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Student Sample Essays


Please feel free to look at the student samples below as possible models for your own writing as you begin working on your own essays. Please note as well that these samples are not "perfect" (one of the most slippery of terms), nor are they meant to be, but they advance an interesting thesis, support their argument with sufficient evidence and research, and are generally well written. — Thank you to your fellow students for allowing us to have a glimpse at their work!


The Opposite of a Christian: Naturalism in Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter


Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter echoes the cynicism toward religion and spirituality manifest in the works of many nineteenth-century realist authors. Although Banks uses unconventional tools such as multiple narrators and non-linear storylines—the marks of a postmodern writer—his approach to realism is very much traditional, mirroring the works of his literary predecessors, from Stephen Crane to Mark Twain (whose classic Huckleberry Finn Banks reworked for his 1995 novel Rule of the Bone). In true realist form, there is no religious pretense in The Sweet Hereafter. Instead, to counter religious ideals, particularly those typical of Christianity, Banks explores theories of naturalism, stripping the text of spirituality and presenting the characters as purely physical and emotional beings. As Banks says, "[Realist] writers are essentially storytellers deeply concerned with the fates of individuals played out against their real contexts, their environments and circumstances. And these are the conventions of realism" (Wylie 737, emphasis mine). This realism is the factor that makes The Sweet Hereafter a true tragedy, in which the characters must face death for what it is, without the convenience and comforts of religion.

Hints of realism and naturalism surface before the narratives even begin, as Banks employs Emily Dickinson's poem as an epigraph:

By homely gift and hindered Words

The human heart is told

Of Nothing—

"Nothing" is the force

That renovates the World—

This bleak sentiment is the harbinger of naturalistic themes throughout the novel, where Nothing is the "force" that drives everything, creating a man-versus-nature mentality; there are no spiritual beings at work here. The word "renovates" is especially ironic in this verse because it implies a bettering of the world, which like the title of the book, is a sad contrast to the true, dire conclusions in the text.

The epigraph's existential tone also depicts the novel's setting: an atheistic or, at best, apathetically religious community. We see this in the fact that Dolores and Abbott, although they occasionally attend the First Methodist church, are "not religious persons" (26). They attend church for traditional and social reasons, which is an accurate portrayal of most of Sam Dent's residents.

Dolores Driscoll

The epigraph's tone blends seamlessly into the first narration, in which Dolores summarizes her morality in taking responsibility for oneself and that "together with the Golden Rule in a've got my philosophy of life" (26). Dolores' "philosophy of life" is purely internal and humanistic, and "you don't need religion for it" (26). This dismisses the need for a divine being. One can live, says Banks, a moral life without being religious. The crux of the novel, however, is whether one can deal with the tragedy of death without being religious. We see Dolores' struggle with this when, after declaring herself nonreligious, she says, "Although, since the accident, there have been numerous times when I have wished that I was [religious]. Religion being the main way the unexplainable gets explained. God's will and all" (26).

This is the sentiment on which the remainder of the book's theme rests. In true iconoclast form, Banks attempts to view and explain a tragedy through a non-spiritual lens, using only naturalistic means and methods. The tone of Dolores' "God's will and all" invokes a sense of foolishness in trying to spiritualize such things. Billy Ansel makes a strikingly similar statement after the accident: "The Christians' talk about God's will and all—that only made me angry" (73, emphasis mine). Herein we see sarcasm directed toward the will of God—if there is one at all.  Later, Dolores says of her relationship with her sons, "You tend to embrace in thought what you're forbidden to embrace in fact" (31). This subtly suggests the tendencies of the religious to embrace their traditions, however unbelievable—a motif we see much clearer in Billy Ansel's narrative.

Billy Ansel

From the start, the reader notices Billy's hatred for religion and spirituality. His narrative style is one that tells the bare, cold facts. Because his personality is practical and, both before and after the accident, disconnected from sentimentality, it's easy to see the accident as being simply that. While others around him claim they saw it coming or that by God's design it was meant to be, Billy only sees that it has happened and that things have changed—an accident in the truest sense of the word.

When acquaintances tell him they harbored some mysterious foreknowledge of the accident, Billy notes that it's merely their "way of living with claim after it happens that you saw it coming, as if somehow you had already made the necessary adjustments beforehand" (38). This statement takes a jab at prophecies so prevalent in organized religion, and to him, it changes the true definition of accident, which should have no ties to a greater, outside power. Because these so-called premonitions are considered supernatural, Billy dismisses them as idiocy: "Some people, when their dreams collapse, turn superstitious in order to explain it" (57). Herein, Banks parallels religious ideals with superstition, eliminating the possibility that things spiritual and things natural can coexist. These thoughts are reasonable for Billy, a widower and a Vietnam veteran, who has now lost both his children, and whose every thought and memory are tainted with death. After Lydia died, he stopped attending church altogether because "the Christian perspective came to seem downright cruel" (80). Thus Billy becomes increasingly naturalistic in his worldview:

"I still believed in life, however—that it goes on, in spite of death. I had my children, after all. And Risa. But four years later, when my son and daughter and so many other children of this town were killed in the accident, I could no longer believe even in life. Which meant that I had come to be the reverse, the opposite, of a Christian. For me, now, the only reality was death." (80)

We see this change more clearly in Billy's comment that "there was death, and it was everywhere on the planet and it was natural and forever; not just dying, perversely here and merely now" (67, emphasis mine). Billy's outlook is evolutionistic in that death is "natural and forever," as opposed the Christian perspective in which there was a time before death and there will be a time when death ceases to exist. Billy's view of this notion is entirely cynical:

