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Pandora's Thrush - Where is Hope in Fiction?
by Margie Ruthledge

The whereabouts of hope have always been contested. The dissident versions of Pandora's Box is but one example.

As we all know, Pandora was created by the gods as a perfect beauty, her name meaning "the gift of all". To that perfection was added an insatiable curiosity. And to pique this curiosity, as was their sport, the Immortals presented Pandora with a box and strict instructions not to open it. Then they sent her down to earth. All accounts of the myth agree on Pandora's transgression: despite the warning, Pandora lifts the lid, releasing all misery and evil, until then unknown to man, into the world. But the tellings diverge at this point. Some versions have Pandora slamming the lid just in time to keep hope inside-the argument there being that the unleashed miseries would have put an end to hope. Another version has hope released: it flutters out, trailing the swarm of miseries, to offer consolation to a humanity beset with misfortune.

In "Pandora's Last Gift" (User Friendly), Spider Robinson holds to the second version: the gift of hope is in the world. His essay, which traces personal and public experiences of hope, quotes Neils Bohr: "The opposite of an ordinary truth is a non-truth; but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth." Robinson then goes on to say: "Yes: sometimes Life sucks-that's a profound truth. The flip side is: sometimes it sucks rather well..."

I agree with Robinson. In life, hope exists alongside the miseries Pandora released: we hear of cowardice-and courage; we experience greed-and generosity; we witness exploitation-and compassion.

As a writer, I ruminate on what it is I wish to release into the world, as if somehow all artists are in possession of Pandora's power. And, as a reader, I look to literature as a gift from others-a gift that reflects what it is to be a human being and what it is to live in the world.

And yet contemporary literary fiction is teeming with misery. The "adult truths" of fiction are bleak, despairing, nihilistic, and cynical at best. Incest is rampant, marriage, a prison, and friendship, betrayal.

Via email, Robinson tells me, "All too much of art, these days, seems to consist of eloquent, expressive, articulate... and unceasing... screams of pain. I don't care how genuine it is, or how elegantly expressed. I want it to stop. For Christ's sake, bite the bullet."

So many writers seem to have heard only the first version of Pandora's Box: hope remains trapped inside, never making it into a first draft, let alone a book tour. On the printed page, where do we see a starry night, experience the miracle of another sunrise, hear a bird in song? Where is hope in fiction?

The answers are various; the locations of hope are as individual as the horizon.

But, to begin, reading itself can be an act of hope.

When my seven-year-old reads his beloved Redwall books, he likes to sprawl out on the couch and abandon himself to the words in front of him. He'll fidget his socks off to get really comfortable and then he's gone. He'll read a poem out loud, unaware if anyone is even there to hear it, and sometimes he laughs so hard he rolls right off the couch, to be suddenly reminded of his physical reality. With an open heart he gives himself completely to the imagination of a stranger.

All readers share this experience: we enter imaginary worlds always open. Trusting. Full of hope.

Readers seek an unknown reality and are eager visitors. But sometimes the hospitality we encounter is perplexing. Our hosts are humourless, without compassion, and resistant to any sense of joy, and we are left, in the end and frequently throughout, feeling somehow reduced, occasionally angry. If the act of reading is an act of hope, the experience isn't necessarily so. Certainly there has to be hope somewhere.

Jane Urquhart (The Underpainter) describes herself as "a committed reader". From her home in County Kerry, Ireland, she tells me that, if ever forced to choose between reading and writing, she would choose the former.

For Urquhart, the most satisfying books-and she gives Wuthering Heights as an example-are often the bleakest. Her fascination with Ireland has much to do with its "lyrical investigation of horrible things": "The Irish have always celebrated sorrows more than victories; their long sagas are always about loss. A sad story is often a moving story. You know you're alive when reading something sad or tragic. It's a most vivid experience."

She adds that there has been bleakness in the imagined world since the beginning of storytelling. However, "there's something in us now that can't absorb it. It's as if we're afraid of the dark."

"Fiction at its best," declares Urquhart, "reflects vices, weaknesses, sorrows, and joys-the course of lives in both the singular and collective unconscious. Fiction is an exploration of coming to consciousness. This act of paying attention is good for the soul."

Linda Spalding, whose most recent book, The Follow, is non-fiction, expresses a similar attitude: "The point is that we make stories. Stories involve and imply communication and future, therefore, hope. Stories may have to teach us about terrible things because terrible things exist, but we are hopeful enough about changing the human condition to tell the stories."

So the telling of a story, no matter what the story, is itself an act of hope.

At least it is for writers.

Spider Robinson proposes that hope in fiction lies in "the act of writing it. In the blind, obstinate belief that despite everything the editor, publisher, typesetter, bookseller, and critic can do, despite the absence of any possibility of unemployment insurance, pension or retirement, somehow the rent will continue to get paid... and perhaps, even some small portion of What One Meant To Say will get through to a reader or two."

Jane Urquhart agrees: "I believe hope in fiction exists in people continuing to create novels and plays and narrative poetry. People continue to create and people continue to be enriched and satisfied by reading."

Tomson Highway (Kiss of the Fur Queen) offers another perspective: "One creates art to come to terms with the human condition, to put chaos into a semblance of order. There is a certain magic, a point where the story chooses you, unbidden. It springs out like a self-contained entity. To not listen to such a voice is despair, but to listen, to assent, is an act of hope."

If hope is in the act of writing, then how far into the writing does hope go?

Jane Urquhart acknowledges that hope does matter and that hopelessness is "a dire way to lead one's life". However, she is adamant when she says that "I don't believe that people should sit down to bring hope to mankind. If you approach writing with a motive, you are unlikely to create a work of art."

