The German critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) once noted that the story, a short work descending from the fairy tales and fables of the oral tradition, typically offers us “counsel”—a moral, some practical advice, a proverb, or a maxim—which we can use in the conduct of our own lives. The novel, a long work dependent on print culture, rather more ambitiously tenders us “the meaning of life.” Such a meaning, not reached until, and invariably summed up by, the moment of the hero’s death, transcends any particular dilemma that counsel might give a solution to. A solution may be repeatable: the dilemma can come up again, and the principle underlying the solution—for example, that the gods favor a younger brother’s risk-taking as often as they favor an elder brother’s prudence—can have a validity for sisters as well as brothers, black folk as well as white, and so on. But a statement about the meaning of life takes an exceptionally long view, covering not only the hero’s lifetime but also the lifetimes of people who resemble him. Further, the long view can in religious epochs go beyond temporality—the tick-tock of this world—to guess at the soul’s condition in the eternal silence of the next.
KeywordsFairy Tale Longe Journey Black Folk Liberal Reform Material Power
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