Looking into our pasts is something that is not easy at times – we tend to either romanticize or hide from it, depending on how we feel. Particularly in times of mourning or regret, the past can be something we try to bury or avoid, wanting to make sure we do not relive that same pain. This universal and uniquely human theme is present in the books Beloved, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Life of Pi. In all of these works, the main characters attempt to reconcile who they are with what they remember of the past – from Pi’s reconciliation of the trauma he went through during his shipwreck, to Oskar’s loss of his father on 9/11, to Sethe’s guilt at the death of her daughter and the horrific legacy of slavery. The past is a horrific thing to have to recollect, which is why these characters often bury themselves in more pleasing or manufactured narratives to make themselves feel better.
In all three works, many of the characters are confronted with things they feel guilty about from their pasts. For Sethe, it is the potential of her dead daughter coming back to haunt her. For Paul D., it is the flashes of memory that Beloved gives him when they make love. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the struggles of young Oskar to find a sense of purpose and peace after his father is killed in the 9/11 attacks forces him to confront the past as well. Instead of a ghost haunting him, as in Beloved, Oskar is confronted with a key left by his later father – the last of his convoluted games he would play with him – which sends him on a wild chase throughout New York to find out what it is meant to signify. Meanwhile, the book itself contains a series of letters that span the generations from Oskar’s grandfather to Oskar himself, giving the book a narrative link to the past. Through the parallel use of these narrative devices – the letters interspersed with Oskar’s search throughout the city – the various threads of Oskar’s family and how they relate to familial importance are connected. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi looks at the past in a somewhat more positive light, viewing imagination as a virtue.
The way in which these characters are confronted with the past help to define how they think of the past in the first place. Beloved forces its characters to confront the past through a literal resurrection of the dead in the form of the ghostlike Beloved, the dead daughter of Sethe, who confronts her and Paul D about the terrible things they did in the past. This causes them grain pain, as Morrison says of anything related to bringing up the past: "Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Morrison 42). The book itself creates unique terms to quantify the remembrance and ignorance of the past – “rememory” refers to re-remembering something that you already knew, while “disremember” is another way of saying an intentional ignorance and forgetting of something from the past. In the case of Sethe, she attempts to reshape her past to one where she never had her baby girl or never killed her, so that she does not have to face the uncomfortable truth of her murder. The past is intricately connected with the loss of family and those close to you: “even though it’s all over—over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you: (Morrison 44). Oskar’s grandfather, in particular, has a tough time thinking about the past, as it only reminds him of the things he has lost and his unfortunate position in the book: “it's so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I've thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it” (Foer 17). Oskar’s grandfather Thomas feels survivor’s guilt for having survived Dresden (just as Sethe in Beloved feels bad for surviving slavery when so many others have not): “These feelings of unworthiness constitute the haunting experience of being unable to live in the present and being equally unable to let go of the past” (Uytterschout and Versluys 219). The weariness of dwelling in the past weighs on Thomas, providing a cautionary tale for Oskar to not live so much in the past: “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living” (Foer 113).
However, forgetting something from the past turns out to be just as bad as the past itself. Because of memory’s ability to be fluid and ever-changing, it is a dangerous thing to rewrite your own story, which is why Beloved comes back to haunt Sethe. In the end, she is forgotten too, Sethe effectively killing her children all over again through the erasure of memory. In this particular instance, Beloved represents not just the single case of the daughter who was killed by her mother, but all the friends and family who died over Sethe’s life and beyond due to the institution of slavery. Beloved’s ghost is also the stand-in for all the slaves that had been killed over the years, leading Sethe to have to confront not only her manic murder of her child, but her inability to do anything to stop the various injustices of slavery. For Morrison, “the search for self-definition and an understanding of what the past is aboutinteract constantly throughout her work,” and in Beloved this struggle continues as Sethe tries to figure out whether she is a mother or a murderer (Guth 575). In Extremely Loud, Thomas reminds Oskar of the ephemeral nature of life and the relationships we forge: “So many people enter and leave your life! Hundreds of thousands of people! You have to keep the door open so they can come in! But it also means you have to let them go!” (Foer 153). Letting go of the past and suppressing it, however, are two different things, and Oskar is shown to need to deal with the loss of his father in a healthy and cathartic way, instead of suppressing it and busying himself with the search for the lock that the key fits into. Instead of believing Oskar’s methodical flights of fancy from Extremely Loud as foolish projection and suppression, Martel would view them in much the same way as he views Pi’s commitment to a spiritual tale of overcoming adversity following a shipwreck. To be fair, when recounting the story, Pi does not shy away from the negative aspects of the situation: “It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion. Still, that second night at sea stands in my memory as one of exceptional suffering” (Martel 137). However, he is able to recontextualize them by framing them in a romantic story of his tiger friend Richard Parker and the adventures they go on, instead of the darker, more realistic story he gives late in the book, wherein he had to feast on flesh. Through this reframing of the story, Pi “demonstrateshow the human thirst for meaning demands that we see ourselves everywhere,” even in the past (Cole 2004). Pi’s engagement with the past and insertion of his own perspective is the healthiest outcome for this story, as he interacts with the past and does not change the facts, but alters their telling to something productive and spiritual.
