The Ultimate Literary Essay

Now that school is over, I figured it was time to finally write the literary essay I had always wanted to write …


What is the meaning of life? Having grabbed your attention with this completely unrelated hook, the essay will now begin. Please fasten your seatbelts. The nearest exit is at the end of this essay. We are now ready for takeoff. The renowned play The Crucible was written in the esteemed year 1953 by renowned author (playwright?) Arthur Miller. The extraordinary autobiographical graphic novel (=comic book) Persepolis was elaborately written (drawn?) by the famous author (cartoonist?) Marjane Satrapi in 2000, and then immaculately translated to the renowned language English in 2004. And Tehtaan varjossa [In the Factory’s Shadow (I swear it sounds better in Finnish)] was written by Toivo Pekkanen in, uh … 1930±7. Though these disparate works deal with seemingly unrelated topics – namely, oppression of the working class in early-1900s Finland, oppression of everyone in revolutionary Iran, and oppression in 1690s Salem as a metaphor for oppression in 1950s United States – they are united by their use of language as a way to convey meaning.

In all three works, language is used to convey meaning. This contributes to readers’ understanding of the work, as well as to their enjoyment of the work, since it means that their reading time is not spent staring at gibberish. For example, the line “We’re being bombed!” in Persepolis conveys the meaning that the characters are, indeed, being bombed.   However, language is not all that is used to create meaning. A reader of Persepolis will quickly note that the text is embedded in speech bubbles that are themselves part of a larger series of lines, shapes, and curves. This essay advocates for a radical interpretation of these shapes: they are meant as illustrations of the events occurring in the book. This is a feature that permeates the “graphic novel” genre, and is even hinted at in the name: “graphic” means “relating to visual art”. In this way, visual and textual modes of communicating meaning are intermixed, creating a metaphor for how the traditional and the modern are juxtaposed in Persepolis. The juxtaposition of black and white in the illustrations is also a metaphor for this juxtaposition. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the two juxtapositions used to reinforce this metaphor about juxtaposition is itself a juxtaposition of juxtapositions, which we will refer to as a “metajuxtaposition”, “juxtajuxtaposition”, or a (juxta)^2-position.

Another work that plays with the use of language to convey meaning is Tehtaan varjossa. This astoundingly heterodox work has one remarkable feature: it is written entirely in Finnish. The author’s talents are evident in the fact that this remarkable effect is apparent already from the very first line: “Kesä 1918. Kaikkialla kaupungissa oli suru ja nälkä.” If you do not speak Finnish, the meaning of this line is entirely lost (which, honestly, is probably for the better). In this way Pekkanen has expertly illuminated the reality that gleaning meaning from a work is dependent on the reader’s knowledge of the language in which the work is written in. This forces the reader to confront their own existence as a lonely entity incapable of communicating with other minds except through the narrow, regimented confines of written or spoken language. Thus confronted by loneliness and existential dread, the reader cannot help but sympathize with the lonely and apathetic main character Samuel Oino, who spends the novel doing little but experiencing a sequence of existential crises, interrupted only by the miseries of poverty and failed relationships. Speaking of existential crises, have you ever accidentally included a Finnish novel in your English literature essay? Suffice to say, we will not be returning to Tehtaan varjossa.

I was going to say something about The Crucible, but SparkNotes just went offline.

Having run out of points to make, we return to analyze the hell out of an earlier point. “We’re being bombed!” is a key quote in Persepolis. However, to understand its full significance, some context is required: the main characters (“we”) are, in the present moment, being bombed, in the sense of there being airplanes above their home city (Tehran) that are in the process of bombing Tehran (with bombs). The sentence is short, conveying the urgency of the situation to the characters within the work while also adding to the tension that the reader feels while reading the work. The use of the word “we” emphasizes the shared group identity of Marjane’s family. The informal contraction “we’re”, instead of the more formal “we are”, serves to further emphasize the close relationship between the family members. Taken together, “we’re” therefore advances the theme of the importance and closeness of family bonds that runs through the work. The next word, “being”, is a pun: taken as a noun, it means “existence” or “entity”, thus making the reader reflect on the idea of life and living beings in general. There is a terrible irony here: the purpose of the bombs that they are “being” bombed with is to kill them, thus ending their “being”. The alliteration in “being bombed” enhances this irony by more firmly connecting the two words despite their antagonistic meaning. Finally, “bomb” carries connotations not just of war, death, and bombs, but also of failure, as in the sentence “I bombed this essay.” This reflects the many types of failure occurring simultaneously in Persepolis at this point: the Iranian government has failed to protect its citizens, and Marjane’s family might soon “fail” to exist (or should I say, “bomb at being”?) due to being blown up. Note, however, that in British slang “to bomb” something means success rather than failure, as in the (at the moment regrettably improbable) sentence “I bombed this essay!” This interpretation is at first vindicated when Marjane’s family succeeds at surviving, but later challenged when the Iranian government continues to fail to protect its citizens from the war. However, an alternative reading is to look at different perspectives: the Iraqi fighter pilots have “bombed”, not just literally, but also “bombed” (as in “failed”) at their objective of killing people in Tehran and winning the war, while the Iranian government “bombs” (as in “fails”) at keeping (literal) Iraqi bombs from exploding, while “bombing” (as in “succeeding”) at its objective of keeping the war (and the (literal) bombing) going on and thus strengthening its grip on power. Failure or success (“bombing” or “bombing”) are mirrored depending on the perspective: what constitutes “bombing” (“success”) for the Iraqi pilots instead constitutes “bombing” (“failure”) for Marjane’s family, and likewise the failures and success of the Iranian government are, ironically, all too often mirrored to become the success and failures, respectively, of its citizens. This ties in to the motif of the mirror, which occurs many times in Persepolis.

In conclusion, all three works use language to convey meaning. These important works further serve as explorations of human nature that expertly illuminate the most foundational aspects of what it means to be human, while broadening readers’ conceptions of themselves, the world, and – in particular – their relation to the world. The esteemed authors of these acclaimed works succeed in immersing the reader in the admirable stories they have crafted while thoughtfully exploring essential themes that succeed at simultaneously reaffirming and challenging readers’ moral compasses. As part of a desperate effort to conclude with something other than meaningless platitudes while smoothly linking back to the beginning, I will conclude that perhaps these themes point the way towards understanding the meaning of life.


  1. So you let us understand that those literary essays written at school were slightly different ...?? (This was fun, indeed.) - M.

    1. Well, they were not similar on purpose.

  2. I have never laughed this much because of a random essay I'd stumbled upon the internet. Fantastic.