Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268
In the beginning of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton portrays himself as a prisoner of a materialistic world. This comparison of the modern world to a prison has struck many readers as excessive. The eminent British writer Evelyn Waugh published a thoroughly revised version of The Seven Storey Mountain under the title Elected Silence in 1949. Waugh eliminated what he considered the exaggerations in both Merton’s style and his assessment of the world outside his monastery. Although Waugh did improve certain passages in Merton’s book, Merton believed that the urbane and refined style preferred by Waugh could not properly convey to readers his visceral reaction to his experiences before and after his conversion. Merton wanted the readers of The Seven Storey Mountain to understand that his life would have been meaningless had he not received the gift of faith from God; his conversion had radically transformed his perception of the world.
The Seven Storey Mountain has been favorably compared to such classic autobiographies as those of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Saint Augustine, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Such praise of Merton’s autobiography is entirely appropriate because he also analyzed with almost brutal honesty the weaknesses and strengths of his character. Merton never attempted to mislead his readers by presenting himself in an overly positive light. His subjective analysis of his own life never seems artificial. His consistent attempt to understand the true motivation for his moral choices persuades his readers both to respect Merton’s perception of the world and to appreciate the universal elements in Merton’s spiritual and psychological growth: The chronological structure of this autobiography enables the reader to understand the gradual changes which caused Thomas Merton to convert to Roman Catholicism and then to enter a cloistered monastery.
Thomas Merton had a difficult childhood. He was born near the Spanish border in the French village of Prades on January 31, 1915. His parents were both artists, and they moved frequently. His mother, an American, would die in 1921 and his father, a New Zealander, would die nearly ten years later. Merton spent his childhood and adolescence in France, England, Bermuda, and the United States but never felt at home anywhere. The artificiality and selfishness of modern society depressed him. Because of his profound sense of alienation, Merton yielded to many self-destructive urges: After he entered the University of Cambridge in 1933, he began to drink heavily and then fathered a child out of wedlock. Both his former mistress and their son would die during a Nazi air raid on London. While writing his autobiography, Merton recalled that a friend from Cambridge had committed suicide. He became convinced that only the grace of God had protected him from a similar fate and that he had accomplished nothing positive during his years in England. He moved to America in 1934, never again returning to Europe. In this first section of The Seven Storey Mountain, the despair and alienation which many people felt after the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of World War II is powerfully and movingly expressed.
In the second part of The Seven Storey Mountain , Merton reveals that he needed both divine grace and the moral support of his friends in order to grow spiritually. After Merton arrived in the United States, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he met two professors, Mark Van Doren and Dan Walsh, who profoundly influenced his personal development. Van Doren taught Merton to think critically, to value truth for itself, and to distrust all forms of specious reasoning. Ironically, Merton had never intended to meet Van Doren. At the beginning of his junior year at Columbia, Merton went to the wrong classroom. When Van...
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