"Biology doesn't matter, the Christians argued, because this body we live in is not ultimately real; history doesn't matter, they said, because God's time is different and superior to man's anyhow; and forget cause and effect, forget what you've been told about the physical world, because there is heaven and there is hell and there is this green earth in between, and you are always alive in one of the three places." (79)

For Billy, the "green earth in between" is the only reality and the "sweet hereafter," as Bert Cardullo suggests, exists "only in the memories of the living" (Cardullo 107). Billy in no way romanticizes, or tries to cleverly explain away—as he believes the Christians do—the morbidity and finality of death. He says, "The way we deal with death depends on how it's imagined for us beforehand, by our parents and the people who surround them, and what happens to us early on" (54, emphasis mine). The afterlife, therefore, is not a reality, but a social construct to cushion the hard blow and devastation of death; it is a myth entirely learned.

Banks uses spiritual terminology to explain Billy's circumstances, but with a distinctly naturalistic spin. Describing the parents who outlived their children, Billy says, "We, too, had died when the bus went over the embankment...and now we were lodged temporarily in a kind of purgatory, waiting to be moved to wherever the other dead ones had gone" (73, emphasis mine). This image of an earthly purgatory is an ever-present one in The Sweet Hereafter, symbolized cruelly by the "temporary morgue" where the children's bodies were being stored in a firehouse (69). Furthermore, Billy is twice referred to as a ghost, as is Zoe. Billy persists in telling us how dead he felt; when Mitchell Stephens disrupts his reminiscing behind the garage, Billy describes himself as a ghost, emotionless and stuck. He says, "For me, now, the only reality was death," in contrast to the Christian idea of life hereafter (80). When he is staring at the remains of the school bus, he describes even memories as having more life than he did. Because he had abandoned his spiritual upbringing, he had little to cling to for reassurance, thus thrusting him into this perpetual state of nothingness, or as Mitchell would describe it, "a person who's gone to the other side of life and is no longer even looking back at us"—a secular answer to purgatory (104).

Additionally, when Billy reunites with Risa for the first and only time since the accident, he depicts them as strangers in a "waiting room"—much like purgatory—unable to speak or feel or think (87). At that moment, Room 11 lost all its former sense of pleasure and escape. The two's conversation is expressionless, causing Billy to leave prematurely with a solemn goodbye and Risa whispering, "You go home, Billy," where the word "home" has lost its meaning (88). After that night, Billy says of his relationship with Risa, "we were simply different people. Not new people; different" (88). This contrasts the Christian idea of becoming a "new creation," or receiving a "new body," or there being a "new heaven and a new earth." Ansel doesn't see anything in terms of re-creation or redemption, only in terms of being different, for it is "nothing that renovates the world."

Banks further contrasts naturalism with the Christian worldview when Billy says, "He [Reverend Dreiser] wanted us to believe that God was like a father who had taken our children for himself. Some father" (73). Once again, we immediately sense the sarcasm in Billy's tone. Although his disenchantment with the Christian religion is heightened after the accident, we see traces of it even beforehand, when in Vietnam, Billy says, "To me the religious explanation was just another sly denial of the facts...I couldn't take the Christian line seriously enough even to bother arguing it..." (79). But despite his suspicion of Christianity, Billy still has a difficult time rationalizing the accident in purely naturalistic terms: "It flies in the face of biology, it contradicts history, it denies cause and effect, it violates basic physics, even" (78). This statement brings the reader back to the heart of the matter—not that naturalism is the superior worldview, but that sometimes the "unexplainable," as Dolores called it, must remain unexplained, for when one tries to explain in through spirituality and religion, the reality turns into myth, and pain is only masked.

Mitchell Stephens

The reader sees frequent naturalistic and Darwinistic ideals in Mitchell Stephens' commentary. As Austin Sarat suggests in his analysis of the film version of The Sweet Hereafter, the whole reason Mitchell even comes on the scene is to convince the dead children's parents that what some people call "misfortune" is really injustice (Sarat 23-24). Someone, something tangible is to blame; the parents should not simply rest on attributing the accident to the mysteries of Providence. Margaret J. Fried and Lawrence A. Frolik further develop this point:

Generally speaking, for an injustice to occur there must be an ill-intentioned agent responsible for the dreadful event, while a misfortune is caused by the random action of external forces of nature. Distinguishing between injustice and misfortune, however, proves difficult...because many events are rather obscure combinations of human and natural causes... To many, an unjust universe is more tolerable than a senseless one. Rather than accept random misfortune, we blame ourselves and each other in order to create a coherent and just story about causes and events. (Fried 6, emphasis mine)

As a lawyer, Mitchell must work only with natural, observable facts. So perhaps just as much as Billy, but for different reasons, Mitchell is increasingly unimpressed by the Christian worldview, which is largely faith-based. For instance, far from humans being made in the image of God, Mitchell has learned from working with his clients that "they're like clever monkeys, that's all" (91). Herein we see no small trace of evolutionary theories, which attempt to equate humans and animals, denying people have any divinely unique qualities. Similarly, he calls the mourning parents of Sam Dent "chumps" and "poor saps" (98). He later calls Abbott a "dummy" (152). For Mitchell Stephens, there is little value in human life.

