“It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Fiction can often seem like grasping at straws, trying desperately to possess some understanding of inexplicable forces. Is it a stepping stone to spirituality? Or a doorway to it? Can reading fiction ever be mindful? Or is it dirty escapism, distracting us from the moment where we might truly live? Once you’ve remembered the meaning of life, why search for that meaning in the confused words of fiction… Or might we uncover our own truth through a protagonist’s search for theirs?
Here are 8 quotes from some classic fiction to help you decide.
- “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” ~ George Orwell, 1984
There are just so many quotes from the brilliant 1984 it was hard to choose one, but this one sent a shiver down my spine so I knew it would hit the spot. Orwell does; through his painfully facetious rhetoric, what many social narrators struggle to do through direct analysis of political systems. Through spinning his meta-fictional world of 1984, where Big Brother is watching you, always, he created an eerily accurate depiction of our modern world. And so everyone who hasn’t read it must educate themselves in this harrowing but brilliant modern classic, and anyone who has read it might want to leaf through it again.
- “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God!” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
The poet recognizes their life is an expression of the Whole, and that if they work on their skill they might be able to successfully capture some fragment of life. Did Dostoyevsky I wonder? Despite not being from his existentialist novel, Notes From The Underground, this quote highlights how the ramblings of the stream of consciousness any writer employs, if done artfully, can tap in to the collective consciousness and uncover certain gems of truth. It sounds as if it comes directly from the pen of Sufi mysticism, embedded in the heart of a novel.
- “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” ~ Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or The Whale
The public’s love of 19th century call-to-adventure stories for all ages was captured by this classic, Moby Dick, a novel inspired by Melville’s own experiences at sea. Perhaps it was so memorable because of Melville’s main character, Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest to kill the white whale.
It’s not only this obsession that draws us to Ahab, but the monomaniacal extremes of his character that presents him as damned and fated to be dragged to the bottom of the sea. Brutal, but very much a portrait of someone embracing life and making their mark and becoming a legend.
- “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Again, what made Wuthering Heights stand out was this doomed fusion of souls; a fate of the outsider and anti-heroes of Victorian society. Heathcliff’s life journey in particular reveals the shaping of an enemy, and how any society creates opposition through our unscrupulous prejudices and projections on to those who we perceive to be different from us.
They had been together for centuries, and not even Cathy’s desire to be normal could tear them apart. In fact, it may have been her desire to be normal that cursed them in the first place. For when we go against ourselves, we create a life of suffering.
- “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
When all else fails, when you come out of the other side of depression or trauma, sometimes simplicity is the final wrung of the ladder to pull yourself back in to daylight. I am, I am, I am could be likened to I am that I am, God’s response to Moses when asked for ‘his’ name or I am that; a non-dualistic theory of the self that can be found in Hinduism and a universal mantra for dissolving the false self.
Plath’s one novel presents this break down of the false self as it buckles under the pressures to succeed and deliver to the expectations around her. Esther Greenwood mirrors Plath’s own descent into depression and, although Plath’s protagonist recovers, Plath committed suicide just one month after publication of this classic.
- “Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” ~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s famous character contemplating death, inviting the reader to ponder their own. Woolf’s innovative style has been very much revered by critics and historians, precisely for her stream of consciousness flow that examines her character’s inner world and emotions in a real-time framework that allows us to enjoy a rare insight into ourselves and others.
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us” – Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities
Everything has its pros and cons. A Tale of Two Cities is often thought of as Dicken’s best novel and this opening line is famous for both its length and brilliance. This historical fiction parallels London, although it has been said that “Dickens lived in London. In his book A Tale of Two Cities, based on the French Revolution, we see that he really could not write a tale of two cities. He was a resident of just one city: London.” J. L Borges.
However, Dickens does champion the poor and attack the brutality of English law through his portrait of French ones. He is seen as a genius who has created some of the world’s best loved characters.
- “The hand descended. Nearer and nearer it came. It touched the ends of his upstanding hair. He shrank down under it. It followed down after him, pressing more closely against him. Shrinking, almost shivering. He still managed to hold himself together. It was a torment, this hand that touched him and violated his instinct. He could not forget in a day all the evil that had been wrought him at the hands of men.” ~ Jack London, White Fang
Jack London’s allegorical novel of the animalistic and violent urges inherent within us and how they might be tamed with love and understanding. White fang, the hybrid wolf-dog becomes a victim of the assumptions placed upon his nature and acts them out, breeding more violence and suffering in the first half of his life.
“An allegory of humanity’s progression from nature to civilization,” (Tom Feller) White Fang is a must read for anyone exploring their own brand of inner civilization, it also being a heart-warming tale of love conquers all.
So many more could be added to this list; Hesse, Twain, Kafka, Hemingway… the list is endless, but I hope I might have reawakened your appreciation of some great works of fiction, and their place in the spiritual pocket or book of quotations.