A Retrospective: Human Nature in Literature

By Lillian Murphy

In life, since I am a relatively deep thinker and someone who enjoys good stories, I often think about the intricacies of reasoning when it comes to making integral life choices. As a society, we have a propensity to ask why. In this article, I will indicate the many sides of this subject shown in literature and how it landed some unlucky participants in overwhelmingly hot water. Now, I introduce to you my picks for a few examples depicting morals and human nature in literature that stood out to me. Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead for the pieces discussed in this list, if you don’t want to get spoiled please feel free to stop reading here, and skip to either the story or stories you have read before. If you would like to read any of these stories in their entirety, just click on the title to see the full PDF document. Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

We start the adventure with The Most Dangerous Game, a short story written by Richard Connell in 1924. The story follows two-game hunters named Rainsford and his friend Whitney as they sail on a yacht for a hunting endeavor, Whitney spots a strange island with an even more bizarre backstory. Rainsford falls off the yacht and what happens next, he couldn’t have guessed.

One of my favorite quotes from the story is “Who cares how a jaguar feels?” (Connell, 1). Not just because this statement would come back to haunt Rainsford later on but also because it shows how black and white he views the world. Along with a sense of arrogance concerning the jaguar and other things. I love the ambiguity of the ending and the way the story displays greed, tying it all into a suspense-filled narrative that will leave you wondering about parts even after you finished it. I also enjoy how it explores the concept of fear, it really is an interesting read all around. If you haven’t already read it, it’s a great story and trust me you won’t want to put it down. Another quote that got me thinking was when Rainsford states “Ugh! It’s like moist black velvet” (Connell, 1). To me, that elicits a visceral reaction that draws you in and that’s what I believe a good story should do. That alone, sets up just how invested in the plot the reader will become as the story progresses. That progression is enhanced as we meet more people with interesting and vague pasts. The last quote that I will talk about is “Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter” (Connell, 6). This quote comes from the antagonist and demonstrates that he believes he was given the divine right to hunt. It is similar in terms of the self-centered tone when comparing it to Rainsford’s earlier comment. This story was the introduction to a deeper dive when it comes to the idea that your destination may not truly be where you want to end up. This undesired outcome subsequently makes you sacrifice what you have for your end goal. Sometimes that doesn’t work out and this theme is echoed throughout all of the literary pieces that I will discuss.

The second literary piece I would like to talk about is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The whirlwind begins with Nick Carraway. Who is the narrator, and neighbor to Gatsby. Jay Gatsby is a young, affluent, millionaire enigma who throws gigantic parties all of the time. The reader follows Nick and many other characters as he attempts to figure out who Jay really is when all of the booze and elaborate spectacles fade away. What he discovers I was completely shocked by when I first read the story.

It is the book that made me feel invested in the characters immensely, and is a staple of English classrooms. It carries themes of love, lust, destiny, loss and so many others. It is a story with many notable quotes and characters. One of the first lines that resonated with me was not a quote but an action. When Tom Buchanan, the next imperative person in this saga closes the back windows as Nick first comes to his house on pages 10 and 11. This seemingly subtle choice shows that Tom is not a fan of change therefore by doing it, he is keeping everything the same. Further keeping control of the situation Control is definitely a huge part of Tom’s character as well and he doesn’t like it when he loses it. I share the same sentiment as Tom when talking about change. However, as I continued to read I soon realized how damaging this ideology can be. That’s why even though I still have a bit of disdain towards change. I try to remind myself to open up new windows of opportunity. That lesson has stuck with me months after reading the book. The next thing that stood out to me is the quote “Why of course you can”  (Fitzgerald, 117). This is a later comment made by Gatsby to Nick in response to a conversation between them about the past. This is a statement that represents how deep Gatsby has bought into the thought of the rose-colored glasses and this was the first time that I noticed the notion of liking or loving the idea of someone, rather than the actual person. As a result of this piece of his mindset and other aspects of his life, he had an intense level of toxicity within his relationship with the supposed “love” of his life. Lastly, the quote that I only realized after the fact was ”Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead” (Fitzgerald, 172). I only understood the gravity of this saying after the loss of a friend and how lonely the book’s namesake was even with the parties he hosts.  On top of that, Jay never totally let his act fade for anyone excluding perhaps who he thought held the key to his heart. For all that Gatsby was and pretended to be in the end; all he wanted was love, acceptance, and respect. The only problem was that he eventually turned love into lust, acceptance into deep denial, and respect into greed ultimately culminating in his naivety and definitely not what he pictured as his destiny. At that point, readers would know that what he dreamt of was not feasible. I took a lot from this story, you know the author has done something right when you can see different parts of your personality in the characters, and fully understand most of the decisions made in the narrative itself. Even if you don’t agree with them. I began to notice multiple points spoken about in Fitzgerald’s work like how the storyline is constructed and what makes a story interesting in other movies and books. By acknowledging these concepts, it aided me in having more appreciation for what I read and watched thereafter. I learned knowledgeable tools in a way that didn’t make me feel like an idiot if I didn’t Initially get something. When I did, it was exciting because I could comprehend it more profoundly and explain it to other people. One of the magical things about English is the ability to have a dialogue among a group of people. The Great Gatsby gave me that and I’m thankful for it. 

