorian era, which precedes the literary absurd. Therefore, the necessity for absurdist reading becomes apparent in order to reduce the sadness we are often left feeling after reading them.
In his book, The Absurd in Literature (2006), Neil Cornwell, a literary scholar, explains that the absurd “is born of nihilism, out of existentialism, fuelled by the certainty of death (anxiety, dread and death being the scourge of the existentialist)” (5). Despite the connotations surrounding these philosophies, philosopher Donald A. Crosby suggests that “not everything in nihilistic philosophy” (6) or existentialism, for that matter, “needs be considered purely destructive or negative, because it contains important truths that can be put to positive use” (6). The insight gained from the absurd teaches us about societal issues such as the unrealistic expectations imposed on women and the damaging effects of self-absorbed human nature while also giving us the tools to try to fix them. Furthermore, Crosby’s point allows one to explore the idea that though the term itself deals with melancholic themes, the art that is produced with elements of the absurd is distanced enough from the bleak and nihilistic reality, thus making the absurd an effective technique to detach ourselves from the melancholic aspects of literature. While some might argue that doing this belittles the important subject matter, Cornwell writes that although the absurd, and the nonsense it entails, is humorous at a glance, it is “far from always being completely divorced from any semblance of surrounding reality […], nonsense does tend to interact with society or civilization” (19). The absurd allows readers to find a middle ground between diminishing sadness while still discussing serious topics.
The work of Franz Kafka is often an example of the absurd in literature. Kafka’s writing contains elements of this technique and many other writers have been inspired by his mastery of it (Cornwell 184). Kafka uses the absurd to shed light on important topics while expressing them in a lighter manner. After finishing a Kafka story, in addition to gaining insight on social class, isolation and other important points of discussion, one is not left with the typical sense of dread imparted by most works touching on similar themes. In fact, Kafka’s goal when writing is not to solicit a serious reaction from his readers. Rather, his desired response is a laugh. A popular anecdote, as recounted by philosopher Anke Snoek, states that “Kafka was known for laughing exuberantly when his stories were read aloud at reading evenings with friends – and he was apparently the only one who did so” (3). Kafka being the only one who laughed points to the fact that his works are commonly misread and often perceived to be more somber than he intended.
Benjamin Walter, a philosopher and cultural critic, explains that “there are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation” (806). This emphasizes Kafka’s nuanced perspective with his use of the absurd. Readers must find a middle ground between the literal and the metaphorical instead of getting caught up in the sheer absurdity of the writing or its melancholic, existentialist themes.
Kafka does not want to leave his readers feeling hopeless despite the purposelessness associated with the Existentialism that fuels the absurd. Snoek suggests that his “hope is not a matter of revolution: the way out is not heroic resistance, not a heroic act or active revolution. Rather, it is a very subtle possibility that is often in front of us without our seeing it” (11). This statement perfectly reflects Kafka’s choice to implement the absurd.
An analysis of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis makes evident the deliberate use of the absurd to diminish the emotional turmoil experienced when reading about Gregor’s situation. For example, when a newly transformed Gregor attempts to get out of bed, he recognizes the absurdity of his situation. While this challenge brings him immense “misery” (Kafka 417), “he [cannot] suppress a smile at the thought of [calling for help]” (Kafka 417). His struggle can be said to evoke the silencing of those who are suffering from mental health issues but at the same time, Kafka adds a lighter perspective by offering a comical image. The fact that the comedy is even recognized by the character himself further shows the versatility of the absurd.
Another instance of the absurd in The Metamorphosis is when Gregor’s father throws apples at him. The thought of Gregor “shying apple after apple” (Kafka 435) is a funny image. This can be read as a commentary on the ridiculousness of war, as well as a metaphor for the Samsa parents’ imposition of Judeo-Christian and conservative values on Gregor. Since apples are associated with the creation story, they have a religious connotation of temptation and knowledge. Gregor cannot dodge these forceful ideological impositions, which also emphasizes Kafka’s personal stance towards these outdated religious and conservative ideals. Kafka continues to poke fun at religion when he describes Gregor being “nailed to the spot” (Kafka 436). This reference to crucifixion provides support for the fact that his parents have flawed values. On the other hand, however, it can also be seen as a joke. Usually, those who sacrifice themselves are celebrated. In this case, however, after Gregor sacrifices himself by working hard to support his family, he turns into a giant insect and becomes an outcast. In addition Gregor also sacrifices himself by deciding to die rather than continuing to burden his family, yet is reproached rather than celebrated. These instances of the absurd, along with numerous others in this work, prove that its use allows us to gain insight into serious topics such as religion and alienation while still making us laugh.
