The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is a canon of American postmodern literature. In this thesis, the author firstly expounds the anguish of existence after elaborating on the fundamental concept “existence precedes essence” in Sartrean existentialism, and then discusses the anguish of meaninglessness and of alienation resulting from absence of essence and the absurdity of the world. Confronting anguish, the protagonist is forced to examine the state of her existence, thus realizing that she has to get rid of the condition of lacking meaning so as to achieve authentic existence.
In Sartrean existentialism, “free choice” is the prerequisite for choosing one’s state of existence. It is through “free choice” that the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49 chooses to escape from the inauthentic existence and tries to reconstruct a true self by breaking away from the oppression, confinement and conformity of industrialized civilization, through which she hopes to find the meaning of existence and live an authentic life. However, all the efforts made by the protagonist finally end in failure, which dashes her hope of reconstructing her identity.
The loss of identity plunges the protagonist into isolation and despair. Meanwhile, she can no longer expect to find the meaning of existence. What she has to face is chaos, disorder, void and absurdity of existence. Based on the above analysis, the author of the thesis draws the conclusion that The Crying of Lot 49 gives a thorough exhibition of the predicament of the human being in modern society. 1. Anguish of Existence “Existence precedes essence” is the fundamental point of Sartrean existentialism. On this basis Sartre builds his theory of freedom.
Human freedom is taken as the basic subject of existentialist philosophical analysis. According to Sartre, the human being has no pre-established essence or nature that can define what it is to be a real human being. There is no given rule that can confine human beings. This basic thinking of existentialism reveals the unstable situation of individuals as well as the astonished feeling of human beings in the modern world in which changes in science, technology and society are drastic, especially after World War II.
Being in a society whose development and changes are rapid and uncontrollable, people feel universally that the whole world and the society are absurd and hostile, growing bewildered for the loss of significance of life. Existentialism is a philosophy that tries expounding such situation, using its own unique theory. In general, Sartre’s predication “existence precedes essence” brings us to the critical point where traditional truth we believed for a long time about existence and essence collapse, which forces us to reevaluate everything that we took for granted, subverts our preconceptions and shocks us into a new awareness about life.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the most influential existentialist philosopher, has “probed into the meaning of being through the deep recess of man’s anxious and restless soul” (Stumpf 476). Now that all the preconceptions and established values are subverted in Sartrean existentialism, there is nothing left for the human being to rely on in order to exist in the world. However, this situation does not mean that there is nothing man can do to achieve his existence. Actually, according to Sartre, the human being can exist by choosing freely.
In Sartrean existentialism freedom is reasonless. It simply enters into one’s world no matter he is willing or not. The absolute freedom leaves man in a state that he can do anything and be anything to the extent that he does not know where to start or what to do. Being faced with the absolute freedom, the human being encounters anguish when he senses that his choice “is original and cannot be justified by reasons” outside of his own choice (Yu 50). He will always enter upon “self-questioning concerning the rightness of the choice” (Yu 50).
As a result, man is thrown into the dazzling situation in which he must face up to his groundless and formless “indefinite existence” (Yu 59). In Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, it is exactly anguish that urges the heroine Oedipa Maas to choose and to act. At the beginning of the novel, Oedipa Maas is prompted by anguish of meaninglessness and alienation to take actions and make choices. The whole novel unfolds surrounding the efforts made by Oedipa to conquer her anguish. The anguish of meaninglessness is foremost “anguish about the loss of an ultimate concern of a meaning, which gives meaning to all meanings.
This anguish is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence” (Paul 47). Oedipa’s situation exactly embodies what Sartrean existentialism argues, that is, the human being is thrown into the absurd world, in which life “appears to be meaningless, without purpose or destiny, haunted by a bleak nothingness that no theological or rational assumptions can allay” (Ronald 13). No wonder Thomas Schaub regards the novel as “a tragic account of the difficulty of human action in a world whose meanings are always either our own or just beyond our reach” (Schaub 31).
In The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon depicts all alienated world in which people are grotesque, lonely, and even crazy. The heroine Oedipa Maas is the person who witnesses the alienation of her surrounding world and people around her and experiences her own alienation. For the existentialists alienation is “evoked by an absurd universe, silent in regard to passionate human questioning” (Gorden 5). In The Crying of Lot 49, it is the alienation of the world and herself that prompts the heroine to seek an authentic existence to resist the absurd universe. 2.