Far from being the center of God's plan for the universe, to Mitchell, the beautiful landscapes through which he was traveling "were places, that's all. Interchangeable chunks of the planet" (92). He removes all spirituality and meaning from nature, much like those of whose books he has read. Mitchell mentions his familiarity with the works of Theodore Dreiser, a naturalist author of the twentieth century, as he drives. It is also no coincidence that the reverend in Sam Dent is named Dreiser—a subtle reminder to the readers that reverends and pastors hold no more legitimate answers than would a naturalist. Of the said landscape, Mitchell says it "controls you, sits you down and says, Shut up, pal, I'm in charge here" (93). Herein, Banks is attributing great power to the indifferent forces of nature, completing his picture of Sam Dent as an unreligious town, and elevating nature above all things spiritual.

Mitchell believes "there are no accidents" (91). But unlike the Calvinists, who would agree in that sense of attributing everything to God's sovereign purpose for both Himself and mankind, Mitchell only believes that in relation to his practice; lawyers must find someone on whom the "accident" can be blamed. In this small phrase, Banks is cleverly twisting the idea of Providence, claiming that all things are somehow attributed to and caused by humanity, and not to a divine being. He is secularizing a common spiritual thought that is prevalent especially in times of mourning.

Thus far we have only gleaned atheistic ideals from Mitchell's allusions. But like Billy Ansel, Mitchell makes it clear that he is no proponent of organized religion, including the few he believes to reside in Sam Dent: "Religious fanatics and superpatriots, they try to protect their kids by turning them into schizophrenics; Episcopalians and High Church Jews gratefully abandon their kids to boarding schools and divorce one another so they can get laid with impunity" (99). Whereas Billy sees the spiritual children as those who have inherited a learned religion, Mitchell, in his academic superiority, classifies them as "schizophrenics." Once again, this comment serves to highlight the stupidity of the spiritual residents of Sam Dent, as well as emptying humans of all divine attributes. Mitchell says of himself, "Some people, when terrible things happen to them, take strength from believing that other people are better than in fact they are. Not me. I go in the opposite direction" (139). This is reminiscent of Billy's statement that he'd become "the opposite of a Christian" in that they both lean toward the naturalistic worldview, even when it comes to human dignity.

This is more clearly seen when Mitchell attends the combined funeral of some of the Sam Dent children killed in the accident. Although it's understandable that Mitchell has no reason for being emotionally connected to the children, his speech offers a glimpse into his lack of respect for human life in general: "The pallbearers—uncles and older brothers and cousins of the kids inside the boxesshoved the caskets into the hearses, and the somber black-suited guys from the funeral homes slammed the doors shut on them" (147, emphasis mine). The indifferent language used suggests the children in the coffins are no longer beings, but mere bodies—that there is no longer reason to honor them. This refutes the common Christian doctrine that the body and soul will be reunited in the resurrection on the last day, thus creating again a naturalistic view of death.

It is also interesting to note that when Mitchell attends the funeral and is analyzing his surroundings, he notes that "Dolores was plunking herself down in the exact center of the town's grief and rage" (143). It's fitting that Banks would describe the "exact center of the town's grief and rage" as a church. To the author, grief and rage are intimately linked with the myths of death presented in religions such as the Christianity, which to the naturalist, only disguise the truth.  

When Mitchell visits the Ottos' house, he sees "no pattern" to it—a dome-like structure built halfway into a hill, with wooden shingles and surrounded completely by nature (112). Herein we see a small-scale version of the world in which humans live. For Banks, this is a symbol of the natural earth. The home's nonsymmetrical windows have no order because of the chaotic structure of the house. Through the windows, one can only see nature towering outside. Mitchell says he "felt trapped" (114). Even the furniture is earthy, including the tree-stump chair with its birch-stick back—"twig furniture, they call it, made to look as if it grew in the woods in the approximate shape of a chair or table or set of shelves" (115). The house resembles the idea of a naturalistic world—no design, little order, as is.

When Mitchell sees fourteen tiny crosses set out on the crash site, he thinks, "So much for separation of church and state" (138). One can't help but think that Mitchell wants church separated not only from government, but from his entire worldview. However, like Dolores, who sometimes wished she was religious, and Billy, who wrestled with the failure of biology to explain everything, Mitchell too struggles with the natural worldview when tragedy hits close to home. Of his strained relationship with Zoe, he says, "I had for years been tied to the ground, helpless and enraged by my own ability to choose between belief and disbelief" (157). In context, he is referring to the lies Zoe tells to obtain money from him, but in the greater context, we see that Mitchell has a greater struggle with Truth as a whole. In his profession, he is daily dancing around the lines of where truths end and lies begin, and vice versa. Like his profession, his naturalistic worldview provides few answers and many more questions.

Nichole Burnell

Nichole's narrative reveals the sad abuse by her father, who is a churchgoing man, as well as the apathy of her mother, who is the most religious figure in the novel. Nichole says, "Mom and Daddy are Christians, at least Mom is, and I sort of believe in God myself, so I did not want to appear ungrateful and end up losing what little luck I had" (171). This statement is revealing; it comes as no surprise that the "Christians" in the book are a sexually abusive dad and a flat, detached mom. This further defines Banks' slow-unfurling caricature of religious people throughout the novel, adding the new element of hypocrisy, which thus far has been only hinted at. We see Nichole's parents as those who are using their child's disability to gain sympathy, and perhaps even a modicum of celebrity, for their own selfish purposes. This is likely a commentary on the religious world in general—a testament to the tendency of some to elevate themselves as being holier, more special, than the average person.

Although Nichole "sort of" believes in God, her statement reveals her ignorance in that she doesn't want to appear "ungrateful" for her "luck"—two clearly contradictory ideas (for luck has no place in a universe governed by deity). Herein, Nichole embodies the idea that Banks only hinted at earlier, via Billy's narrative: the ability for children to inherit their parents' beliefs, however distorted they may be.