The next literary piece I will be exploring is William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Macbeth, I will be referencing the no fear modern English SparkNotes version. The titular character is a Scottish general who embraces multiple philosophies given to him by three witches, that state he would soon become king. He internalizes this ideology and it leads down a dark path powered by a deep-seated sense of ambition and need for control. It really does make you question just how far a person is willing to go to get to the top of the totem pole. This is another piece that is very common in English classrooms and theater. 

The starting quote that sets up the play is “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (Shakespeare, 1.1). This phrase is a motif woven throughout the story. The saying means that good is bad and in turn bad is good. Notably becoming one of the prominent building blocks that Shakespeare uses to indicate the declining mental health of Macbeth and how easily he could be influenced by the people around him. The second quote that I would like to highlight is said during a heated conversation between Macbeth and his wife before the death of King Duncan. She says “when you dared to do it, that’s when you were a man” (Shakespeare, 1.7). In this declaration she is essentially calling her husband a scaredy-cat; it also exemplifies the beginning of the mental manipulation after the king’s death. Initially, he fought with the feeling of guilt after the murder. That remorse will disappear as we move forward in the play. The final quote I am going to reference for this section is “Let this anger sharpen your sword” (Shakespeare, 4.3). This line is spoken by Malcolm after Macduff finds out the brutal demise of his family, it shows that it’s ok to be vulnerable as a man. It is normal to go through the grieving process, it doesn’t mean you are less than any other person just because you decide to be emotional. It’s a nice reversal from what is expected and definitely motivated Macduff to fight even harder. As we all know Shakespeare’s plays almost always end up with a cruel ending. This play taught a considerable amount of lessons in ambition, selfishness, power, and manipulation. All of which gave rise to death, mental deterioration, and a host of other irreparable consequences. In other words, just horrible things. Yet, with the bad also comes the good, the play shows a powerful dynamic of friendship involving Macduff and Malcolm when helping the latter through a devastating loss. Another good lesson born from this tragic story is the way it implements the swapping of gender expectations by displaying that men can be sensitive and that women are not always so dainty, proving they can hold their own. Overall, the play is one of many exceptional achievements by William Shakespeare, with a number of interesting and thought-provoking subjects that would be sure to start an insightful conversation.

The fourth story I am going to concentrate on is All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds. The reader meets two central teenage characters. First, we are introduced to Rashad, a young black man who is wrongfully accused of stealing and subsequently becomes a victim of police brutality at the hands of a white officer. A chapter later we meet Quinn, a white young man who comes into the picture as one of the witnesses to the act of violence done to Rashad and is best friends with the officer’s brother. The book unfolds as both boys try to navigate the tricky maze of a divided town and the blunders of growing up. 

