My English curriculum seems to be obsessed with obsession. Or, at the very least, obsessed with dead white men who were obsessed with obsession. The theme of obsession–with a person, with a dream, with an object–is everywhere in Western classic literature and also reflected in popular media today, with shows such as You. It’s also found in the historical lenses many of us are interested in–with people obsessed with power, or wealth, or a certain religious belief, so much so that they change history for it.
Obsession and our obsession with it warrants a closer look. So, here it is.
The theme of obsession is everywhere in the English classic literature that is taught in high schools. Last year, I read The Glass Menagerie by Tenessee Williams, a classic in the American theatrical canon, and my paper referenced the main character’s mother, Amanda’s, obsession with getting his disabled sister married. We’re reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby this year, and many conversations are centering around Gatsby’s obsession with a love that doesn’t exist anymore. An interesting connection between these two is that both Amanda from Menagerie and Gatsby live in the past, with Amanda projecting her youth onto her daughter and Gatsby desperately chasing his own.
Fitzgerald used Gatsby to project his own desire to impress his eventual wife, Zelda (who he met on deployment during WW I)–with Gatsby acquiring a fortune just to impress Daisy, a girl he also met on deployment during the war.
The Picture of Dorian Gray revolves around many obsessions, but here, we will focus on Lord Henry Wotton's hedonistic view on life, where he seeks pleasure and will pay any price for it, a small obsession that serves to have him spoil Dorian, who he is enamored with, rotten. This reflected Wilde’s views on aestheticism, his obsession with aestheticism, and art outside of the confines of morality.
Finally, in The Glass Menagerie, Williams wrote the main character’s disabled sister, Laura, after his own sister, Rose, who was forced into a lobotomy. Tom’s confession in the last lines of the play, how he runs away from the life he so hates but is haunted by Laura all the same reflects Williams’ guilt for not protecting his sister.
So, you ask, what do these classics have to do with you as a writer?
These works have stood the test of time, I’d argue, for a reason. Not only is it the clear references to the author’s lives, but the main characters’ obsessions, each time leading to downfall, that draws us in.
That should teach us a lot about writing too, about desire, about regret. We’re not all going to write obsessive and twisted characters nor tragic characters who make mistake after mistake, but obsession plays a great role in how we interpret the world using literature. These authors used their obsessive characters and tragic plotlines as an outlet for their own desires and perhaps as a warning, or explanation of why they kept those in check.
Obsession in literature is also a means of aestheticism, blocking out the socio-politics of the world those were written in, instead of focusing on, twisting, romanticizing something dark and true.
Obsession is so prevalent in classic literature because it was a form of expression of the darkest kind for all three authors mentioned here, and it has stood the test of time because somewhere in there, it calls to us too. Whether that is romance that terrifies us or stories that are tragic from miles away that still make us a little sad, we understand this theme in some part of ourselves.
All this to say, we live in a confusing age, full of conflict and troubles, and we shouldn’t be afraid of delving deeper into the uglier parts of our own lives to create art. It’s significant seeing these writers develop their legacies through things they could never bring to the light in the real world. Williams reached into his own mother’s psyche for Amanda’s character and fostered some sense of understanding, Fitzgerald projected heavily onto Gatsby and predicted his own tragic death and legacy when he wrote the book, and Wilde allowed his book to fully reflect himself and his beliefs.
There’s a lot these writers were wrong about, some a product of their time, some just their general issues—but their work still remains significant in the West because they channeled their own beliefs so strongly through these obsessed characters that call to us, and I’d encourage you to think about how your writing can reflect who you are, be your own without just showing a finely carved image of yourself. These authors teach us that not only do our experiences have meaning in our art, but so do our darkest ruminations, and in the spirit of something a little outside traditional V-day fluff, I think we should all lean into it just a little when writing.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.
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