Through Nichole, Banks takes numerous jabs at Jesus Christ, the central figure in Christianity. Nichole lists a picture of Jesus as one of the many "dumb things" her church friends and classmates gave her after the accident (162). Furthermore, "There was a new picture of Jesus over the dresser that I knew Mom had put up; she'd no doubt left the old one upstairs to keep track of Jennie" (164). Herein is no small hint of sarcasm, emphasizing the stupidity of believing in an omniscient being, or at the very least, the futility of relics—perhaps a commentary on Roman Catholic tradition. Either way, not once is Jesus' name mentioned with reverence, as evidenced by Nichole's statement that her mother believes that "Jesus takes care of everything except your weight" (188). The most striking opposition to Jesus' authority, as held in Christian circles, is found in Nichole's description of her father:

But now I saw him as a thief, just a sneaky little thief in the night who had robbed his own daughter of what was supposed to be permanently hers—like he had robbed me of my soul or something, whatever it was that Jennie still had and I didn't. (180)

The term she uses to describe her father's disgrace is undoubtedly an allusion to the New Testament text in I Thessalonians 5:2 in which Jesus is said to come "as a thief in the night" to rapture His church. Within this text we see a veiled equating of Sam Burnell's taking away of his daughter's innocence to Christ's "taking away" his church, or as Banks intimates, the world's innocence. For the author, the naturalistic worldview is a return to truth that Christianity and spirituality have been denying for millennia.

Throughout Nichole's narration, the reader senses Banks' plea to realize that even a child can see the foolishness of a Christian worldview. Nichole starts to believe that people "just think [her parents] are dumb" and that she feels sorrier for them than herself, even in her condition. Eventually Nichole stops going to church and stops teaching Sunday school. She is able to see through her parents' masquerade and repudiates their hypocrisy, often reminding them of their Christian values by snidely commenting on the rules of "this Christian house" (195). She becomes more and more angered at "Daddy for what he knew and had done, and Mom for what she didn't know and hadn't done" (197, emphasis mine).

Thus Nichole, too, becomes "the opposite of a Christian" in that everything is void of spirituality and meaning; her church "wasn't [hers] anymore" (205). When determining what she will tell her lawyer, she thinks, "It was an accident, that's all. Accidents happen" (181). Like Dolores, Billy, and Mitchell before her, she concludes that accidents, death, and in essence, bad things, are simply natural and forever—a part of existence to be tolerated.

Dolores Driscoll

In the closing narrative, which circles back to Dolores Driscoll, we get many naturalistic images. Firstly, we see images of resurrection and "second life" attributed only to the inanimate. Boomer is the only thing that is said to be "still alive" (250). Also, the chapter begins in the end of summer, whereas Nichole's narrative ended in the winter; Banks completely passes over spring, the season of renewal and resurrection. Secondly, we see images of evolution in the derby in that "the strong cars quickly [drive out] the weaker" (251). This harkens back to survival-of-the-fittest, which fit in nicely with the novel's other naturalistic themes. Thirdly, we see images of naturalism in the repetition of circular objects in the novel's closing pages: "Over by the midway, the Ferris wheel spun slowly, rising and falling in the distance like a gigantic clock. The faint music of the merri-go-round..." (256). This "circle of life" motif symbolizes the circularity of time, as opposed to the Christian worldview in which time is a temporary creation.

As the events of the county fair die down for the night, Dolores says of the residents of Sam Dent, "it was as if we were the citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter" (254). Once again, Banks paints a picture of an earthly purgatory—of life after loss. Dolores continues: "We were absolutely alone, each of us, and even our shared aloneness did not modify the simple fact of it. And even if we weren't dead, in an important way which no longer puzzled or frightened me and which I therefore no longer resisted, we were as good as dead" (254).

The irony of Sam Dent's "sweet" hereafter lies in the fact that there is no renewal, no rebirth, no resurrection for its people. As symbolized by the circles spun throughout the novel's final pages, the events, accidents and deaths that characterized the winter months will likewise continue to occur naturally, forever. Thus Banks, like his realist predecessors, ends his novel with a bleak image of repetition, symbolizing the onward march of nature into "familiar darkness" (257). And like his postmodern contemporaries, Banks does not intend to provide answers for his readers, as many world religions claim to do, but is content to end sentences with question marks and ellipses.

Works Cited

Cardullo, Bert. "Blood, Snow, and Tears." The Hudson Review 52 (1999): 107-114.

Fried, Margaret A. and Lawrence A. Frolik. "The Limits of Law: Litigation, Lawyers, and the Search for Justice in Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter." Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 7 (1995): 1-29.

Sarat, Austin. "Imagining the Law of the Father: Loss, Dread and Mourning in The Sweet Hereafter." Law & Society Review, 34 (2000): 3-46.

Wylie, J.J. " Reinventing Realism: An Interview with Russell Banks" Michigan Quarterly Review 39 (2000): 737.


Fate, Scapegoats and Accident — Oedipus Rex and The Sweet Hereafter


The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks is a modern tale about the way in which a small town reacts to a terrible tragedy. It can be viewed as a contemporary morality lesson in the same vein as the classical Greek play Oedipus. There are obviously big differences; however, the themes and the idea of catharsis through being a scapegoat are present in both works. Banks has recast the scene from ancient Thebes to the fictional upstate New York town of Sam Dent, but there is a chorus, a sage, incest and someone who shoulders the blame for the entire town. The sin of hubris has been replaced with the sins of greed, wrath and litigiousness as these sins are much more relevant to contemporary America. Banks takes a classic tale and recasts it for a modern audience. By doing so, he spans Oedipus over four characters instead of just one man. We are given the story more like modern court depositions rather than in the form of a drama. This paper will show that although many years and place separate these two works, they are actually very similar stories with only a few minor differences.