Free Choice and Choosing to Escape from Inauthentic Existence In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa realizes the absurdity of existence and confronts the anguish of existence, which urges her to employ free choice to escape from the inauthentic existence and thus reconstructing a new true self. In Sartrean existentialism, free choice is the most basic and important premise for establishing one’s authentic existence because man exists only through his free choices. There is no pre-existent essence or conception, therefore it is determined by each individual that what he is.
In his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism Sartre expounds: What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards…. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself…, man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. (qtd. in Sartre, existentialism 369) Thus the human being is thrown into the state of being purely and absolutely free. No matter what he is, he chooses it by himself.
And what’s more, to atheistic existentialism, of which Sartre is a representative, God does not exist, so the human being is provided with no values or commands that could legitimize his behavior, which results in the situation that there is no luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. Moreover, not only does the human being have complete freedom to make himself, but he has no other choice but to do so. “Freedom is the freedom of choosing but not the freedom of not choosing. Not to choose is, in fact, to choose not to choose” (Sartre, existentialism 481).
That is the reason why Sartre declares: “Man cannot escape choosing” (Sartre, existentialism 481). According to Sartre, however, the human being is endowed with infinite freedom. Free choice enables people to escape from inauthentic existence. In Sartrean existentialism, the way of overcoming an inauthentic existence is “to modify one’s inauthentic existence by embarking on a project of self-transformation” (Douglas 45), and this transformation means to exercise free choice and to choose the activities and goals that will be meaningful for one’s existence.
Oedipa, once realizes again that she is imprisoned and insulated from her true existence, sets her mind on finding her true existence. Her first step is to abandon the false identity of housewife which she adopted before so as to reconstruct a true self, which is realized through her execution of the will of Inverarity. The name, “Pierce Inverarity,” implies that Inverarity will take Oedipa out of the state of being buffered and insulated, for Pierce Call be also understood as “pierce. Oedipa, who is previously locked in passivity or willessness, insulates herself from the real world and her true existence by going shopping, attending parties and gardening. Her understanding of the world is woven by herself just as Varo’s painting depicts. However, by accepting executorship of Inverarity’s will, Oedipa gets her life “pierced by Inverarity’s will” which later exposes her the worlds that have been invisible to her (Katherine 102).
With the awareness that there are endless possibilities for her to live a new life, Oedipa starts to struggle to acquire knowledge, hoping that will give some shape to her understanding of the world and of her being in the world. Oedipa, after realizing that she is insulated from her true existence, starts to seek her true existence, which is realized by reconstructing a true self. This reconstruction is fulfilled through the establishment of her true identity.
At the beginning of the novel, Pynchon depicts the plight of Oedipa who has been playacting within a self-conceived fairy tale that has fostered the illusion of escape when indeed the tower has contributed to her isolation. Having no capacity to escape from the tower, Oedipa chooses to assimilate into the void outside the tower by acting the role of a typical housewife, with which “comes the loss of identity” (Newman 72). And this acting leads to her immersion in bad faith. According to Sartre, the human being is the one “who can take negative attitudes with respect to himself” (Sartre, bing 47).
When Oedipa perceives through Varo’s painting that the outside world is woven by herself and thus she is responsible for it, she retreats from her responsibility and falls into bad faith, acting as a housewife. But “this acting of a role…comes to threaten and coerce one as if it were a real entity menacing one from outside” (Yu 36), therefore, Oedipa regards herself “as merely a passive subject of outside influence” (Yu 103), feeling that there is nothing she call do except that “fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey” (12).
Since she adopts a false identity of housewife, the sense of alienation is caused. That is why later Oedipa feels that she is separated from her real self, her nature and her consciousness. Once she senses her anguish of her alienation and her insulation from her true existence, Oedipa makes up her mind to discard her previous false identity so that she can observe the world in a totally new angle of view, whereupon she accepts the executorship of Inverarity’s will and sets out on her quest to San Narciso.
In his celebrated lecture Existentialism in a Humanism, Sartre declares: “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is” (Sartre, existentialism 358). In order to overcome the inauthentic existence and achieve the real sell Oedipa embarks on her project of self-transformation by taking the task of executing Inverarity’s will.
