Research Scholar, PSGR Krishnammal College for Women\
Assistant Professor, PSGR Krishnammal College for Women
The novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, portrays the life of a man named Ajay, referred to as A.J.,who faces a series of mishaps in his life. The aim of this article is to elucidate the manner in which he developed resilience despite the gruelling problems he had to face. A.J. applied logotherapy, which is a meaning-based therapy propounded and promulgated by a neurologist and psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl. Frankl advocated three different ways to discover meaning in one’s life. Developing valuable relationships is one of the three ways, and this aspect has been researched upon in this article. According to Frankl, a human being is not an assortment of drives, instincts and desires as stated by several leading psychiatrists. A man tends to find his life meaningful only when he ceases living a self-centered life and attempts to reach out to fellow human beings. The individual would eventually develop the resilence to overcome the traumatic thoughts that might be haunting him/her, thereby enabling himself/herself to lead a meaningful life. The paper reflects on the importance of developing valuable human relationships and its role in fortifying a person from his traumatic past, through the life of A.J, the protagonist of the novel.
Keywords : Trauma, Love, Meaning, Resilience, Logotherapy.
Trauma is the outcome of shocking and disastrous events in life that affects a person psychologically. Terminal illness, death of loved ones, war, genocide, etc, are some of the prominent causes of trauma: “In its general definition, trauma is described as the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena” (Caruth 104). Experiencing trauma for a prolonged period of time can seriously impair the emotional and psychological well-being of an individual. However, the theory of resilience assures that trauma can be overcome by adopting a thought process that is conducive to mental health: “Resilience theory is a multifaceted field of study that has been addressed by social workers, psychologists, sociologists, educators and many others over the past few decades. In short, resilience theory addresses the strengths that people and systems demonstrate that enable them to rise above adversity” (VanBreda 14). According to resilience theorists, the magnitude of trauma is not proportional to the traumatic event, but to the manner in which the individual responds to it. An individual who fails to combat his problems with resilience eventually develops existential vacuum, wherein, life appears to be meaningless.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist, who was an inmate of four different concentration camps, proclaimed that every life is meaningful, despite having experienced the horrors meted out in the camps. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning he delineates the horrors he encountered in the concentration camp and the methodology he adopted to remain resilient and battle existential vacuum. He stated that it is the individual’s responsibility to discover the meaning of his/her life by actively participating in it and being resilient in the wake of traumatic experiences. Frankl named his theory as logotherapy, wherein, the Greek word logos denotes “meaning” (MSM 104). He suggested that in order to discover the meaning of life, one should cease being self-obsessed and contribute to the wellbeing of others alongside fostering healthy relationships.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and feature in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true. (Frankl, MSM 116)
The aim of this article is to prove that a meaningful life can be led only when an individual stops being obsessed with his problems and learns to be resilient and accept difficulties and challenges as an integral part of life. However, to do so, he ought to participate in life, as withdrawing from society and brooding over his misfortunes will only magnify the problem and aggravate the pain. Meaning eludes the person who chases it fervently and also the one, who thinks only of his own betterment. However, when a man shifts the focus from himself and begins to devote all the activities of his life to a loved one, he discovers the inner strength to overcome his own trauma and begins to find life meaningful. The attiude adopted by an individual also plays a vital role in his battle against trauma. Frankl has categorically stated that, suffering which cannot be evaded must be embraced gracefully, as life tends to impart a message using suffering as a channel: “Logotherapy teaches that pain must be avoided as long as it is possible to avoid it. But as soon as a painful fate cannot be changed, it not only must be accepted but may be transmuted into something meaningful, into an achievement” (Frankl, WTM 51).
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a novel by Gabrielle Zevin. The protagonist of the story is a bookseller named Ajay Fikry, who is referred to as A.J. A.J. had discontinued his PhD and settled down in a remote place named Alice Island along with his wife to become a bookseller, a vocation that the couple found exciting. After her untimely death, he withdrew from society and became disillusioned with everything. He lost interest in running the bookshop and operated it in a perfunctory fashion, only to earn his livelihood. He was not bothered about replenishing his supply of books, to cater to the requirements of his readers. He drank heavily and ate unhealthily, which began to affect his health. The fiasco was complete when his extremely rare copy of Tamerlane, a book authored anonymously by Edgar Allan Poe when he was eighteen, was stolen. The cost of that book was estimated to be around four hundred thousand dollars and A.J. had pinned all his hopes on it to attain financial independence and thereby obtain his release from that Island. However, the theft had shattered all his hopes in an instant and he had no other choice but to live in the island and replenish the bookshop which was his sole source of income. This is when his resilience came into play and he decided to alter his shoddy lifestyle and bring his life back on track: “A person is free to shape his own character, and man is responsible for what he may have made out of himself. What matters is not the features of our character or the drives and instincts per se, but rather the stand we take towards them. And the capacity to take that stand is what makes us human beings” (Frankl, WTM 5).