So why would a contemporary author revert back to ancient themes? Is it just that every story has been told? There seems to be more at work with The Sweet Hereafter. It seems as though he needs to use large mythological structures in order to relate a story of this magnitude. He is not the first author to do so. According to T.S. Eliot in his article, "Ulysses, Order and Myth," James Joyce also used these structures in his modernist novel Ulysses. He states that "In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and is ...a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history...It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art" (177-178). The use of an ancient story retold in a modern way is a way of providing meaning and structure to an otherwise meaningless story. Just as James Joyce uses the Odyssey to convey a modern story, Banks uses Oedipus.

The narrative structures of The Sweet Hereafter and Oedipus Rex are in many ways the same. Both stories are told from the point of view of the narrators, which means that there is an inherent bias already built into the tales. As Margaret Fried and Lawrence Frolik state in their article, "The Limits of Law: Litigation, Lawyers and the Search for Justice in Russell Banks' 'The Sweet Hereafter:'" "...the 'real' story is composed of subjective experience, self-serving motivation and conflicting interests" (2). In much the same way, Oedipus constantly makes us think he is smarter and better than he really is. The Chorus, too, is swayed by Oedipus' statements about his own self-worth. Even after the prophet Tiersias reveals him to be less than what he seems, the Chorus says, "But I, for my part, will never join those who blame Oedipus...We all saw how the Sphinx came against him—there his wisdom was proved. In that hour of danger he was the joy of Thebes. Remembering that day, my heart will never judge him guilty of evil action" (33). Oedipus has convinced the Chorus of his innocence, just as each narrator in Banks' novel convinces us of his or her innocence. Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the bus, states on the first page, "...when I'm wrong at least I'm wrong on the side of the angels." We have no idea whether or not she is guilty, because like the Chorus in Oedipus, we have only what we are told upon which to base our assumptions. The reader is left to cobble a composite truth from what we are told. There is no omniscient narrator to give us the entire story.

The circularity in both the world of the ancient Greeks and in Banks' novel is another reflection of the connection between these two works. According to Michael Fowler the Greeks, especially Plato, believed that "the world was constructed with geometric simplicity and elegance" and that "the sun, moon and planets...would have a natural circular motion, since that is the simplest uniform motion that repeats itself endlessly" (1). These circular ideas are demonstrated in many ways within The Sweet Hereafter. The first and most obvious way is the way in which Dolores Driscoll both starts and ends the narrative thus forming a circle. Another more subtle way is the way in which many of the characters have double-letters in their names. This causes an echoing effect. For example you have Delores Driscoll, Billy Ansel, Abbott Driscoll, Mitchell Stephens, Nichole Burnell, Wendell Walker, and Harley and Wanda Otto.

There is also all of the circular imagery that appears at the end of the novel when the town has the carnival. Delores describes the scene by saying "the Ferris wheel spun slowly, rising and falling in the distance like a giant clock. The faint music of the merry-go-round...was strangely sad to me; it was like the sound of childhoods that were gone forever but still calling mournfully back to us" (256). The circular universe that the Greeks described is very much present in the modern world of Sam Dent. It is also evident within Oedipus as Oedipus liberates Thebes from the menace of the Sphinx when he first arrives and once again liberates Thebes from the plague that he has caused in the end. As McDonald says, "The intent to move beyond a present or evade a deadly future, merely traces the path back towards the end" (147). These ancient circular structures work in both texts to provide the idea that we are all bound to some larger universe. The idea is also present in the word disaster itself – literally meaning out of sync with the stars. The cosmos are misaligned in both of these texts and the people in them are constrained to fix the problem that is causing this discord within their respective universes.

In many ways these are both the stories of the loss of innocence. Sam Dent loses its innocence when the children die. The character of Billy Ansel feels that "A town that loses its children loses its meaning" (78). In much the same way, Thebes loses its meaning as a powerful city state whose ruler defeated the Sphinx. The priest tells Oedipus that Thebes is " a ship rolling dangerously; it has lost the power to right itself and raise its head up out of the waves of death" (2). Both towns are floundering in the wake of tragedy and both are at a loss of what to do. Thebes looks to Oedipus to save it again, and Sam Dent is eventually saved by Dolores Driscoll through a ritualistic, pre-Christian, pagan scapegoating.

The stories are also similar in that they both begin after the major event associated with the plot has occurred. The accident in Sam Dent has already occurred, the plague that affects Thebes is already in motion. We are introduced into the stories and shown how the various characters are left to deal with the aftermath of these tragedies. In Oedipus, the beginnings of the story are revealed as the action continues, and it is the same way in The Sweet Hereafter. The story is not told in terms of a beginning, middle and end, but rather as a series of flashbacks and steps forward that intermingle. It seems that whenever the tragedy is this great, telling the story in the traditional manner is inadequate. An event like the bus accident or Oedipus' sin must be revealed in pieces or the emotional impact is too great. Our psyches prevent us from absorbing that much grief and sorrow at once. Both Sophocles and Banks understand this and thus present their stories in bits and pieces. This is an echo of the circularity that is in both works; Sophocles and Banks circumlocute around their subjects. Banks doubles this circularity by having Dolores narrate both the beginning and ending chapters of the book. This narration completes the circle of the novel.

