Discuss self-imposed suffering in literature.

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drjrjherbert eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are numerous examples of self-imposed suffering within literature, both those in favour of the experience and those who portray it as a form of self-punishment that speaks of an obsessive character. 

It is, perhaps, important initially to look at early examples that have been influential upon the Western tradition of literature. Perhaps most prominent amongst these is the Biblical story of Christ's exile in the wilderness and his temptation: 'Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. (2) After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (3) The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” This story of Christ's temptation and self-imposed exile in the desert is re-counted in the gospel according to Matthew v.1-3) and speaks fulsomely of the power of the individual to undergo suffering in a self-imposed manner and how the ability to withstand suffering and the devil's temptation is a sign of divinity in Christ the man. 

One might look to Shakespeare for more negative examples of self-imposed suffering. It is a key part of the folly of King Lear during his descent into madness in Act III of King Lear that he leaves his daughter's castle to spend the night on the heath and, while battered by the elements and later sheltered in a hovel, he mentally disintegrates under the destructive power of his self-imposed suffering. Moreover, in Hamlet, the famous Act III soliloquy where the titular hero asks himself whether 'To be or not to be' is an internal questioning of whether he would be better to take his own life than to continue to suffer the self-imposed suffering of remaining at the royal court of Denmark in order to revenge his father rather than returning to Wittenberg where he previously studied. 

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein puts himself through a period of intense and self-imposed suffering of months of isolated and extreme study in order to create the creature who he later successfully brings to life. Shelley portrays this facet of his behaviour as dangerously obsessive and, indeed, egotistical, shunning the redeeming company of other people in his dogged pursuit of a life-creating power that she portrays as being a supplanting of the place of God in trying to create and spark new life into a man of his own. However, the reverse is also true in the novel. As readers we first encounter the wasted and frozen form of Victor Frankenstein when Walton rescues him from the ice floes where Frankenstein has been found with his sled. At the end of the novel we discover, after Frankenstein has told his tale, that he has placed himself on another self-imposed journey of suffering, in pursuit of the creature who he hopes to destroy. This self-imposed suffering, unlike its predecessor, might be seen by the reader as a journey of redemption, to make good for his folly in creating the creature to begin with.

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When asking questions, always be sure to give sufficient detail regarding what you require to enable educators to provide the best possible answer. 

In literature, there are many instances where self-imposed suffering is central to the theme. Guilt is usually an overriding element which affects the extent to which the characters suffer. Therefore, the flaws of the characters become instrumental in determining the progression of the plot. In Macbeth, for example, a Shakespearean tragedy, the tragic hero, in this case, Macbeth, develops an obsession with the potential to be king and the assumed power of the witches. It is his "vaulting ambition," (I.vii.26) which sets him off on this path together with Lady Macbeth's ability to manipulate him ("When you durst do it, then you were a man," (49)), convincing him that he is only worth something if he actually goes through with their plan to murder Duncan; thereby, confirming the apparent truth of the witches' prophesies. 

There is no need for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to take matters into their own hands. Their own suffering, as Lady Macbeth goes insane with her obsession to wash the blood from her hands as she repeatedly tries to do- " Out, damned spot!" (V.i.33)- and Macbeth's mistaken belief that he is invincible because "none of woman born," (IV.i.80) can harm him, is the result of their own obsessive and imperfect personalities. 

Society's expectations often cause people to behave in ways that are counter-productive to their own well-being. In James Joyce's short stories contained in Dubliners, he explores the paralysis, the inability to make life-changing decisions, that haunts most of his characters as they desperately want to change but are unable to, and impose restrictions on themselves, bringing untold suffering on themselves. In Eveline, Eveline believes she can break free from the suffocating life she leads with her "not so bad" father and her responsibilities to her siblings. However, ultimately, she is unable to go through with her decision to leave and, it is assumed that she will continue to suffer, of her own design, in an attempt to do the right thing. 

In A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, Nora's self-imposed suffering in the form of mental anguish, eventually leads to a realization that her marriage has no substance and her status as Torvald, her husband's "little spendthrift," must come to an end.

There are many other instances in literature of self-imposed suffering and whilst some may involve physical pain, the predominant emphasis is on psychological distress and its effects. 

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