In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, tragedy is rampant; however, as previously stated, by reading with an absurdist lens, we can distance ourselves from the sadness. The opening scene in which John Durbeyfield learns of his “ancient and knightly” (Hardy 31) descent, proves a prime example of this possibility. A melancholic reading of Durbeyfield’s encounter with parson Tringham would focus on the importance of social status in rural Victorian England and the suffering of the lower class. In fact, Peng Yuan-yuan and Yan Rao, literary scholars, explain that among many other aspects, “family economic situation and irresponsible parents destined [Tess’s] tragic fate” (74). Moreover, class mobility was virtually impossible during this time, which explains John Durbeyfield’s willingness to grasp onto this newfound part of his identity. He desperately hopes that becoming “Sir John d’Urberville” (Hardy 34) will help him diminish his family’s poverty. His dialect shows a clear lack of education, making it hard for the educated readers to understand. Phrases like “leastwise ‘twddn’ when I was there” (Hardy 34) are almost unintelligible to modern literature students, so much so that teachers have advised us to read passages out loud to interpret the meaning. This implies the inability of the upper classes, or of later readers, to understand the plight of the lower class and reflects the important disparity in the education that these classes receive. In addition, Durbeyfield is portrayed as a “market-nitch” (Hardy 38), further stressing his upsetting circumstances. He is constantly drinking to suppress his troubles, which impairs his power to make his life better. There is a sense of hopelessness that even this seemingly great revelation about their ancestry will have no effect on the family, leading readers to lament the injustice of the D’Urbervilles fall from grace.
The absurdist reading of this scene would use this sense of hopelessness and find humour in it. John Durbeyfield’s portrayal, although a commentary on the cultural and societal problems of the era, can be perceived as comical. Imagining him drunk, with “his eyes closed luxuriously” (Hardy 38), shouting out his newfound heritage in front of Tess’s peers can be distanced from the underlying hardship it represents because of the humorous nature of the image. Tess’s reaction to her father making a scene can be read as absurd as well: “Her eyes grew moist, and her glance drooped to the ground” (Hardy 38), showing her deep embarrassment. Tess places too much importance on how others perceive her family and herself, and therefore her intensely emotional reaction to something so trivial seems absurd, especially if one has previously read the novel and knows the actual hardships that Tess will face later on.
The dream sequence is another instance in which both a melancholic and absurdist reading coexist. A traditional reading would call attention to the awful double standard that Tess is held to. While Angel is permitted by society to admit that he had relations with someone before Tess, when she explains that she was raped, he says that “forgiveness does not apply to the case! [She was] one person; now [she is] another” (Hardy 232). After this revelation, Angel sleepwalks and carries Tess into a casket. In the process, Angel “imprint[s] a kiss upon her lips” (Hardy 249) and praises her virtue. Tess finds this “consoling” (Hardy 250), which is heartbreaking not only because she still seeks validation from someone who has rejected her, but also because she finds solace in that fact that “did not cast her off, even if in the right of harming her” (Hardy 250). She is willing to be harmed if it means that their relationship will revert back to how it was before she told him about her rape. In reality, Angel is only in love with the idea of Tess as a “pure” (Hardy 240) woman. By placing her in the “coffin” (Hardy 251), he buries the virtuous Tess he fell in love with and, by extension, their relationship. Although it was a love based on ideals rather than the person itself, this is possibly the only positive experience Tess has throughout the novel, so when it ends, readers feel a deep sense of loss and pain.
The previous statement in itself shows the absurdity of this scene. While this novel is a tragedy, the fact that there are so few positive outcomes for Tess is ridiculous. In addition, the fact that such an elaborate sleepwalking situation could arise is silly, especially since it takes place in Hardy’s realist world. Absurdist readers can also call attention to Tess’s immense amount of faith in Angel despite his horrid betrayal. Angel “inspire[s] her with no sort of personal fear” (Hardy 248) when she is in serious danger since she could fall into the water. The calmness she exudes is almost funny and emphasizes the unrealistic expectations of women in Victorian England; regardless of their own safety, they were meant to serve the men who surround them. This is further shown when Tess feels that drowning would “be better than parting to-morrow to lead severed lives” (Hardy 250). It is absurd that she would rather suffer a painful death than live without him. Tess believes that this falsified relationship with Angel is more important than her own life, showing the human tendency to place importance on the wrong aspects of life.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is the next example of classic literature that will be examined through an absurdist and traditional lens. In an essay that is a rare instance of literary criticism that does not focus on the more melancholic aspects of the novel, David Galef, a fiction writer and literary critic, explains that in Wuthering Heights, Brontë uses irony in the discourses of Lockwood and Isabella. While Isabella later loses her ironic tone and ability to distance herself from the horrific events of being married to Heathcliff, Lockwood’s ironic way of talking remains throughout the novel (Galef 248). Galef writes that Lockwood, the “only figure capable of remaining apart, like the artist, survives” (249), showing Brontë’s own advocacy for distance from the tragedy. While Brontë already uses irony in her writing, an absurdist close reading of the text offers even more distance that benefits the reader.