Instead of one centralized tragic hero, Banks presents us with the stories of four everyday people. Perhaps this is because in modern times a man like Oedipus, who is a hero, a king, and the representative for his town, no longer exists. Or because, as David McDonald puts it in his article "The Trace of Absence: A Derridean Analysis of 'Oedipus Rex,'" "Oedipus of course is a non-person, a semiopoetic structure, a purely mythic figure and hence is both a demigod and a reification of a living consciousness, and as such a projection of the self-deconstructive forces inhabiting the self and apperceived by the self" (157). Because Oedipus is this way, Banks must create four characters that each embody some aspect of Oedipus' character. The idea of a non-person will not work in Banks' realist setting. Mitchell Stephens represents his pride, Nichole Burnell the incest, Billy Ansel the attempt to defy fate, and finally Dolores his pain, suffering and his eventual scapegoating (in many ways similar to a medieval morality play). In fact, Dolores becomes the key character, repeated twice within the narrative structure. Her name comes from the old Latin root word for pain, dolor. She represents many of the mythological structures that are at work in Banks' novel. The Chorus of Greek drama becomes all of the other citizens of Sam Dent that are not given individual voices, but are none the less felt and heard. So that while there are differences between the Greeks and Banks' story, the character structures work in much the same way.

The idea that incest is among the worst sins you can commit is prevalent in both stories. In The Sweet Hereafter, Nichole Burnell uses this idea to punish her father for committing incest with her. She lies at her deposition so that her parents will be forced to drop the lawsuit and lose out on the money they would have received. She says, "I suddenly realized that I myself—and not Daddy...could force Mr. Stephens to drop the lawsuit. I could force their big shot lawyer to walk away from the case. And Daddy would know that I did it...And because of what I knew about him, he wouldn't be able to do a thing about it afterwards" (199). As Bert Cardullo puts it in his article "Blood, Snow and Tears," "Nichole is lying but her lie, in her view, is a malignant means to a benign end: the killing of the lawsuit, for now there is no one with 'deep pockets' to sue for malfeasance" (113). Nichole knows that because of the incest her father has committed, he will be unable to speak up. Oedipus also realizes that this sin is horrible. He says, "If there is any evil worse than the worst that a man can suffer—Oedipus has drawn it for his lot" (98). In other words, Oedipus has committed the worst evil possible. Both Nichole (in terms of her father) and Oedipus realize that the sin must be punished. Nichole prevents her family from suing the town and Oedipus puts his eyes out. In both cases, the person who commits the incest is severely rebuked.

In both tales advice comes from a person who is disfigured. In Oedipus it is the blind prophet Tiresias who truly "sees" Oedipus for what he is. The Chorus leader comments that Tiresias, "The man who sees most eye to eye with Lord Apollo...and from him you might learn most clearly the truth for which you are searching" (17). In The Sweet Hereafter, Dolores's husband Abbott represents the soothsayer. Confined to a wheelchair following a stroke, Abbott is the one who pronounces the great wisdoms of the story and prevents Dolores from joining the lawsuit. Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer in the novel, says that Dolores takes Abbott's words "like Delphic pronouncements" (149). This is an obvious echo back to the Greeks and Oedipus the King in particular, since it is the oracle at Delphi who commands that Thebes be cleaned. Also Dolores feels that "he's passed so close to death he has a clarity about life that most of us can't even imagine" (3). In other words, his stroke has given him insights that the average able-bodied person lacks. It seems that both Sophocles and Banks recognize that in order to truly see the world around you for what it is; you must be physically handicapped in some way. It is only when your world is restricted physically that you become fully mentally aware of your surroundings in a manner which elevates you to a prophet, in Tiresias his blindness becomes the ability to see, in Abbott lack of clear speech leads to pronouncements.

The reactions that both Mitchell Stephens and Oedipus have to Tiersias and Abbott are the same. They both look upon the prophet with disdain and disbelief. As Robert L. Kane points out in his article "Prophecy and Perception in Oedipus Rex," "...the circumstance which has the greatest effect on his [Oedipus'] destiny is not simply that he is ignorant of the facts but that...he often acts as if he knew what he does not" (190). Mitchell Stephens's thinks that Delores heard, "what she wanted to hear" (149). Stephens acts like he knows what is best for Delores and the town of Sam Dent, just as Oedipus acts like he knows what is best for Thebes. Neither of them realizes, of course, that they are the source of the relative plagues affecting both of these towns. As Kane puts it "Believing that the situation contains what he [Oedipus] sees in it (and nothing more), he not only fails to recognize the truth when it is placed before his eyes (i.e., his guilt), but ends up 'seeing' what is not there (e.g., the 'treason' of Creon)" (191). In the same way Stephens sees that "Dolores was the ventriloquist and Abbott was the dummy" (152). Stephens is so convinced of his knowledge that he dismisses Abbott as a puppet, just as Oedipus dismisses Tiersias as a traitor.

Both the ancient Greeks and Banks share a distaste for lawyers and unnecessary litigation. In many ways Oedipus is a demonstration of the failure of the law to produce a story that satisfies all parties that are present in the story. While waiting for reliable witnesses to verify or deny his story, the plague upon Thebes continues. It is the process of the trial that leads to Oedipus accusing his brother-in-law Creon when he has committed no wrong. As Fried and Frolik point out, the great Greek philosopher Socrates felt that "a lawyer's power to persuade is merely instrumental; it is not a virtue in itself. It brings happiness to no one, not even to the lawyer, because it cannot instruct us how we ought to live" (11). Billy Ansel, Banks' grieving father, describes the lawyers' arrival:

Naturally, the lawyers fed off this need and cultivated it among people who should have known better. They swam north like sharks from Albany and New York City, advertising their skills and intentions in the local papers, and a few even showed up at the funerals, slipping their cards into the pockets of mourners as they departed from the graveyard, and before long that segment of the story had begun—the lawsuits and all the anger and nastiness and greed that people at their worst are capable of (74).

