Essay: Human Commonalities in Literature in the Preface

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Human Commonalities in Literature

In the preface to his edition of Shakespeare's works, the 18th century scholar and author Samuel Johnson asked why Shakespeare's plays were still popular among common people so long after his death. He then answered his own question by asserting that Shakespeare was "the poet that holds his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and life." (Johnson) He was popular hundreds of years after his death because his characters were "the genuine progeny of common humanity," they had characteristics that every human being shared and could relate to. (Johnson, 8) Shakespeare's characters and stories may have been set in specific places and times, but they contained universal themes and emotions which made them timeless. More than two centuries have past since Johnson made his assertions and it is necessary to ask if they as true in the 21st century as they were in the 18th. Two short stories which contrast Johnson's ideas are Ernest Hemingway's the Old Man and the Sea and Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. While Hemingway's story contains universal themes which all humanity can relate to, Vonnegut's is strange and not representative of the common human experience. However, despite these differences, both stories effectively present the reader with an experience that can be related to by the common person.

The Old Man and the Sea is a tale that is set in the modern world and even contains references to 1950's American baseball players, but this tale of a Cuban fisherman is representative of the common human experience. The story begins with the "old man" on his eighty-fourth day without catching a fish. He is having a spot of bad luck, or a losing streak as they say in baseball terminology; something that every person has experienced. The other fishermen feel as though he cannot do his job, but the old man knows that he still has what it takes to catch the big ones. He has the drive and determination to continue and not give up. Eventually the old man takes his skiff out further than any of the other fishermen and his determination is rewarded when he lines "the biggest fish that he had ever seen and bigger than he had ever heard of…" (Hemmingway, 22)

But the old man is far from finished in his struggle to catch the fish as it drags him out into the open ocean and he does not come back to shore until two days after he initially left. During this time the old man struggles to maintain his focus and determination, to keep going when he is exhausted, to have faith that he will make it. These are all themes and concepts that each human being must face in their daily lives; a just representation of general human nature. The readers may not be Cuban fishermen, but everyone has had times in their lives when they are faced with the decision to give up or go on, to take the easy way out or give it their all and accomplish the task. In the end the old man does not give up, but his catch is all but eaten on the way back to shore. As he drags the fish's enormous carcass on to shore his victory is pyrrhic, he has proven himself a great fisherman to the others but he really has nothing for all his hard work. It can… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Human Commonalities in Literature in the Preface.  (2012, March 26).  Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

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"Human Commonalities in Literature in the Preface."  26 March 2012.  Web.  18 August 2019. <>.

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"Human Commonalities in Literature in the Preface."  March 26, 2012.  Accessed August 18, 2019.