Tomson Highway does not share this view. "Hope is the be-all and the end-all of all human experience," he insists. "All my work has to do with hope. My favourite story is about people born into the world with disadvantages who come out victorious. It is important that no matter what happens, whatever setback and defeat, we ultimately see the resilience of the human spirit. Even when the hero dies, his spirit and his cause live on. An example of this is Louis Riel, whose spirit lives on a hundred, two hundred, a thousand times bigger than anyone who defeated him."

Paul Quarrington (The Spirit Cabinet) reminds me that one of his books is entitled The Life of Hope. "That's why I write. There has to be some indication in most fiction that life is fuller and more rewarding than we somehow think. Writing most books is a product of faith. You have to think it will make some difference to someone. I believe by making people laugh, I'm setting them adrift for hope and wonder."

"Writers have a moral responsibility," maintains Quarrington. "My responsibilities are to try to improve things in some small way, to eradicate hopelessness even in one or two readers. I can give individuals worlds they're not imagining, but are open to. When you're hauling your butt out of bed every day to write a book, you'd better think it's making a difference."

Spider Robinson decided to write science fiction precisely because he wanted to write about hope. "One of the things I like best about science fiction is that it's the only genre with hope at its very core. Its basic root assumption is that there will be a future-of some kind or other. This was of enormous comfort to those of us who grew up during the Cold War, amid the universal assumption that the end of the world was imminent."

In "Pandora's Last Gift", Robinson recalls a startling image: "Anything is possible. I once saw a man ski through a revolving door. There is going to be a future: let's chase it until it kills us."

Robinson is as committed to hope in life as he is to hope in literature, for despair is contagious. "I have noticed that despairing people solve no problems, and often generate them faster than their more responsible brethren can solve them. Worse, despair is catching. Not being hopeful is a little like not covering your mouth when you sneeze in public. Hope is one of maybe half a dozen things that make life endurable-the others being laughter, awe, orgasm, music, and coffee."

Asked whether or not people have to decide to hope, Tomson Highway replies, "I believe we're all born with a fate. Our life is mapped and about fifty per cent of what happens is inevitable. The other fifty per cent depends on our willpower, how we navigate the passage, and the choices we make. Happiness is a matter of personal choice, just as despair is a choice. Heaven and hell are right here on earth."

Earlier, Highway suggested that creating art puts chaos into a semblance of order; other writers view the absence of chaos as a sign of hope.

Short-story writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer ("The Vastness of the Lie") says, "Apart from the theme, the technique of fiction with its lyricism and poetry in prose, is hopeful. It moves me to read a sentence that's well put together. A sentence that is well-wrought and lacks confusion and chaos-which is the opposite of hope-gives me enormous amounts of hope."

Mystery writer L.R. Wright (Acts of Murder) moves from style to content when discussing the chaos/hope polarity: "Among the written and unwritten rules of writing mystery fiction, I consistently honour only one: that order will have been restored to my fictional community at the end of every book. This is not to say that the criminal must be caught and/or punished, and it is definitely not to say that the ending must be happy-only that the chaos created by the criminal activity in the novel will have been calmed. I suppose this might be another way of saying that hope will have been restored."

Wright says that she doesn't feel the same responsibility to restore order when she writes mainstream fiction, though she does acknowledge that all fiction necessarily concerns itself with hope, or the lack of it, because hope is such a significant aspect of the human psyche.

Kit Pearson (Awake and Dreaming) stresses that hope in any kind of fiction lies in "compassion, courage, survival, a celebration of life; in the details."

A writer for children, Pearson is currently working on a novel for adults which has a protagonist named Hope. Yet Pearson says she's looking forward to finishing the book and writing again for children: "The older you get, the less idealistic you are. Hope lies in adjusting and accepting, when you realize `this is it'. Children have more possibility for happiness because they have their whole lives ahead of them. It's easier to give them hope and it's irresponsible not to. Writers are very influential and have to be aware of that when they're writing." She quotes a former teacher of children's fiction, Jill Payton Walsh: "It's not fair to give children the despair that is the adults' fault."

"I don't believe in perfect endings and I don't like sentimental endings. Children's books can be very bleak, but the difference is that they don't end that way. They follow a folktale pattern with a satisfying-not a perfect-ending."

Pearson describes a satisfying ending as one that offers a sense of possibility, and she particularly enjoys it when her readers write to her with their own versions of endings because it shows "[t]he books are still going on in their heads."

In talking with these writers, I was fascinated by the variety of reference points for hope. I wondered if the need for hope, and even its diversity, is tied as much to the accident of temperament as anything else. And then I was asked to answer my own question: Where is hope in fiction?

For me, hope in fiction lies in moments of connection: connection to another human being, to a landscape, to the spirit. Imaginary worlds cast the light of truth on our world. We realize we are not alone. We acknowledge the grace of being human and this consciousness eclipses-for a moment, perhaps longer-the harshness of living in the world. I believe this recognition gives promise that these moments of reprieve are possible and even probable, if not inevitable.

I asked all the writers I interviewed what they read in the sleepless hours between 2 and 5 a.m., which for me (an insomniac) is definitely a time in need of hope. Paul Quarrington says he rarely has troubles sleeping, but if so, "I'd go downstairs and read Thomas Hardy's poem `The Darkling Thrush' and have a glass of single malt whisky."

The poem, dated December 31, 1900, has the narrator describe a desolate winter sunset, the landscape reflecting "The Century's corpse outleant". All other human beings have fled indoors, and "every spirit upon earth/Seemed fervorless as I". And then, at once, the narrator hears a voice:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

Whether or not one hears the thrush and recognizes its song, it is with us, somewhere, singing, as it flutters above Pandora's Box. 

Margie Rutledge's first novel, The Great Laundry Adventure, (for children) has recently been published by Napoleon Publishing.


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