Labyrinths in Literature

"Mazes" and "labyrinths" appear in literary works of every kind--authors attempt to represent labyrinthine structures or themes in their writing, or set their characters, stories, and objects in the context of a maze, or reveal symbolic values from the features and thoughts surrounding the maze form. Mazes in literature also possess tonal values--conveying a great deal of mood, and frequently, an author is merely trying to appropriate the romantic or mythic flavor of the notion of mazes as gothic, mysterious structures, or, else, as mythically pure symbols of antiquity. The mood of "maze literature" is dependent upon the specific context of the fiction but can range from the mystical to the scientific and from the essential to the commonplace.

An interesting introduction to these "maze literatures" is an anonymous poem which appeared in British Magazine in 1747. . . It is a piece of forgotten popular fiction; however, this does not prevent it from containing many of the issues already addressed as specific to this type of literature.

Reflections on Walking in the Maze at Hampton Court

One can deconstruct the maze image to find its symbolic meanings. If one imagines the course of a life as a passage through a labyrinth, teleological issues arise: is there a definite end, an ultimate purpose in life?, can we know its course and seek out an end?, is there a natural design underlying the phenomena determined by actions and events in a mechanistic world?, is the end death, and in that case, what is death? Representations often stress the importance of the passing through rather than the beginning or the end.

The labyrinth image is also used simply to suggest complexity; the fact that there are deadends, unknown turns, that confound the protagonist, that he or she is constantly faced with difficulty. . . There is no need in many cases for the image to go further-- a maze may have an underlying and knowable structure but it may not, it may be endless but it may also be traversable, it may be forever shifting or immutable. Many authors explicitly utilize these vague or abstract possibilities to present fictive worlds which are ambiguous and without answers. . .

Jorge Luis Borges's short fictions are a very good example of stories which tackle these philosophical and fictional issues; in fact, a collection of his stories appears under the title Labyrinths. His fictions, in form and content, are concerned with process, and facing the disorder and contigency of immediate reality. "The world is a book and the book is a world, and both are labyrinthine and enclose enigmas designed to be understood and participated in by man."

An author with connections to Borges is Franz Kafka, whom Borges translated into Spanish. However, the mathematically-pure and contained world of Jorge Luis Borges's fictions greatly contrasts with the irreducible paradoxes of Kafka's parables and allegories. The short story "A Chinese Puzzle" brings the maze image to the level of the mundane in the form of a child's toy. The allegorical significance of Kafka's story is conveyed in the personification of the little ball who travels the uncomfortable paths of the puzzle without knowing his own role in the world.

W.H. Auden's poem "The Labyrinth" addresses an important aspect of the maze image--that of perspective. Whatever one can say or know is only known from a chosen point of view, an imposed framework. Thus, man is without wing and looking up to the bird.

The maze does not need to be an overarching frame nor a dominant image; many pieces of fiction use quick references or brief figures of speech linked to mazes effectively. George Eliot's MiddleMarch is often considered the finest English novel from the Victorian Period and offers an appropriate example in a famous metaphor comparing the mind of Mr. Casaubon , the first husband of the protagonist Dorothea, to a labyrinth. Initially, this image presents promising and extensive possibilities, but labyrinths are also confining and confusing. So that later in Chapter 20, the `large vistas and wide fresh air which she [Dorothea] had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither.' Central to this work is the theme of representing the perception of all acts of interpretation as doomed to imperfection, without suggesting that the attempt should be abandoned

The significance and meaning of an image or object may very well be determined by the thoughts of the reader. However, writers can use language artfully to produce thought-productive representations of the world at large.

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