Lessons From Stories: Unconditional Love Can Be A Bad Thing

Honore de Balzac wrote the novel Old Goriot in 1835, and he explored the social and cultural changes that were taking place in France at the time. There are several themes associated with this novel, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. The theme of parental love and family relationships, specifically the relationship between Goriot and his two daughters, Delphine and Anastasie. The lesson derived from this relationship is that there is such a thing as too much love. That, in fact, a parent’s unconditional love can have negative effects on their children.

(Obvious spoilers ahead)

To set the stage, at this time in France, one’s reputation was everything. This theme is largely explored through the lens of the character Rastignac. He is a young man with dreams of becoming rich and successful. In his story, he interacts with the elites of the Parisian society including both Delphine and Anastasie. The two daughters are married to successful men but the daughters constantly struggle with finances as they attempt to buy rich gowns and wear expensive jewelry in order to keep their high societal image.

It is in this struggle to stay relevant we see how unconditional parental love can be damaging.

But first, we must understand who Goriot is. Goriot is portrayed as the ideal father. He embodies the parenting view that it is the parent’s responsibility to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children. We meet Goriot living in an old boarding house along with several other characters. Soon after that, we are given background information about how once upon a time Goriot was a rich merchant and the reason why he went from living comfortably to now having to spend his old age by himself in a small room was because he gave his wealth to his two daughters in order to maintain their image of wealthy Parisian women so they can keep getting invitations to dinner parties and get-togethers.

This idea of Keeping Up with the Joneses is as relevant today as it was in that time period. As people attain more wealth they upgrade their living situations trying to maintain a certain image that they believe is associated with their income level. Goriot’s two daughters are no different than the people we see walking around now. Both of them find themselves in this rich sphere of influence and both constantly struggle to stay in that sphere. When our self-worth and our identity comes to be tied with our reputation and image, we can fail to see what really matters. Such as the love and care of people around us.

The daughters fall into this trap as well. They care little of how their father has downgraded in his living conditions over the years and how he’s had to sell what is precious to him in order to raise enough money to keep a steady flow of income which the daughters can use for material possessions. The daughters are too self-absorbed and here is where too much love and care can be a bad thing.

The overwhelming love Goriot had for his daughters stopped him from thinking rationally. Instead of teaching his daughters about self-worth or raising them to make their own wealth, he kept on feeding their addiction. Love clouded his logic to the point he was essentially causing self-harm in order to keep his daughters happy. His love for his daughters stopped him from putting proper boundaries which would allow the daughters to take on responsibility for themselves. He wasn’t able to raise independent human beings. Instead, even as adults his daughters relied on him to help them and because his love was boundless, he kept on loving and sacrificing until his final breath. Worse of all, the tragedy of the story, the father dies without either one of his daughters there to comfort him and even at his funeral, the daughters don’t come.

Often we hear how moderation in all things is the key to a successful life. When I think of moderation my mind automatically goes to bad habits and vices that we can practice and how we must be aware of such things in order to keep ourselves from overindulging in the bad. Old Goriot opened my eyes to a new perspective. Overindulgence in the good can also be harmful. Too much love, comfort, and support can rob someone’s possibility of being their own individual. The daughters never had to stand on their own two feet because Goriot was there to support and guide them the whole time. It is easy to identify when we are imbalanced due to our bad actions but much harder to pinpoint the imbalance when we are acting out of love and care. This story is a good reminder of the latter. Even our love and care must be disciplined and moderated. Especially if we are to raise proper human beings.

Lessons From Stories: James Joyce’s Dubliners & The Necessity of Action

James Joyce was a novelist, short story writer, and poet. His short story collection, Dubliners, is comprised of fifteen stories all of which depict and explore the Irish middle class in the 20th century. A common theme that runs through these stories is of inaction. Where the characters wish to live a different, more fulfilling life but fail to take the necessary steps in order to achieve their dreams. This is exemplified in the stories “Two Gallants,” “A Little Cloud,” and “Eveline.” Joyce’s ability to capture realistic human behavior is one of the reasons why his writing has lived on. The failure leaves the characters frustrated and disappointed with life. A common occurrence in the everyday life of many people who wish they had acted differently in the past so their present could be more satisfying.

In the story, “Two Gallants,” we follow the characters, Corley and Lenehan. Both men are frustrated and disappointed with their lives. Corley wishes to be respected, to be a man of power. Lenehan tells us how Corley was “Fond of delivering the final judgment,” and how “His conversations were mainly about himself.” But Corley doesn’t have the abilities to earn this respect so he is left to trick and charm women into fulfilling his needs. This is shown at the end of the story where it is implied that he convinced the girl he was seeing into stealing money from the family she worked for.