One thing all three of these works have in common is the futility of ignorance – no matter how badly characters attempt to forget the past, it always comes back to haunt them. In Beloved, the ephemeral nature of memory is mentioned, often maintained through the physical presence of places: “Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there” (Morrison 43). This does not stop people from trying to reshape the past, even after confronting their past traumas – it is much more ideal for some to ignore the past and reshape it to something more palatable: “They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her” (Morrison 274). This is just as bad a crime as killing Sethe’s little girl, as forgetting the past is just like killing or erasing it. The characters are confronted with their past, but do not really learn the lessons it tried to teach them. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar’s mother and community attempt to keep him occupied out of a sense of protection as time passes: “Time was passing like a hand waving from a train I wanted to be onI hope you never think about anything as much as I think about you” (Foer 224). While it is left up to interpretation, the implication is that the grittier story is the real one, but Pi chooses to believe the Richard Parker version of the tale because it is “the better story” (Martel 352). In Life of Pi, while he does the same thing that Sethe and Oskar do – suppress the unpleasant memories of the past through a false narrative – this is treated as a good thing. Pi sees it as being more imaginative and spiritual for him. He manages to make the most out of a bad situation, even saying that he recognizes worse nights in his life than the ones he spent out at sea: “It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion” (Martel 137). Viewing his traumatic experience through a metaphorical lens allows him to properly process these feelings in a productive way, unlike the ghostly presence of Beloved in Morrison’s book, or the haunting shadow Oskar’s father and grandfather cast over his life.
A certain amount of catharsis is found in these respective characters dealing with the past. In Beloved, Sethe and Paul D finally recognize Beloved as her daughter, but admit that she cannot be alive, and so the ghost is exorcised. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar is finally able to hear from his father (through his last voicemail message) for the last time, giving him closure and a measure of peace – and the ability to move on. As for Pi, his choice to believe in a more spiritually fulfilling metaphor for his harrowing trip at sea is what gives him the catharsis. When discussing the need to find a measure of rationality and closure for his tragedies, even for himself, Pi says to his tiger, "Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker?" (Martel 108). This line perfectly sums up why Pi creates the story that he does – Pi provides his own ‘explanation’ for the bad things that happened to him by turning it into an uplifting story of magical relationships with animals and unlikely happenstances that made him a better person. In fact, the book argues that the creation of this story, or at least the viewing of the story through such a metaphorical lens, is the very evidence that he is now a better person; he knows the “better story,” and is creative and imaginative enough to believe it.
In conclusion, the past is seen as something that can be full of traumas and tragedies, which are inescapable unless people develop the proper coping mechanisms or work toward finding a sense of cathartic closure. The past is a complex and intricate phenomenon, as it turns out to be much more fluid and malleable than one would expect – characters constantly shift their perspective to try to hide or paint over unpleasant things from their past. Characters like Thomas in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dwell more on their unpleasant pasts than others, like Sethe’s complete ignorance of her past and Pi’s reshaping of his journey into one that is more spiritually fulfilling to him. This fluidity of memory becomes an important part of how these characters deal with their own emotional wounds, whether their methods are healthy or not. Beloved’s Sethe and Paul D must face down the horrors of slavery and how it has affected their family and people, in the form of haunting memories and their resurrected daughter. Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close must find his place in the family line of men, seeking approval and peace from his dead father and regretful grandfather. In Life of Pi, young Pi must essentially find a way to turn lemons into lemonade, using his creativity and spirituality to choose to see the horrific events around him – cannibalism, murder, imminent death – as a learning experience and a gift from God which permits him to learn more about himself. Of these three protagonists, Pi’s approach is the most immediately helpful and cathartic, though the main characters of all three stories manage to find a measure of peace.
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