Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"Despair is a free man"

As I've mentioned in some previous posts, my L.M. Montgomery Readathon group on Facebook is currently going through "The Blue Castle," possibly my all-time favourite LMM novel, and one of my all-time favourite books, period. 

We're currently on Chapter 8, and there was a line near the end that we were asked to discuss.  

First, a little background on the story so far. 

(Warning: Some potential plot spoilers ahead.) 

Our heroine, Valancy Sterling, is 29 years old and an "old maid," trapped in an ugly house with her overbearing mother and cousin, part of a large, overbearing family in the staid Ontario town of Deerwood. She's never really had a life. 

And then she learns she has less than a year to live. 

In Chapter 8, after receiving this diagnosis, Valancy spends a sleepless night, mentally reviewing the long list of indignities she's suffered in her 29 years... and finds she's not afraid of death. 

"I've been trying to please other people all my life and failed," she said. "After this, I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I've breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won't do another thing that I don't want to do. Mother can pout for weeks -- I shan't worry over it. 'Despair is a free man -- hope is a slave.”  [emphasis mine]

One of the discussion questions for this chapter asked "What do you think she means?"  

I answered: 

The hope that something is going to change, that things are going to get better, will sometimes keep us tied to certain places or people or situations far longer than perhaps it should -- e.g., people who stay in a bad marriage because they keep hoping that their partner will change or that things are going to improve. Despair -- the hopelessness of her diagnosis -- has freed Valancy to do as she pleases with the time she has left to her. She has nothing left to lose, because she is about to lose her life, and that realization has set her free.

What I didn't say was how much this made me think of infertility -- of how the hope of having a baby keeps some of us hanging on (often by a thread) -- returning to the clinic for cycle after cycle after cycle, spending time and money and reserves of physical, mental and emotional energy that we often can't really afford, in pursuit of a dream that may or may not come true. Some do eventually meet with success... but some of us hit rock bottom -- the depths of despair (to use another LMM/Anne of Green Gables phrase ;)  ) -- the point where, like Valancy, we realize we can't live this way any longer -- and, moreover, we don't have to.  We have a choice to make:  we can continue to live like this, hoping that something (that's generally beyond our control) will change -- or we can take control of what we can and live our lives in a different way. That's the point where we regain our freedom. 

Yes, it's a life without the children we wanted, a life we didn't plan for or expect to be living. But it's a life where we're free to imagine and pursue new and perhaps more realistic dreams and goals for ourselves.  

Postscript:  After I wrote my response to the group, and had most of this post written, one of the LMM scholars who runs the group and occasionally posts about the literary allusions found in her books, weighed in with a post that identified the original quote as a proverb attributed to Ali, a Muslim caliph and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He also directed us to a post on his website, which adds: 

Simon Ockley, who compiled ʿAlī’s sayings in his book The History of the Saracens, offers the following explanation of this proverb in a footnote: “So long as a man is in expectation, his thoughts are in suspense, and he is in a slavish condition; but as soon as he gives over his pursuit, he is free and at liberty.”

I also noticed, browsing through my blog reader, that Mel, Mali and Jess all had recent posts dealing with hope. More food for thought! :) 

1 comment:

  1. I read this just after reading Jess's post. Lots of thoughts about hope this week. I love the quote about despair and hope. Showing that despair isn't always all bad. The last comment - giving up a pursuit - reminds me of the Buddhist idea of Nirvana, which is not heaven or anything like that, but simply the absence of desire.