Kavalier and Clay Literary Analysis

Published: 2021-06-22 02:00:05
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A book is just like a sandwich because, just like a book, a sandwich can possess many layers. A book takes a lot of planning, writing and editing while a sandwich has these layers: the bread, then the roast beef, then the cheese. A sandwich with just the cheese does not create much excitement on the part of the diner. In the same way, many intricate, well-thought out layers makes a good book great. Michael Chabon explores the many complex layers of his narrative and has written a one-of-a-kind novel, or the equivalent of a one foot high sandwich, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Chabon uses numerous literary devices in his writing; at unique device is that he writes in third person perspective. This allows Chabon to explore the complex lives of his characters and show the reader the differences in the way each character handles escape in his life. Characters change their current situations because they want to change something about their lives. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon uses figurative language, irony, and symbols of escape to explore the ways in which people try to escape from their ordinary lives.
Michael Chabon deliberately uses figurative language to show how homosexual men have to hide their sexuality from society. Sammy has long been wrestling with being gay, but he has yet to do anything about it. One day the two boys share a moment at the top of the Empire State building. They kiss, and Sammy is “taken by surprise by the time his brain with its considerable store of Judeo-Christian prohibitions and attitudes could begin sending its harsh and condemnatory messages… it was too late” (Chabon 352).
Kissing another man may not be immoral, but many people consider it a sin. Sammy feels the same way; that is why it is hard for him to accept his sexuality. If Sammy were to come out of the closet, he would be condemned. His fame and fortune from the comic books would be tarnished and that is another reason that Sammy keeps it a secret. For example, society’s depiction of gay people is represented on page 352: “The electrical atmospheric phenomena associated with the Empire State building from St Elmo’s fire to reverse lightening that struck the sky.
” Chabon describes the danger the lightning presents to the building; it represents the danger society imposes on gay people. With that in mind, the kiss Sammy and Tracy share embarks them on a journey filled with secrecy and the discomfort of hiding who they truly are. The lightening rod deflects the power of the strike and will protect the pair for now, but they cannot hope to be sheltered from the judgments of society. Sammy is afraid of how he feels and the power of his emotions. Sammy is in an endless loop of escape where he is forced to pretend that he is a heterosexual in a society hostile to gay people.
Sammy and Tracy experience each other at the old Worlds Fair where Sammy grows wings and the love he and Tracy share sets him free momentarily in the solitude of their passion. But, as Sammy leaves the fair, his wings are clipped, and he retreats into the “lie” about his sexuality. He is no longer being true to his authentic self because he is afraid of how others will perceive him. Chabon uses figurative language to further develop Sammy’s struggle between his external behavior, that of a heterosexual, and his internal desire, that of a homosexual.
We notice his confusion when he contemplates the word boyfriend. “The word flew into Sammy’s mind and careened blindly around it like a moth while Sammy chased after it with a broom in one hand and a handbook of lepidotery in the other” (Chabon 372). Chabon is comparing the word boyfriend to a moth. Because, it is the 1950s, being gay is not yet accepted. The word boyfriend and gay are racing around his mind out of control, like a moth in frenzied flight around a light source. The moth symbolizes a dark and mysterious creature and also represents Sammy’s future: dark and unknown.
Sammy doesn’t know how events in his life will unfold and if society would accept him; as a result, he continues to hide his sexuality. In a way, he is not being true to himself, for he is living with the secret that he is a gay man. Ironically it is the book of lepidotery that guides Sammy in his metamorphosis. What happens to the moth helps Sammy see some truth about his own life. It forces him to contemplate whether to set himself free. and come out of the closet, just like the moth who evolves from a caterpillar. With the help of the book, Sammy can close the gap between who he is on the outside and who he really is on the inside.
While Sammy struggles with being his true self, Joe Kavalier is engaged with an entirely different set of problems. Chabon uses irony to express Joe’s need to escape his feelings of guilt. For example, Joe decided he would perform an escape act at the bar mitzvah of a boy who reminds him of the younger brother he left in Europe. Joe subsidized his brother’s escape from Europe to America by ship. For once, Joe feels he is finally making an impact on the war by saving his family, but the ship was attacked by Germans on its way to America, and all the passengers were killed.
Joe learned of the ship’s fate just before he was to entertain the children at the Bar Mitzvah. Joe now feels helpless because he can not rescue the children on the ship, his family in Prague or even himself. He had this mindset while he was lowered into the water. “It took three of them to hold Joe down. When they peeled away the bag, his face was red as a fresh welt, but his lips we’re almost blue. His eyes rolled in their orbits, and he gagged and coughed as though fresh air were poison… The cuffs had not been tampered with” (Chabon 399) Joe, having escaped from many harder situations, fails at this seemingly easy trick.
The author’s word choice makes his message quite clear: Joe tries to commit suicide and escape from the guilt in his life, but he is rescued. This leads Joe to feel impotent and follow a path of destructive behavior, but he has not hit his rock bottom yet; this is just the beginning. Chabon is trying to show that if one runs away from problems those unsolved problems will likely come back. Although Joe is unsuccessful in rescuing his family, he tries to bring about change change by enlisting in the service. Chabon uses irony to show Joe’s efforts as an enlisted solider struggling to escape the sadness of his life.