Corley is almost an archetype of the kind of person we need to look out for in our lives. The selfish individual who uses his cunning to trick people. Someone with enough charm to manipulate the actions of others. He is also only focused on the short-term gain which will unlikely break the cycle of disappointment. Such action only brings temporary relief, something many of us can relate to with our own experiences.

Lenehan, on the other hand, has his own frustration which stems from how his life has turned out.

This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own? He thought how pleasant it would be to have a warm fire to sit by and a good dinner to sit down to.

These thoughts are easy to recognize and empathize with because most of us have had something similar to them. However, it’s not in the simple connection with these thoughts where the lesson is derived from but rather the actions of Lenehan prior to these thoughts and after which reveal the truth about human behavior. Before, he is simply walking around, wasting time, buying into the schemes of his friend. Directly afterward, Lenehan meets two friends and he spends time talking to them and telling them how the previous day he was with another friend, drinking and having a good time.

This action is also recognizable. The repetitive routine which kills your time as you get no closer to your dreams. Lenehan is unhappy with his life, he recognizes this fact but he doesn’t take any steps to improve it. Rather, he gives in to the feelings of self-pity and says that this “Experience had embittered his heart against the world.” Although he adds that there was hope left, it’s hard to imagine how long that will last if he doesn’t bring about change in his life. This goes for anyone who wishes to improve their lives. The longer you wait, the more concrete your foundation becomes and harder it is to break free.

The inability to undertake action is also seen in the story “A Little Cloud.” This story contrasts two figures, Little Chandler, who is the protagonist and Ignatius Gallaher. The story shows how the inactions of Little Chandler leave him envying the life of Gallaher. Gallaher is a poet and he travels the world, something Chandler wishes he could do. However, Chandler relies on two false narratives to ease his disappointment with life.

First, Chandler claims that if he had really wanted to, if he had truly dedicated his mind to the task, he could also write great poems. He believes that he could write “Different moods and impressions he wished to express in verse” however, he is too shy and timid to do so.

Secondly, he believes that he isn’t like Gallaher because he is married and has to take care of a wife and child. While Gallaher is still single and is able to travel to different cities and enjoy life.

If you wanted to succeed you have to go away.

With such thoughts he consuls himself and gives himself an excuse to why he isn’t a poet. When in reality, it’s the lack of ownership and action that has resulted in his unfulfilled life.

Such excuse-making is common in everyday life. It’s a coping mechanism in order to keep your self-esteem high. By having outlets to blame, we can then avoid the true reality of our failures. However, in this manner, we also forgo any hope of growth. This is also seen in Chandler’s story. He has just been dreaming and hoping for that magical one day where everything will work out for the best. Instead of taking action, he lives passively and so, his character doesn’t grow and his life doesn’t change. While, Gallaher took the risk, put his work out there to get criticized, figured his way out and now can live his desired life.

The lack of action is also present in the story “Eveline.” In this story, a young girl named Eveline has fallen in love with a sailor and wishes to leave with the boy. However, instead of her accepting this call to adventure, she refuses it.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt hims size her hand:

‘Come!’

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would down her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

‘Come!’

No! No! No! It was impossible.

Her refusal to accept this new life was due to the promise she had made her deceased mother. The promise is that she would look after the household.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to god to direct her, to show her what was her duty.

It’s this duty she felt she owed that stops her from taking action. It’s the same kind of commitment many of us feel we owe other people that act as a barrier to experience our own life. It’s also our own insecurities and nerves which cling to some possible excuse to not be uncomfortable, to not go into some unknown path. But by doing so, we limit the possible experiences we can have. Just as Eveline cuts off this adventure with her love or how Little Chandler stays dreaming about being a poet while he works an office job or how Lenehan fails to make any progress in life. It’s the inability to make an uncomfortable choice that forces these characters to live lackluster lives. Lives which can be empathized with by many readers.

However, if we were to act opposite of these characters then perhaps we can get closer to achieving fulfillment ourselves. Lenehan dreams but has no plans to improve his situation. He repeats his bad habits which have lead him to dislike his situation. So, if we were to plan the course of our life for the next month or two months or however long, that will get us going down our desired path. Along with the recognition of bad habits which comes through self-reflection. Little Chandler, on the other hand, has excuses as to why he isn’t living his preferred life. These excuses deny ownership and responsibility. By taking on ownership we also take on the ability to have an effect on our life. We can overcome being timid and shy and take action in this manner. While, Eveline is afraid to experience life, to be uncomfortable and so, she falls back to pleasing other people rather than living her own life. Sometimes being selfish is good. To put yourself before others in order to live your own life. This can be difficult, especially when you have to disregard the opinions or wishes of your loved ones. However, opportunities don’t come around often and they certainly don’t wait around for you. If you wish to be fulfilled then that uncomfortable decision must be made.