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Jessica Shaffer

Dr. Nighan

Honors British Literature

October 8, 2005

The Dynamic between Change and the Immutable

One of the biggest dilemmas that any individual, and especially any society, deals with is the concept of permanence. Human nature is by no means long lasting; no two points in life are “the same.” People age, grow, and inevitably die. Yet on the other hand, there is that part of man that is eternal that cannot die. It is what many people now call the soul, that one essence of permanence that sustains mankind and also defines humanity as something greater than just the body alone. Obviously the coexistence of these two factors involves a huge balance, a balance of struggle and resolution. In fact, this equilibrium has been keenly expressed in literature since Anglo-Saxon times and even now in the present. In works such as, “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Sea-Farer,” and the novel, Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder), the proponents are plagued with progressions out of their control, but they utilize the immutable to cope with the change.

Sophie’s World provides a good basis for such an argument. The idea of the transient is explained to Sophie through her mentor’s letters on the philosopher Heraclitus, who stated, “that constant change, or flow, was in fact the most basic characteristic of nature.” (Gaarder 34) This concept of “flow” is heavily present in every life and in every form of literature. It’s the concept of the dialectic, the evolution of ideas as well as the evolution of beings. This idea materializes as Sophie continues with her studies. Her ideas begin to change just as philosophical ideas have developed. Furthermore, while she experiences this constant progression of ideas, she begins to develop her own thoughts independent of her lessons. So in this case, Sophie (in more than one sense) is constantly involved in “flow,” her lessons flow and consequently her knowledge flows as well.

As Plato explains in his allegory of the cave, education is a natural progression that must be confronted, and can never honestly be halted. Still, as any student knows, this evolution that is education is not in the least easy: ideas begin to conflict, and sometimes the path of knowledge becomes confused and far too overwhelming to take pleasure in. Sophie obviously experiences this, especially when she first starts off as the author explains, “She had never thought so hard before!” (Gaarder 19) What does a student do at this time, or more specifically how does he/she continue? How and why does Sophie continue?

When it comes to education, the only thing that is permanent is the student’s thirst for knowledge. This is particularly apparent when Sophie steals information from her mentor, but is excused on the basis of innocent and necessary intellectual curiosity. (Gaarder 105) It is the force of wanting to know that provides drive and stability on what can often be a steep and rocky path. This is what forces Sophie to continue with her studies despite the overwhelming schooling she receives.

The concepts in the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Wife’s Lament,” also have this relationship between flow and the everlasting. In the poem, the female proponent tries to come to terms with her constantly changing life. When the false element of permanence and reliability is removed from her, she sees most clearly that permanence never really existed. Before exile, she was a happy wife and bride, a typical wife and bride. She had no need to question her place. She had the luxury of taking it for granted because she knew no different than to be dependent. Yet when the reliability of her husband, family, and home are taken away, and she is banished to the forest; it is there she is forced to confront how she has changed and how her position has changed, and will continue to change despite anything she does . As one critic noted, “The wife appears passive throughout most of the poem, an object of exchange stripped of value when her husband and kin reject her.” (Jamison) The conflict occurs because her false sense of safety and permanence are clashing with the reality of revolution, and it is through this conflict that the wife must find peace and resolution in her new environment.

The wife’s immediate reaction to everything that happens to her is anger and hopelessness. She is consumed by her emotions: anger with her situation and bitterness in the face of others' happiness, but also an intense yearning for her husband. The clash between these two emotions is stark; at one time the wife bitterly remarks,

Friends are there on earth
husband and wife warm their bed
while I tread alone. (The Wife’s Lament)

But at another point none she forgets about her own trials as she hopes for a repair in her husband’s poor fate saying, “must he seek in himself all the joy in the world.”

Yet the two sides of this conflict provide a balance in and of itself, as Aristotle would call it, the Golden Mean, “a method whereby the temperate virtue was the one that lay between two extremes, or vices” (Bivins). The two emotional extremes of hateful bitterness and lustful longing create their own internal conflict. The battle between the two sides truly has but a single result, one balance, and that is simply love and a bond shared by husband and wife. In the end the sad circumstances don’t matter and all she can say is, “I ache with loving.” (The Wife’s Lament) As she concludes, through the conflict there synthesizes a sustaining force of love, even if it is a painful love. So in a sense, for the wife the conflict is necessary for her to find her absolute, her balance.

In “The Seafarer” the sailor also tries to cope with the ephemeral. He goes from a plagued traveler, who is constantly cold and hungry, to becoming a restless man living a complacent life on land. Ironically he is not content in either place, but suffers from an uncontrollably hopeless situation. In trying to discover where he belongs, not one, but two, forms of change are present and each is equally uncontrollable. First, the poem echoes the progression of thought that the mind is forced to make in such a situation, a necessary reasoning that cannot be stopped. This philosophical thought progression goes from mourning at the beginning of the poem, where it states,

Virtue is fallen, visions are faded
the weak are left to hold this world
worn low, (The Seafarer)

To rejoicing at the end, saying, “Thus let us thank His hallowed name that He has granted us His grace.” (The Seafarer) As the seafarer continues to contradict himself, the internal conflict becomes more and more obvious.

Yet the sailor’s mind is not the only thing that changes. The second form of “flow” is actually extremely physical. In choosing a life at sea, the Seafarer consequently chooses a life of change, a flow that the sea itself embodies. The narrator describes it himself as, “endless halls of heaving waves,” (Seafarer) indicating a life in an environment of unending, restless motion.

Living a life of constant change is not exactly hopeful, and it is the futility of the whole situation that really gives “The Seafarer” its spirit. Still a simply heart wrenching tale would not be satisfactory for the traveler or the reader. Restlessness without conclusion or resolution is pointless. But the seafarer does find this hope and contentment at the closing of the poem, deciding God is the only satisfactory answer to all his questions. Critics have reasoned that the lines of the Seafarer, “…imply a triumph of Christian over heathen belief…” (Vickery) Despite all the uncontrollable chaos, God provides the man with a sense of order and reliability, what he describes to be, “the heaven haven of our Lord’s love.” (The Seafarer) For the seafarer God is the how he copes with a hopeless change that is out of his control; God is the immutable.

In conclusion, it is the balance between flow and the immutable that makes us who we are. Without change we would be only stagnant innocent children, but if we were only transient beings than there is no point to a life whose only goal is to end. The immutable is what gives people the hope and determination to continue on journeys that often have the façade of futility. The immutable/ the absolute is what gives human beings purpose, and often purpose is all that is needed to create order out of chaos. Finally order is something everyone needs or at least searches for, and in the “Wife’s Lament,” “The Seafarer,” and Sophie’s World the characters find contentment in their absolutes, yet would fail to appreciate the immutable if it was not for existence of change. It is change that compels one to search for stability. Basically, without a question there would be no answer.

Works Cited

Bivins, Tom. Golden Mean versus the Golden Rule. University of Oregon. March
6, 2005. _NOTES/Goldenrulemean.html

Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie’s World. New York: Berkley . 1996

Jamison, Carol Parrish. “Traffic of Women in Germanic Literature: the Role of Peace Pledge in Marital Exchanges.” Women in German Yearbook 2004 University of Nebraska Press.

“The Seafarer"

Vickery, John. “The Seafarer 97-102: Dives and the Burial of Treasure.” The Journal of English And German Philology. 1995.

“The Wife’s Lament”