Falling in literature
One of the most pervasive concepts of ‘falling’ is that of falling in love. Because most of literature is devoted to this theme in one way or another, I begin with an ancient love story, which can then stand for all the love stories that come later—even yours.
When his wife Eurydice, steps on a nest of vipers and dies, Orpheus is grief-stricken. He descends to the underworld and persuades Hades to allow her to return to earth. Hades agrees on one condition, that Orpheus walk in front of her and not look back until they both reached the upper world. The lovers set off. When Orpheus reaches earth, his concern has grown so great that he looks back to see if she is okay, forgetting that she had not yet arrived. She vanishes a second time, this time forever.
Plato criticises Orpheus for being a coward. If his love was genuine, Plato argues, Orpheus would have died for Eurydice, rather than try to get her back. Too me, this sounds like a romantic notion. I prefer love that is active, clever, positive. Orpheus used his skills and nearly achieves his goal. At the last moment, anxiety overwhelmed reason—something that happens often in love.
Some fall out of carelessness. In order to escape exile in Crete, Daedalus fashions wings from wax and feathers for his son, Icarus, and himself. Icarus pays no attention. In the glory of flight, Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax of the wings melts, and he falls into the sea while Daedulus looks on.
Ambition can lead to a fall. Perhaps the most ambitious figure in all of literature is Satan. He is represented as a rebellious fallen angel, who was, according to Milton, “brighter once amidst the host/Of Angels, than that star the stars among” (Paradise Lost Book VII).
In Shakespeare, two characters suffer from ‘the falling sickness’: the first is Julius Caesar who is felled by his comrades; the other is Othello who fells his wife.
The Faust tale has served as the basis for many literary works. In the versions of both Marlowe (1616) and Goethe (1808), Faust reflects on types of scholarship, one by one rejecting logic, medicine, law, and divinity. With a wide sweep of the arm, he “strikes these books from the table”, and settles on the pursuit of magic, which he believes will make him a mighty god. As the books fall to the floor, Faust rejects the wisdom of the world and embraces dark learning, making a pact with Lucifer.
In Dickens’ poignant The Tale of Two Cities (1859), the guillotine blade falls on the neck of Sidney Carton in one of the most memorable and self-sacrificing deaths in literature.
Alice falls into a rabbit hole in 1865 and through a looking glass in 1871.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was published serially from 1873 to 1877 in The Russian Messenger. At the time, it was widely considered to be romantic drivel; then Dostoyevsky declared it to be the ‘perfect novel’. Perhaps it was that the love story ends where it began: in a train station. Anna meets Vronsky there and falls in love. She faces the end of the affair in the same station with a different kind of fall.
Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man (2007) is inspired by the infamous Richard Drew photograph of a man falling from the top floors of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Throughout the narrative, a performance artist appears in various parts of the city. Wearing a business suit, he suspends himself upside-down with a rope and harness in the pose of the man in the photograph.
In Song for Night (2007), Chris Abani gives us a lyrical novel of child soldiers in African country ripped apart by war. An orphan with the unlikely name of My Luck’s has the misfortune to fall on a landmine. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself separated from his platoon and embarks on a search for them, for home, for anything that makes sense.