After having a conversation with her lawyer Roseman who implies that she may be interested in what she might find out in executing the will, Oedipa feels that she is “to have all manner of revelation” about what remains yet has “somehow, before this, stayed away” (10). Inverarity’s will gives her the hope that she can find the long-absent intensity of her life. So she transforms herself into the executrix, expecting that she Call reveal the hidden meaning of the world which seems to be insulated from her or at least explain part of the meaning of the world, thereof she can get the possibility of reconstructing her true self.
As to this point, some critics have made penetrating comments. In “The Quest for Metaphor in The Crying of Lot 49,” Robert D. Newman argues that “Oedipa tries to make sense of her world and, in doing so, restores meaning to her sense of self” (Newman 85). Robert Sklar, in World Literature Criticism, comments: “Pynchon’s protagonists typically undertake vague yet elaborate quest to discover their identities and to find meaning and order in their lives” (Robert 2838).
In the process of executing Pierce’s will, Oedipa tries her best to acquire a new understanding of herself and of the surrounding world so as to discard the inauthentic existence and reconstruct a true sell. 3. Failure in Self-Reconstruction and Return to Absurdity of Existence In Sartrean existentialism, “human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible” (Sartre, bing 25), which reflects the central position of freedom in human life. According to Sartre, “there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free” (Sartre, bing 25).
Freedom is inherent in the human being, which brings about the situation that everything is permitted. Being faced with this situation, man feels deeply that he is completely forlorn, since he cannot find anything to rely on. The reason and meaning of his existence and of his all actions are determined by him. Outside himself there is no ultimate meaning, purpose or values for him to consult. Man can only defined by his own actions. What man has to face is sheer freedom which urges him to take action to render significance to his life.
However, given the absolute freedom, the human being inevitably encounters anguish of meaninglessness, since he can depend on nothing to direct or legitimize his action. There is no ultimate meaning which can render him any purpose or significance. Once being faced with the absence of ground and ultimate purpose, man experiences the absurdity of the world in that there is nothing that can explain the reason why the human being exists in the world. In a word, human beings are encircled by absolute absurdity resulting from absence of essence and lack of significance.
In The Crying of Lot 49, in order to eliminate the sense of absurdity and get the possibility of living authentically, Oedipa Maas sets out to execute Inverarity’s will. Her attempt is mainly realized by reconstructing a true self. In this process, she manages to gather as many clues as possible by questing, communicating, and sorting, hoping that through her efforts to establish order in the outside world, she can discover the concealed meaning of the world.
However, she finally discerns that her attempts are futile, since all the information and clues that she gathers lead her into an intricate labyrinth in which she can neither find an exit, nor find anyone who would show her an exit. The world she wanders into is totally disordered and absurd. What is worse is that she has to face the reality that it is through her action that the disordered and absurd world is revealed to her. She cannot find anyone to explain the reason why the world is like this. In the end, she returns to the state that the world is meaningless and absurd and that she is alienated.
In a word, Oedipa’s efforts to reconstruct a true self fail, which results in her discovery of the absurdity of existence. To counter the previous inauthentic existence and to reconstruct a true self Oedipa, in investigating Inverarity’s estate, does her best to establish new understanding of the world and of herself by setting a new order to replace the illusory one that she previously took for granted. In this process of self-reconstructing, Oedipa tries to acquire as much information as she can by questing, communicating with others, and sorting.
However, she eventually realizes that no matter how hard she tries, she is doomed to fail. According to Sartre, the world is absurd in that the human being is thrown into the world without any essence or meaning prior to his existence. Therefore, meanings are produced and imposed on the world by human beings themselves. It is freedom of choice that makes human beings’ action of projecting meaning feasible. Since “existence precedes essence,” there are no pre-established rules which can restrain or legitimize human behavior, thus the human being is totally free.
This unconditioned freedom renders the human being opportunity to give meaning to the world through his choices and actions. At the same time, it also demands that the human being take the responsibility for his choice and action, since it is he who renders meanings to the world. The present thesis examines the strenuous efforts made by the protagonist of the existentialist perspectives: “freedom,” “free choice,” and “absurdity. ” The protagonist first confronts anguish of existence resulting from meaninglessness and alienation.
To get rid of the absurdity of existence and to achieve authentic existence, she struggles to search for a true self through free choice, rebelling against monolithic sterility and uniformity. Wandering in the labyrinth of the world, the protagonist tries her best to find her way to authentic existence, however, her efforts are proved to be futile, which leads to her being engulfed by despair and her return to absurdity of existence. The Crying of Lot 49 gives a thorough exhibition of the predicament of the human being in modern society.
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