The Character of Life in Literature

January 2, 2000


Entertaining literature enthralls us with suspense, humor and the intense action of an engaging plot. Superior literature transcends mere action. It presents to the reader the author’s insights into human character and reveals the complex ways in which character and action interrelate to generate chains of consequences and results. Still finer literature reveals the complex interactions between action, individual character and the evolving character of the society in which the action takes place. The greatest literature goes still further. It reveals not only insights of individual and social character but of the character of life itself.

Does life have a character of its own? When we speak of character in an individual, we usually mean the fixed and recurring pattern of traits that are associated with a person. Such and such  behavior is characteristic of that individual. We may even divide people into broad categories or types, grouping them according to common tendencies such as ruthless aggressiveness and ambition, constricting selfishness and stinginess, or expansive cheerfulness, generosity and goodwill. Underlying the individual variations of human character, we recognize some common tendencies and characteristics of the entire human race that govern all human behavior. We refer to this common character as human nature.

Individuals vary not only in the type of their character but also in the degree. Those whose lives are determined and directed by the prevailing habits, fashions, beliefs, attitudes, opinions and values of the society in which they live have at best a developed social as opposed to an individual character. Their conduct is determined by the expectations of society. The act and live within its norms, refusing to fall below the required social minimum, failing to rise above the maximum expected of a normal member of the group. On one extreme are those that do not even conform to the minimum standards, who fail to acquire the socially required behaviors, attitudes and values. They are unformed individuals, lacking even a formed social character. At the other extreme are those whose beliefs, attitudes and values are determined internally by the strength of their own convictions. These are individuals with developed minds and formed characters of their own.

Individuals do not live or act in a vacuum. They exist and act in a human social environment of other people that constantly acts on them and reacts to their actions. They also live in a natural environment of physical objects and material forces such as the weather. And those familiar with occult and spiritual traditions recognize that there is also a subtle environment of other planes of existence, both higher planes of spiritual influence and lower planes of negative forces in universal nature seeking to act on the lives and express through the character and actions of human beings. All these levels or planes including the social, material and the occult constitute the field of human activity. Each of them functions according to its own laws or principles. Each of them has its own characteristic modes of action and influence on human life.

When we speak of the character of life, we refer to those subtle laws and principles that govern the interaction between individuals and the world around them. This character reveals itself in many different ways. It has been observed and codified in countless forms by earlier, less scientifically minded civilizations, as auspicious signs, omens, symbols, superstitions, rules for action, social conventions, vital intuitions, mental insights and spiritual wisdom. Most of what remains of these earlier forms of knowledge is either unintelligible to our modern understanding or so mixed with superstition that it is of little use for modern life, no matter how valid or useful it was to societies in the past.

The modern mental individual seeks a set of rational principles by which to understand phenomenon life, not a set of blind dictates and inexplicable tenets. Fortunately, we have at our disposal three fields for direct observation, rational analysis and insight into the character of life—fiction, biography and personal experience. A study of all three reveals that life does indeed have a character of its own which at once transcends and expresses through each particular time and place, individual character and social circumstance. That character can be observed in the smallest as well as the most momentous events of our own lives. It shines through most strikingly in the literary works of  Shakespeare, Hugo, Dumas, Hardy, Austen and others of their kind.

What is this thing we so vaguely refer to as life? In Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo describes life as a universal force that expresses as the individual force maintaining each individual form or object in manifestation. It is the force that creates and preserves the form, defends its survival and energizes its growth. Although we view life in terms of many separate and individual lives, it is only one single, universal existence that we perceive as many. In its origin, life is the infinite, creative force that builds the worlds and inhabits them with forms of its own self-conception and creation. It is the conscious force of Sat, the Self-Conscious Being, the Pure Existence, the Divine Consciousness, the omnipresent reality.

But here in the physical vital world we live and act in, Life does not appear to us either as consciousness or as force. We do not generally attribute conscious awareness or intention to life, even though we often find occasions that seem to indicate a secret will or fate or determinism governing our lives. We do not think of life as consciously or even unconsciously acting upon us in certain ways or subconsciously responding to what we think, feel or do.

We do not generally think of life as a force either. We are aware only of many individual forms and forces acting around and upon us – the actions of other individuals, the influence of public opinion, the restrictive and protective action of social conventions, laws and social institutions, as well as the action of the material forces of nature – rain, wind, lightning, the hurricane or earthquake or meteor from outer space. Each seems to us driven by its own inner determinism or its own natural laws, but we do not normally perceive any master script or director or set of rules or unifying principle governing the whole play of life.

An objective and in-depth study of life will reveal that it does exhibit all the attributes of a universal force with a pronounced character of its own. So vast is the scope and so great the complexity of life’s character that it cannot be fully grasped by mental comprehension. Full knowledge of life reveals itself only to spiritual vision. Nevertheless, we can identify many of the general laws and principles by which it functions.

Science, religion, philosophy, and art all strive in different ways to reveal the ultimate nature of reality. Science focuses primarily and most successfully on physical facts in search for the laws and principles governing the formation of material objects and material forces, though its researches have now taken it to the borderline where the material opens out into more subtler domains of reality. Religion in its most exalted forms of spirituality focuses on inner spiritual experience to reveal that reality directly to the consciousness of the spiritual seeker. In its more mundane forms, it provides a set of tenets to govern human behavior in a manner that appears most conducive to social harmony and moral development. Philosophy focuses on the construction of a rational mental framework for understanding reality. But since mind’s linear mode of functioning rarely suffices to embrace the subtle and many-sided complexity of life movements, philosophy normally fails by abstraction to capture the object of its search.

That leaves art, of which literature is the most important for present purposes. Literary fiction is an effort to capture the deeper realities of life by focusing not only on material facts, moral principles and mental ideas, but by portraying the chains of action and reaction among and between individuals, society, the forces of nature and in some instances the subtle forces of other planes. Thoughts, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, emotions, sentiments, impulses, desires, aspirations, anxieties, fears and cravings expressed in action are the stuff of literature. Literature focuses on the meeting point between inner subjective intention and material and social results in the external world of living beings, between thought and action, between cause and consequence, between human character and the character of life.

It is true that all these aspects of life are much more directly known to us through our own personal experience, both internal and external. But the mind and human ego finds it extremely difficult to bring an impersonal objectivity and scientific disinterestedness to the study of one’s own life. Therefore, it is in literature that we can most readily and objectively discover the nature of life. And based on the principles discovered and confirmed in the writings of the greatest authors, extract principles that can then be applied and reconfirmed in our own lives to achieve not only self-knowledge and knowledge of life, but mastery of self and life as well.

In the papers on this web site, we examine the character of life as portrayed and revealed by some of the greatest writers of all time.

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