Friendship and Literature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Friendship has metaphysical and ethical dimensions, according to Ronald A. Sharp, “for the friend not only validates and concretizes one’s sense of identity and reality; he also in one way or another evaluates it.” Sharp is not interested in the ways friends manipulate or betray one another but in the positive values inherent in close relationships; he is concerned with what makes a friendship successful: “How does it work when it does work?” Recognizing the potential scope of the subject, Sharp has chosen to concentrate on its more personal—though not sentimental—qualities.

The title of Sharp’s study is somewhat misleading, since he invokes anthropology, sociology, and personal experiences almost as much as he does literature, drawing heavily upon Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) and Robert Brain’s Friends and Lovers (1976). Sharp, chairman of the English department at Kenyon College and former editor of the Kenyon Review, considers his references to literary works “as examples, as points of departure, or as ways of illuminating particular points in my general argument about friendship.”

His analysis of friendship is presented in three sections. The first, which makes up nearly half the book, examines the parts form and ritual play in friendship, how they promote rather than obstruct intimacy. The second looks at the effects of the gift on the spiritual dimensions of friendship. The last applies all of this to William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597).

Sharp argues that those who consider forms suspect in matters of intimacy fail to realize that “friendship cannot flourish at all outside of forms.” The way in which friendship is presented is as important as the friendship itself. He illustrates this point with the way three friends part at the end of a fiesta in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). Their shaking hands, waving, and using affectionate terms such as “chaps,” “fella,” and “old kid” are formal and conventional means of “expressing affection in a culture that denies men more physical expressions.” Modern American women in similar circumstances would have unself-consciously hugged one another. (The differences in male, female, and male-female friendships are of particular interest to Sharp.) Examples from the works of Ezra Pound and Friedrich Nietzsche suggest to Sharp that formality, ritual, artifice, and conventional hospitality do not impede intimacy but enhance it.

Those who promote a false or sentimental version of friendship are targets of Sharp’s disdain. Yet the phony familiarity of encounter groups, insurance salesmen, and television weathermen calls attention to the necessity of formal conventions in preserving the authenticity of true friendship. The same is true in literature, since contemporary confessional poetry is less likely to express depth of feeling than the forms of the past, such as the sonnet. Sharp observes that confessional poems about friendship by such writers as Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich “issue from an isolation that seems more profound than any intimacy that is achieved, or even yearned for.” Good humor is more important in a friendship than an unburdening of emotions, as Sharp illustrates with Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Falstaff.

Friendship is more formalized than the worlds of business and popular culture would have one believe: “A friendship has its own history, its own founding, its own civil and foreign wars, its own mythic events, its own status quo, its own vision of the future, its own ethos, ideals, and legal system.” For all its rituals, however, friendship is less a formal gesture...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 7, 1986, p. 4.

Playboy. XXXIII, September, 1986, p. 20.