Literature and Free Will
Updated: Apr 9
My students often look confused when I talk about the question of free will. It’s arguably the most important question in every novel. Does the protagonist make decisions because they think independently, or because they want status, acceptance, or maybe a sense of belonging? My students, like many people, take free will for granted. As Americans, we do not like the Greek idea that we exist for the amusement of the gods. The universe is not against us. We worship Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Emerson’s “The American Scholar”. Self-determination is at the heart of our national identity, and who we are. However, David Eagleman in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, examines the futile attempts by psychologists and neuroscientists to prove the existence of free will. When we make the decision to stand up, before we stand up, blood flows up to counter gravity so we don’t feel discomfort. In Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow’s character Eugene tells his son, “More people are enslaved to different things than you can shake a stick at.” Free will may exist, but only if we believe in it, only if we imagine it. Only if we imagine the path we should take, and then take it. But we can only start if we know who we are, or what’s inside us, first.
In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lily, consumed with doubt, fear, and grief, struggles to start a painting:
"Where to begin?--that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions... Still the risk must be run; the mark made. With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it--a third time. And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related"
Starting a painting is hard. Starting anything – an essay, a sport, music – is hard. Recovering from an injury or illness means starting. Beginning something means defying your past, because you never did that thing before. It’s definitely not easy. In Lily’s case, once she starts, the rhythm comes to her. The rhythm was inside her the whole time.
A few years ago, my students laughed at some of the ways I tried to explain that we don’t have as much free will as we think. I said, “Ok, I have free will. I will walk across the room right now.” And then, I did it. I walked across the room. “So, I have free will, right?” I asked. They nodded. I went on: “But why did I walk across the room? I walked across the room because my parents were born and raised in Scotland, then decided to move to Canada, then Pennsylvania, then New Jersey, and have not two, but three children. They pushed all their children to work hard in school and go to college, so I did, and I decided to major in English and education because I loved reading and writing and had a lot of great teachers. So, I ended up getting a job in Princeton, and they said, make sure you teach seniors in room 165 at 11:15 AM and so here I am, walking across the room to explain the idea of free will. But I only walked across the room because of all of those other things.”
When we ask our students if a character has free will, we are also asking them if they have free will. We ask them not only to interpret the behaviors and decisions of the characters, but to use those same moral standards to interpret their own behaviors and decisions. Do we know ourselves enough to plan ahead, deliberate, and use our conscience, our individual sense of right and wrong, not our cultural sense of right and wrong? We make decisions because we engage in conversations with our parents and our friends, because we learn things on the internet and take advice from leaders in our community. We watch movies and television, listen to songs and lectures, read books, go to plays and museums and places of worship. All of this language that surrounds us, these narratives and stories and new ideas, allow us to create meaning in our lives. We look at literature and ask our students, what does this mean? What does it all mean? And then, slowly but surely, their lives become meaningful. Their decisions don’t get lost in the speed of life. Language enables us to see who we were, who we are, and who we will be.
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