Edgar Lee Masters

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Analyze the character development in "The Village Atheist" by Edgar Lee Masters, including the character’s system of values, choices when faced with crises and conflicts, and attitudes.

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Although Spoon River is literally a village, the use of the word in the title suggests something provincial and naïve in the speaker’s atheism, as though the “arguments/Of the infidels” in which he claims to be well-versed would only stand up on a village scale. At this stage in his career, the village atheist would have denied the immortality of the soul entirely and treated the matter purely as a matter for intellectual debate, an opportunity to display his logical prowess. Soon enough, however, the matter becomes intensely and painfully personal. He falls ill and lies “Coughing myself to death” through a long sickness.

The atheist’s reading of “the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus” makes him see religion from a new perspective. It is significant that he is influenced by more than one religion and that he describes the words of Jesus as poetry. This shows that he does not veer from atheism to religious certainty but rather that he begins to appreciate the aesthetic aspects of religious writing and to find hope and meaning in ancient wisdom. His final conclusion is not an orthodox one:

Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Most Christians would say that eternal life is a gift from God, but the village atheist has not become the village Christian or even the village Hindu. He has learned from the aesthetic elements in more than one religion not to limit his view of life to the frigid certainties of academic argument. However dogmatic he may have been for most of his life, he found a breadth of vision in death for which he will be remembered.

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