The lawyers represent the greed and the worst of human nature for Banks. They are akin to parasites, feeding off of the tragedy of the bus accident. The lawyers become the catalyst for the community of Sam Dent turning on one another. They are become representative of the evils of litigiousness. The hatred for lawyers and what they do is obviously present in both works. We see that the system has failed both the people of Sam Dent and the people of Thebes. In the end, the courts and lawyers cannot provide the closure that these towns seek. It must come from the sacrifice of an individual. Abbott Driscoll sums it up when he says, "The true jury of a person's peers is the people of her town. Only they, the people who have known her all her life, and not twelve strangers, can decide her guilt or innocence. And if...she has committed a crime, then it's a crime against them, not the state, so they are the ones who must decide her punishment too" (151). This is in many ways similar to how the Chorus functions in Greek drama. Both Banks and Sophocles realize that the town is the ultimate decider in these matters. Since they are the ones that have been wronged, they are the ones that have to pass judgement.

The idea that society must be righted in the face of crisis also comes through in both of these stories. In the article "Oedipus Pharmakos? Alleged Scapegoating in Sophocles' 'Oedipus the King,'" R. Drew Griffith states that, "Society must respond to the crisis in order to return to its normal state, and this response...inevitably takes the form of the scapegoating mechanism" (96). In other words, the plague in Thebes and the bus accident that kills the children must both be answered by the creation of a scapegoat. Someone must take the blame for these tragedies. The idea of a blameless accident is one that cannot be accepted. A world without reason is intolerable: "To many, an unjust universe is more tolerable than a senseless one" (Fried and Frolik 6). According to Mitchell Stephens, Banks' lawyer, there are no such things as accidents (91). Thus someone is always to blame. We need the psychological release that a scapegoat provides.

One of the biggest similarities comes with the punishment, both literal and figurative, of the scapegoat of these two stories. According to R. Drew Griffith, "It is of prime importance that the scapegoat is chosen 'for inadequate reasons...and that he is completely innocent of the charges brought against him. This is true even though his persecutors are acting in good faith and believe him to be guilty" (97). This is part of the This is especially true in the case of Dolores Driscoll, who becomes the scapegoat in The Sweet Hereafter. In the case of Oedipus the scapegoat is himself. David McDonald says that "Oedipus is the scapegoat for Apollo...Oedipus stands in for the guilt as well as the glory of a god" (156). Although he is indeed guilty of killing his father and marrying his mother, he commits these acts in ignorance; therefore, when he chooses himself as a scapegoat he does so out of a sense of duty to his subjects, rather than a sense of guilt. He accepts the blame for his misdeeds and puts his eyes out. By doing so, he alleviates Thebes of its curse and life goes on. In The Sweet Hereafter, Dolores becomes the scapegoat, but it is her car, Boomer, who, in a form of displacement, receives the punishment. Boomer is entered into a demolition derby and as the car is battered, the townsfolk cheer. Boomer becomes the symbolic equivalent Oedipus' eyes and he is the recipient of the physical punishment that Dolores, the scapegoat, cannot receive in modern times. As Fried and Frolik put it:

Through the microcosm of Sam Dent, Banks reveals the fundamental belief that justice means the punishment of the guilty. Without an identifiable guilty party, there can be no justice, no resolution, and no healing. Someone must be guilty and therefore punishable if life's equilibrium is to be restored. By the identification of the car Boomer with Dolores, the demolition derby achieves a communal satisfaction beyond the law proper. The derby in all its ritualism proves to be a cathartic, quasi-legalistic purification that is a formal outlet for the town's pent up emotions (18).

Dolores becomes her namesake. She becomes the representation of pain for the entire town.

What both Sophocles and Banks make clear is that there is a catharsis to be had by being the scapegoat. After Billy Ansel reveals that Dolores has been blamed for the accident, she says, "I remember feeling relieved, but that's a weak word for it. Right away, without thinking once about it, I felt as if a great weight that I had been lugging around for eight or nine months, since the day of the accident, had been lifted from me" (247). Oedipus too, takes comfort in his suffering. He says, "The evil is mine; no one but me can bear its weight" (100). There is an understanding that by accepting the blame, Dolores and Oedipus have both freed their towns from further destruction and ruin. In an interview, Russell Banks said about Dolores's scapegoating:

If you look at in terms of archetype and ritual and universal concepts of social order, you can see that a scapegoat, from the point of view of the scapegoat, is a legitimate and ultimately relieving and transcendent experience. It resolves conflict rather than creating it. If the conflict is one that produces anxiety and suffering, such as the one Dolores is in, then becoming a scapegoat is a way of eliminating that suffering. And that's what occurs at the end of The Sweet Hereafter: Dolores becomes a scapegoat; the town recognizes her as such, and that relieves her of a kind of suffering that she's experienced up to that point (Wylie, 9-10).

In the case of Thebes, ruin from famine and plague, and in the case of Sam Dent ruin in the form of lawsuits which would have eventually caused the town to fall apart.