After the death of Joe’s younger brother on the Ark of Miriam, Joe felt helpless. His sense of helplessness sparked Joe’s enlistment in the the war and his attempts to defeat the enemy. This is ironic because Joe wished to fight Germans in the center of the action, but was stationed in the isolated Arctic. Joe is convinced that killing Germans would be a monumental achievement and would be his contribution to the war effort. In light of this, he tracks down a German miles away from camp with the objective of killing him. Joe finds the German, but he can not bring himself to kill him.
A scuffle ensues, Joe tosses his gun, and in the melee, Joe’s gun fires a bullet and kills the German. “A chimed tune C-sharp sounded in his ear, and with an odd sense of relief he felt his tormented bowels empty into his trousers” (Chabon 464). Joe’s “odd sense of relief” comes from the fact he killed the German accidentally rather than purposefully. He has a realization that he could not be so heartless as to make it happen. This is the opposite of what the reader would expect Joe to do, and is therefore ironic. The fact that the tone in his ear is C-sharp is also ironic because it is is a happy, pleasant, and peaceful sound.
He thought the death would be a climatic moment in his life. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment for the death of the German, however, Joe feels crushed. In an attempt to escape his pain, he develops a morphine induced addiction. Every time Joe escapes from one problem, he digs himself a bigger hole and ends up having to escape from the situation he himself created. Joe has found himself in an endless cycle of escape that he can not break and which Chabon has described as being in the clutches of a pair of nested Bramah Locks. Love is the key to unlocking the Bramah Locks, but Joe has yet to realize this.
When he does have this realization, that is when he breaks the endless cycle of escape. Just as Joe Kavalier needs realize the power of love, so the reader needs to understand that those who love us can liberate us. Chabon weaves together the theme of love and the symbol of the Bramah Locks to include the reader in the understanding that the people in our lives help us face life’s losses. In this novel, loss often leads a character to use escape as a solution. Chabon carefully intertwines Houdini’s escape act into the action of the novel. The famous showman chained himself with the “Bramah lock” and attempted to escape from it.
It is not an ordinary kind of lock, fastened with different thorny chambers and manacle, It was pronounced inescapable unless, it was unlocked with a key. “No one-not even Houdini, the master of escape- could pick a nested pair of steel Bramah locks” (Chabon 534). Houdini had failed to pick the locks, but still managed to escape thanks to his wife Bess. Bess Houdini, read the look of failure in her husband’s eyes as Houdini knew escaping was next to impossible. Only the love that Bess Houdini shared for her husband was able to liberate him from the inescapable lock.
As for Joe, he is trapped by the locks clenches and is unable to set himself free no matter how hard he tries to escape. Only his one true love, Rosa, is able to provide the unconditional love that would liberate Joe from his pair of nested Bramah locks. Just as the Bramah locks symbolize love, so the comic books and superheroes created by Joe and Sammy symbolize the tension between fantasy and reality. For instance, the Escapist, with the help of the Allies, fights to defeat Evil.
When Joe attempts to rescue his family, he is fighting evil with good. When the ship carrying his family is attacked, and the rescue fails, Joe realizes that he is not as strong as the evil that he faces. In his comics, for example, he is able to defeat evil, but he realizes that his art work is ineffectual and that the power of art is not enough to overcome Hitler’s regime of evil. Joe’s rejection of this reality sends him into a dismal period of depression where his fantasies take over. Instead of the comic book being used for the power of expression, Joe is now, “less willing to show it to other people, to expose what had become the secret record of his mourning, of his guilt and retribution” (Chabon 579).
Because the comic book brings back harsh memories of failure, Joe is reminded how his illness helped him escape from the harsh reality of his past. Still, one final escape remains: the escape into reality by returning to his loving family. The moment that helps him to do this is the second his eyes meet his son’s in the magic and comic book shop. Magic and comics brought them together, and Joe knows he has to throw all of the irrational blame aside. “He had left her-escaped from her…. it would be best… for him to return”(578).
Comic books, an expression of art, combined with Joe’s undying love for his son, forces Joe to make the mental leap: he must return to his wife and free himself and finally rejoin reality. Throughout the novel, Joe tries to escape from his fears, hoping this will cause them to disappear, but they never do. Joe rekindles his relationship with his family and comes to two realizations: face your fears because they will never go away and in order to love your family, you first have to learn how to love yourself.
When I finished reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay two ideas stuck with me. The first idea is that you need to know who you are, and you need to accept and love that person. The second idea is that it is better to stay with the devil you know than to escape to the devil you do not. Joe, too, wrestles with the idea of escaping to a devil he does not know, but he learns that the risk is not always worth the reward. More importantly, Joe struggles to accept his fears and often evades them. It is a sign of weakness if you walk away, hide, or escape from your feelings like Joe does.
This theme is close to my heart because a handful of my friends have succumbed to drug addiction as their way of escape. It is a lot more productive and healthy to challenge yourself and face head-on whatever the obstacle may be. It took Joe years to find a way to return to his family, to free himself from the Brama Locks with Rosa’s true love as the key. I, too, have hope for my friends that one day good will re-enter their lives, so they can find a better way, and they can rediscover their liberating “key”.

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