contemporary, relevant, provocative novellas
On the ideas and themes in To Thee is This World Given.
The unifying theme behind To Thee is This World Given is that we are not an inherently selfish, callus, violent species. While I don’t believe we are inherently good, I do believe we inherently desire to be so, which is diametrically opposed to our supposedly sociopathic nature depicted by The Walking Dead and other books, movies, and television shows in the post-apocalyptic genre.
For the most part I believe we are basically a pretty decent species. After all, there is no other species on the planet willing to adopt the offspring of another, rear it as a family member, and do everything in its power to keep it safe and sound (especially the offspring of a species that used to eat them). That’s pretty exceptional when you think about it.
What I don’t believe is that we have to love each other. That’s unrealistic, even as goal. I don’t even believe we have to like each other, we just have to try tolerate each other, not harm each other, help each other if we can, and at the very least acknowledge that we’re all just struggling to stay afloat in our own way.
I tried to suggest this in To Thee is This World Given from the very beginning with a pair of quotes from Siddhartha and Charles Dickens:
“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world where each person is clinging to his or her piece of debris? What is the proper salutation between them as they pass each other in this flood?” Siddhartha
“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide, and if that spirit go not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” Charles Dickens
In To Thee is This World Given, two-thirds of the character interaction is cooperative, and the two best adjusted characters are the cooperative ones. Additionally, basic human decency comes up in dialog scattered throughout the story and is shown in the “hobo code” that people use mark to the roads to let others know that lies ahead and where to find things like food, water, and shelter.
While I made up my own symbols, the road markings in the book were inspired by the actual hobo code of the 1930s. The fact that the real hobo code developed is, itself, a testament to human nature.
A second theme in the story is our fallibility in interpreting and understanding other people’s motives and personalities, and the fact we often deceive ourselves about our own. This is alluded to by the title itself.
“Now faith is gone…[t]here is no good on earth; sin is but a name. Come devil, for to thee is world given.”
Young Goodman Brown centers around the title character’s shifting interpretations and opinions of his neighbors’ motives and personalities, as well as the reader’s own shifting interpretations and opinions of Goodman Brown’s motives and the reliability of his conclusions.
In the story, Goodman Brown’s neighbors are revealed to be hypocrites; however, the reader can’t be certain that the part of the story in which the reveal happens actually took place or not. It could have been a dream or a hallucination, for instance, and the only time the reader actually sees the neighbors undeniably in action, they behave the opposite of how they behaved in the dream-like reveal. So the reader must decide if the neighbors are hypocrites or if Goodman Brown is deceived. Because the story is written in third party objective and in medias res, the reader has nothing more to go on than what Goodman Brown sees, hears, and says.
But if you move beneath the superficial story, you realize there is only one character that is undeniably a hypocrite, and that is Goodman Brown. He is everything he condemns his neighbors of being, and everything he condemns them for doing, he does, himself.
The final theme in To Thee is This World Given is that we are our actions. There are no good or bad people, just good or bad actions. The difference between a hero and a villain is that the villain is honest and up front about doing bad things, while the hero creates elaborate excuses to justify doing bad things. Hero’s suffer from Goodman Brown syndrome.
This is why I did not give my characters’ name. Names are authorial and reader short cuts into character personalities — Bubba forms a completely different picture than Allister, for instance. Even common names influence one’s perceptions of a character — John tells a different story than Jack does. If a character doesn’t have a name, they can only be evaluated by their actions, which are either good, bad, or neutral, or more typically a hodge podge of all three
I also had the main characters address this theme directly when they argue about Superman and Lex Luther, and indirectly when they argue about the refusal of the leader of Britain’s south pole expedition to let his surviving men try to continue on to get help.
I think of my story as sort of a moebius circle. Every element can be traced back around itself to one of these themes, all of which are already inherently intertwined with each other to begin with. Each time you run your finger along the story’s edge you end up in deeper layer. There is the superficial story, and beneath this, a story about the fallibility of perceptions and expectations and conclusions and justifications, and then at the deepest level, there is a story about the world as it is today.
Plots to me are not the stories, to me they are just the way stories are made sensible to other people. The stories are the truths about the spaces between people, and between what we believe is the truth and what the truth really is.
You can read about my experiences writing the first draft, in my post The First Draft of Anything is Shit.