After Catherine Linton’s death, Heathcliff is devastated, exclaiming that he “cannot live without [his] life! [He] cannot live without his soul!” (Brontë 122). He sees her as an extension of himself and has a love for her that defies his savage disposition and his hatred for everyone else. When recounting his feelings on the day of her passing to Nelly, he explains that he “went to the churchyard” (Brontë 209), determined to “have her in [his] arms again” (Brontë 210), essentially planning to dig up her grave. A traditional and melancholic reading of this incident would focus on Heathcliff’s emotional state, calling attention to the immense amount of distress one would have to be in to consider “disturb[ing] the dead” (Brontë 209). Heathcliff describes the graveyard as “solitary” (Brontë 209). This mirrors his state in the wake of Catherine’s death, since she was the only person who treated him as an equal and was able to stomach his crude and unpleasant demeanour. The only way he can survive this loss is by deluding himself into thinking that she is still alive: “if she be motionless, it is sleep” (Brontë 210). Therefore, regardless of our disgust and horror towards the act that Heathcliff attempts to commit, we commiserate with the lovers who never had the chance to be together and feel badly about the constant cruelty that Heathcliff suffered throughout his childhood that led him to become such an unsympathetic person.
An absurdist reading, though, would, of course, consider Heathcliff’s mental trauma, but would also call attention to the absurdity of burying the dead and the ridiculousness of Heathcliff’s reasoning. The relative ease Heathcliff has in reaching Catherine’s coffin implies our arbitrary way of honouring the dead. It seems almost laughable that just about any lovesick person could desecrate such a holy ritual with a shovel and physical force. Furthermore, by referring to Heathcliff’s digging as a “labour of agony” (Brontë 210), a comical image is created in the minds of readers. His effort is over-dramatized; he “wrenche[s] desperately” (Brontë 210) and one can also laugh at how easily he gives up on his mission when he “[feels] that Cathy was there” (Brontë 210). The idea that his manic desire could be satisfied by the supposed presence of a ghost shows that this sequence of events can be taken more lightly than a more serious reading would suggest.
The absurd is a versatile technique that is a staple of postmodern literature. Despite this, it can be applied to works that predate the postmodern period and should be further analyzed in the scholarship on works that do employ it. Through an analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I have argued that absurdist close readings are beneficial because they allow readers to distance themselves, healthily, from the tragedy of the types of novels that have become classic literature.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 1891. Ed. John Paul Riquelme, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” 1915. The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford, 1995. 414-447.
Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Cengage Learning, 2012.
Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Benjamin, Walter. Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death. 1934. Selected Writings, Volume 2. Trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others. Ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 1999.
Cornwell, Neil. The Absurd in Literature. Manchester University Press, 2006. eBook Academic Collection.
Crosby, Donald A. The Specter of the Absurd : Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism. SUNY Press, 1988. eBook Academic Collection.
Galef, David. “Keeping One’s Distance: Irony and Doubling in ‘Wuthering Heights.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 24, no. 3, 1992, p. 242-51. JSTOR Journals.
Snoek, Anke. Agamben’s Joyful Kafka : Finding Freedom Beyond Subordination. Bloomsbury Academic, 2012. eBook Collection.
Yuan-yuan, Peng, and Yan Rao. “An Analysis of Tragedy of ‘Tess of the D’ Urbervilles”.’” English Language Teaching, vol. 11, no. 7, Jan. 2018, pp. 71–75. ERIC.
Ingham, Patricia. Language of Gender and Class : Transformation in the Victorian Novel. Routledge, 1996. EBSCOhost.
Joudrey Thomas J. “‘Well, We Must Be for Ourselves in the Long Run’ : Selfishness and Sociality in Wuthering Heights.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 70, no. 2, 2015, p. 165. JSTOR Journals, doi:10.1525/ncl.2015.70.2.165.
Kariko, Abdul Aziz Turhan. “Humorous Writing Exercise Using Internet Memes On English Classes.” Lingua Cultura, no. 2, 2012, p. 188. Directory of Open Access Journals, doi:10.21512/lc.v6i2.406.
Myburgh, Albert. “Spaces of Death in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.” Journal of Literary Studies, no. 1, 2014, p. 20. Gale Academic OneFile, doi:10.1080/02564718.2014.887615.
 Lowe, Chad. Literary Movements. Fall 2018.
 Accessed on the online Oxford Dictionary Database.
 Lowe, Chad. Literary Movements. Fall 2018.
 Bellon, Liana. Integrating Activity, Winter 2020.
 Bellon, Liana. Introduction to College English, Fall 2018.