This piece tackles many hot button topics that are extremely evident in the world at the moment such as racial discrimination injustice, lack of accountability in law enforcement, police brutality, how the media can sometimes hinder more than help, and a list full of others. This is another glaring reminder that as a nation we need to do better, have tough discussions, and demand change now. Here are some quotes from the book that intrigued me and started talks that almost lasted 2 hours between friends. The first quote I would like to look into is “And how many times have I told you and Spoony, I mean, since y’all were young we’ve been going over this. Never fight back. Never talk back. Keep your hands up. Keep your mouth shut. Just do what they ask you to do, and you’ll be fine’” (Kiely, Reynolds, 30). This statement comes after Rashad ends up in the hospital after suffering some broken bones including internal injuries and it shows the kinds of conversations that sadly happen between families of color. While also demonstrating a fracture in the relationship between Rashad and his father. The additional quote I will be addressing next is “Sometimes, when people get treated as less than human, the best way to help them feel better is to simply treat them as human. Not as victims. Just you as you (Kiely, Reynolds, 132). This line displays that people who have been through traumatic events don’t want to be seen as just a victim even though they were one, and that looking at them through that lens doesn’t help them or you at all. When it comes down to it, people want to be seen as who they are now and not for what they have endured in the past. To finish off this section, the last quote I want to bring to your attention is “Hand pushing through the teenage boy’s chest” (Kiely, Reynolds, 80). When I read this at first I thought nothing of it, but as I spoke with friends about it the symbolism became more clear to me. This saying represents that Rashad feels like the moment the violence occurred, he was not considered by the officer to be a person anymore. Instead, he was a criminal who through this horrific experience got his identity and soul taken away. Moreover, this feeling left him thinking that he was only the dirt under the officer’s shoe. As a whole, this book is a powerful and needed story written brilliantly, which shines a respectful and strong light on the problems in society today.

My final installment on this list is a collection of short stories titled The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The collection chronicles the stories of a group of men who are fighting in the Vietnam War, it tells of the hardships and camaraderie between these soldiers as they deal with their circumstances. 

Firstly, I would like to open up this section by taking a look at the line “They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant” (The Things They Carried 2). These letters gave Jimmy the drive to keep going even if the love connection didn’t run both ways. However, this hope makes him delusional in a sense as the story continues. Which is similar to the dysfunction and partial enamorment in Gatsby’s relationship. Although some of how the Lieutenant showed his affection are outlandish and creepy at times, still this sentence promotes something to look forward to in a harsh setting. Moving on, the author later notes “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (The Things They Carried 7). This observation signifies that in war, you are not solely sharing physical weight but emotional weight too. That consequently builds a bond of brotherhood that can be as strong as a concrete wall. The next point I want to discuss is in the remark “You knew where you stood. You knew the score” (Spin 31). The game brings comfort to the men, they don’t need to worry because everything is laid out in front of them. This relief allows the young men to be with each other and tune out the world. Plus it reinforces their trust as a team. The other quote I’ll talk about is “As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you” (Spin 33). This description is appealing to me because it tells the reader about the author’s thought process when writing, and is used as a coping mechanism for PTSD from the war. It’s very similar to the method that I use when thinking of a new piece. I have often found it difficult to explain to other people how I come up with the subjects that I choose, this new approach made it easier to show people my own stories. Also, it provided another perspective to improve my craft in a new way and it was fascinating for me. 

In conclusion, these stories show the reader a wide spectrum of what it means to be human, have flaws, and how the morals in our lives can affect our actions and who we are. From the representations of change and control in The Most Dangerous Game and The Great Gatsby to the difficult and heartbreaking moments in All American Boys and The Things They Carried, and finally the portrayal of toxic relationships in Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth. These works highlight the vast scale of human nature and make the convoluted puzzle of life a centerpiece for honest exchanges between people to learn from. I honestly don’t know what I enjoyed better; what I was learning, or the people I was learning with. Regardless, I will always be grateful for those times and that’s what I love the most. I hope that you liked the list and maybe found something new to read or reread.

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