Our short memories, both a blessing and a curse, let catastrophes slip to the distant reaches of the mind so that we can focus on moving forward. But sure enough, disasters will always occur. And just as sure enough, society will always find ways to adapt and endure.
The trauma of Covid-19 – physical, mental and economic – will be felt for generations to come. It is now our turn to find new balance as tectonic shifts reshape the world around us. But how?
When looking for lessons on how to move forward, society has no greater asset than its past.
Since the first cave drawings, storytellers have been recording the profound and subtle ways people have survived and thrived cataclysmic change – both societal and personal. Here are how five of the most resilient characters from classic works of literature coped with calamity:
Dr. Pierre Aronnax
Twenty Thousand Leagues
Under the Sea
Did Aronnax suffer from Stockholm Syndrome or was he just good at looking on the bright side? We’ll never know for sure, but one thing is certain: the man could make the best out of a bad situation. Held hostage by the deranged Captain Nemo in the most magnificent submarine ever to grace the seas, Aronnax is determined to enjoy his new life of adventure and scientific exploration.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
The doctor accompanies the captain on expeditions around the waters of the world including the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Red Sea, the Torres Straits, the Indian Ocean, and more. When Aronnax’s life is turned on its head and he loses all personal autonomy, the doctor turns to his passion, biology, as a safe harbor. Pouring all his energy and attention into discovering the underwater world makes an unbearable situation – captivity – bearable.
The Call of the Wild
Stolen in the night from his family, beaten, attacked and nearly run to death by incompetent sled handlers, the stoic Scotch shepherd and St. Bernard mixed-breed, faces tremendous challenges. He finally finds peace with the loving John Thornton, only to lose it again when his kind owner is brutally murdered.
The Call of the Wild
But Buck survives it all. With each setback he reverts further and further into a primordial state until he returns to the wild and runs free with the wolves. Buck discovers his true identity in the face of unrelenting adversity. Having nothing left to lose gives him the freedom to become who he was truly meant to be.
The sisters in Little Women grow up in a time of extreme strife. They live through poverty, illness and the American Civil War. Jo is pursued by a man she doesn’t love romantically, but whom would be an excellent marriage match. She has the courage to turn him down and instead makes her way out into the world, pursuing a career in the male-dominated literary world.
Jo thrives in part due to her family’s love and unwavering support. Her mother Marmee raises Jo and her sisters to be educated, hard-working and kind. She allows them to make mistakes and learn from them. Above all, she wants her daughters to choose the best lives for themselves, and not to bow to societal expectation – radical thinking in nineteenth century America. This upbringing gives Jo the strength and navigation to overcome obstacles and become the woman she wants to be against all odds.
Pip’s journey from poor orphan to London gentlemen to humble, hardworking clerk shows how one can learn and grow from even the harshest of setbacks. As a child, Pip suffers misfortunes which leave him desperately wanting more from life. When he learns what poverty and ignorance are, he desperately wants to be neither poor nor ignorant. At times, his desire for wealth, power and beauty surface as greed and drive him to cruelty.
But still, Pip has a good heart and when he learns that his secret benefactor is in fact an escaped felon, and not the noble Ms. Havisham, the dazzling fantasy he has been living in shatters. He turns his back on a life of idleness and luxury, and sets himself instead to a life of humble and hard work. In the end, he is rewarded with a future open to any number of possibilities.
The Old Woman
This character is the embodiment of the motto “never judge a book by its cover.” A poor, haggard servant – a side character, really – joins the protagonist on his journey. One day, she tells him her story. The old woman is in fact the daughter of the Pope and a princess. She was once the most beloved and beautiful woman on Earth and was married to an adoring prince who was ruthlessly poisoned on their wedding night. After that, she is kidnaped, watched as pirates defile and murder her mother and attendants, is left for dead, sold into slavery, contracts the plague and even has one buttock cut off. That is about as bad a backstory as it gets.
And yet, though there is no chance of regaining her former grace, wealth or innocence, the old woman trudges on. She takes on the role of duteous servant to the young and beautiful Cunégonde. The old woman’s experiences give her a direct, practical and no-nonsense approach to dealing with strife. She doesn’t suffer the complaints of her comparatively fortunate mistress and her lover Candide. As such, she is accepted into a new tribe and eventually finds peace living a life of simplicity off the land with her new family.