The description that Mitchell Stephens gives of the plagues that are affecting the youth of America is similar to a description that the Chorus in Oedipus gives of the suffering that is affecting Thebes. Stephens speaks of the modern pestilence "violent on the streets, comatose in the malls, narcotized in front of the TV" (99). There is also the idea that Stephen's daughter Zoe, suffers from the biggest plague of our modern world—AIDS. In the world of Oedipus, these plagues include sickness, pain, death and unripe and unharvestable crops (12). While the pain is different, the message is the same. Something is causing these infections in society.

The idea that fate and/or the greater forces of nature manipulate man is evident in both works. Mitchell Stephens feels the pull of the world that surrounds Sam Dent: " feel simultaneously surrounded by the darkness and released into a world much larger than any you've dealt with before. It's a landscape that controls you, sits you down and says, Shut up, pal, I'm in charge here" (93). Fate and the Gods operate in much the same way in Oedipus. The Chorus states, "May destiny be with me always" (60). The main lesson of Oedipus Rex is that destiny is with you always. All of the things that Oedipus does to prevent himself from fulfilling the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother (leaving Corinth, going to Thebes), lead him to doing just that. Just as the landscape of Sam Dent seems to control the people, so does the fate of Oedipus control him.

There are some significant differences between these stories as well. While the people of ancient Greece seemed resigned to accept their fates, the same is not true of modern New York. One of the lessons that Sophocles seems to want to illustrate is that once the Gods design your fate, you are committed to that ending. It is when Oedipus tries to resist his fate that he ends up fulfilling the prophecy. The residents of Sam Dent are not willing to believe that everything is predestined. Many of them question whether or not a God exists, let alone many Gods. As Billy Ansel, who loses his twins in the accident, says, "...the Christian perspective came to seem downright cruel to me, because I learned that death touched everyone...I had come to be the reverse, the opposite of a Christian" (80). Yet the idea of a pure accident is an uncomfortable one. Mitchell Stephens explains, "There are no accidents. I don't even know what the word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does" (91). The idea of a random universe is unsettling, but the townspeople are also not willing to accept the notion that everything is predetermined. Thus, Banks' reveals what is at the heart of the modern dilemma. We do not want to believe that fate controls us, but we also do not want to live in pure chaos. This is in part what the novel addresses; our need to make sense out of the horribleness of life in the absence of the fate that directs Oedipus. This is also addressed in the film The Sweet Hereafter, in the opening scene in which Stephens is stuck in a car wash. By accident of it breaking down he is now at the mercy of modern technology. He may not believe in accident, but that does not make him immune to them.

Even though fate directs Oedipus, Apollo himself is noticeably absent.  Yet as McDonald points out, "The god who remains absent throughout is a decisive force in shaping the form of the whole: shaping the timely presence of appearances, entrances, prophecies and reports from the spaces beyond the present" (151). So that even though he is absent, Apollo's presence is very much felt. This is very different from the God that may or may not exist for Banks' characters. They feel no presence of a God. The absence of Apollo does work to make Oedipus a more human drama, rather than one that relies on a deus ex machina to continue the action of the plot. In this way, Oedipus is a much more modern drama than many of its contemporaries. Fate is a an unavoidable in the world of the Greeks, while accident is out of the control of everyone, including the Gods. Accidents are random and fate is not. This is the major difference between these two works.

So what is the point? Why should we care if these two stories are similar? Because it proves that within the scope of human tragedy, the things that mattered thousands of years ago still matter today. In the end, as different as these two stories are, they are also very similar. The themes of incest, punishment, scapegoats and catharsis are present in both of them. In many ways, The Sweet Hereafter is a retelling of the Oedipus story, with the protagonist divided among four separate characters. The modern tragedy is in, of course, the loss of the lives of fourteen children in a bus accident, but the same basic principles are there. The wrongs of a town cannot go unpunished, yet there is relief in the unburdening. Oedipus feels it after he puts his eyes out, and Dolores feels it after Boomer is battered. They have achieved the protection of their town and their community at the cost of bearing the brunt of the blame for its downfall. They achieve the catharsis that Aristotle insisted was the key to a tragedy. Somehow, we too also feel a sense of relief in their unburdening. This modern, realist novel and ancient Greek drama are connected in the end result that they produce. They force us to see that society needs a scapegoat in order to deal with the tragedy of accident or the plague of sin.


Works Cited


Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Cardullo, Bert. "Blood, Snow, and Tears." The Hudson Review. Spring, 1999. 107-114. Weber State Library, Ogden, UT. 10 Jan 2008.

Eliot, T.S. "Ulysses, Order and Myth." Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1975.

Fowler, Michael. "How the Greeks Used Geometry to Understand the Stars." Greek Astronomy. 1995. University of Virginia. 21 Apr 2007.

Fried, Margaret J. and Lawrence A. Frolik. "The Limits of Law: Litigation, Lawyers and the Search for Justice in Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter." Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature. Spring — Summer, 1995:1-29. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 16 Jan 2008.

Griffith, R. Drew. "Oedipus Pharmakos? Alleged Scapegoating in Sophocles' 'Oedipus the King.'" Phoenix. Summer 1993: 95-114. JSTOR. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 9 Apr. 2008.

Kane, Robert L. "Prophecy and Perception in the Oedipus Rex." Transactions of the American Philological Association. Vol. 105, 1975: 189-208. JSTOR. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 9 Apr. 2008.

McDonald, David. "The Trace of Absence: A Derridean Analysis of 'Oedipus Rex.'" Theater Journal. May 1979: 147-161. JSTOR. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 9 Apr. 2008.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. New York: Washington Square Press: 1962. Translated by Bernard M.W. Knox.

Wylie, J.J. "Reinventing Realism: An Interview with Russell Banks." Michigan Quarterly Review. Fall 2000: 1-16.

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