This is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel.
In writing Outside In, I wanted to create a modern myth of a person’s search for identity and responsibility using Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey of departure initiation, and return with the contemporary trials of alcohol, drugs, and sexual experimentation. Told in first-person present tense, Outside In was intended to enable readers to embark on Brad’s journey through his thoughts, perceptions, and encounters, thereby confronting readers with difficult questions that lie at the core of not only the individual, but society in general.
This type of literature is often referred to as didacticism and allegory. Didacticism emphasizes that the literature intends to offer something more to the readers other than pleasure and entertainment. This is a slippery slope. At its best, it gives readers a change to live vicariously through the characters and learn about aspects of life outside of their spheres of control and influence. Unfortunately, it too often reduces the literature to a boring, dull tool overloaded with information. The goal is to weave the information and instruction in and out of interesting characters and events to be entertaining as well as enlightening.
The morality plays of medieval Europe were examples of didactic literature. They were theatrical performances which used allegorical characters to teach the audience a moral lesson. Common themes included the seven deadly sins and repentance and redemption. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the litany of Dr. Seuss stories are more current examples of didacticism.
Allegory is similar and often confused with symbolism because an allegory can use symbols, but allegory is a complete narrative which involves characters and events representing abstract ideas and events. Symbolism can be used within any work for one object to represent another and give it a particular meaning. Animal Farm, in addition to being didactic is also an example of allegory. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is another example of a classic allegory. More modern examples include the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dune.
Following are examples of didacticism and allegory in Outside In:
- Allegorical Characters: As detailed in the deeper look on the characters in Outside In, each of the supporting characters surrounding Brad represent a conflicting emotion. They make up four points of a moral compass pulling him in a distinct direction through the course of the story. Astrid (hope), Haley (despair), Caldwell (Respect), and Cinch (irreverence). It is Brad’s connection to all of them — the good and the bad — that help him discover and accept the person he is.
- Excess and Instant Gratification: Outside In proposes identity can’t be found or fabricated but emerges from within when one has the courage to let go. This letting go for many of the characters in Outside In translates to a hedonistic pursuit involving alcohol, sex, and drugs, the vices so readily available to a person who wants to forget. These vices symbolize the modern trials people face in their journeys of becoming. What starts as recreational experimentation and the exploration of new experiences transform to obsession and complete loss of self. This descent into excess and instant gratification is meant to raise awareness of current societal issues with addiction and self-medication and pose the question.
- Identity As A Process: After the tragic death of a student and the loss of his teaching job, Brad loses his faith and sense of identity and has a quarter-life crisis. His reaction is to escape to the island community of Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie to rediscover who he is and what life has to offer. Along the way he learns identity cannot be found or fabricated, but emerges from within when a person has the courage to let go. This is the overall theme and moral of the novel that identity is not a fixed goal or an end but rather a process that continually unfolds and is defined by our connections and responsibility to the people, places and things around us.
- Island Characteristics: The unique attributes of isolation, finite resources, and the influence of water have always made islands an ideal setting for stories. They represent a mandala and symbol of the effort to unify self. Why I chose Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island for the setting of Outside In is for the Battle of Lake Erie History. Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous quote “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” from the historic battle is representative of the characters inner struggles to face and conquer their demons on their paths of self-discovery.
- Manifest Destiny Contrast: In the 1800’s Manifest Destiny captivated the imagination and drive of the American people by creating the belief that it was America’s mission to expand throughout the continent. By starting the journey of the protagonist in St. Louis, known as the Gateway to the West, but rather than forging west in search of a better life, he delves deeper into the middle of the country, it is a direct contrast to the concept of Manifest Destiny. With minimal external unexplored land and frontier remaining, the character’s path represents the need to look deeper in oneself to find the answers to problems and that dreams don’t lie on the horizon; they lie within.
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