A.J. thereby decided to maintain his health as it was deteriorating rapidly due to his debauched lifestyle. He left his shop unlocked when he went out to exercise, as it contained nothing precious anymore. On his return, he found a toddler in his shop with a note pinned to the child’s doll, which revealed the fact that it had been deliberately left there as the mother was unable to take care of it. The child was twenty-five months old and was named Maya. Initially, A.J. considered sending her away with a social worker. However, when the social worker arrived, he found it impossible to part with Maya as he was worried that the child might end up with the wrong kind of people much against the last wish of her mother, who desired that her daughter must be brought up by people who loved books. He thereby decided to adopt Maya and that decision gave him a new lease of life.
His bookshop inadvertently turned into the hub of Alice Island’s social life because of Maya. People began frequenting the shop to check out the little girl, and in order to entertain them, A.J. began stocking books of their choice. A police officer named Lambiase, who had investigated A.J.’s wife’s accident, Tamerlane’s robbery and Maya’s whereabouts; volunteered to be her godfather. He requested A.J. to organize a christening ceremony for Maya, which A.J. refused to do, stating that he was not a Christian. Lambiase insisted that a party should be organized at least, to formally announce the adoption of Maya to which A.J. agreed. A.J.’s sister-in-law Ismay was chosen as Maya’s godmother. These new relationships made A.J.’s heart swell with love.
A.J. watches Maya in her pink party dress, and he feels a vaguely familiar, slightly intolerable bubbling inside of him. He feels drunk or at least carbonated. Insane. At first, he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it’s love. Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything. (Zevin 99)
A.J’s love for Maya made him more receptive to the emotion and he fell in love with Amelia, a woman working for the publishing house and married her. A.J. thereby found happiness and love once again after his wife Nic’s death. However, his happiness was shortlived as A.J was eventually diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, which happened to be a rare form of brain cancer. However, A.J was not shattered by this predicament. He was contented with the manner in which he had carried on with his life despite all the challenges that life had thrown at him:“What counts is not our fears and anxieties as such, but the attitude we adopt toward them. This attitude is freely chosen” (Frankl, UCM 49). He evaluated his own life on his death-bed and realized that he had successfully overcome every traumatic event and emerged as a better human out of every challenge. From being a selfish, embittered man, he had evolved into a loving father and husband. He had also carved out a niche for himself as the key figure of the society due to his vocation, as it is a widespread conception that a bookshop is the hub of social activity and it adds life to the place it is located in.
Maya’s life had turned out beautifully owing to A.J’s decision to adopt her. Amelia found the love of her life in A.J since he decided to give himself another chance to experience happiness and opened himself to giving and receiving love. His decision to replenish his bookshop and keep it functioning added character to the island. This realization was tantamount to an epiphany and he was thoroughly convinced that the attitude that one adopts during crisis is what enables a man to overcome the trauma that he experiences, and the contribution that one makes towards the upliftment of fellow human beings and the society at large is what makes a life worthy and meaningful: “In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning upto the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life’s meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering” (MSM 118).
A.J was thoroughly convinced that he had lived a meaningful life as he not only managed to overcome his own traumatic past with immense resilience, but had also added value to the lives of his loved ones. Thereby, his parting advice to his daughter Maya was: ““We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on.”” (303)
MSM- Man’s Search for Meaning
UCM- The Unheard Cry for Meaning
WTM- The Will to Meaning
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. JHU P, 2010.
Frankl, Viktor.E. Man’s Search for Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. Random House, 2013.
—. The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism. Simon & Schuster, 2011.
—. The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. Penguin, 2014.
VanBreda, Adrian D. Resilience Theory: A Literature Review: With Special Chapters on Deployment Resilience in Military Families & Resilience Theory in Social Work, 2001.
Zevin, Gabrielle. The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry. Cengage Learning, 2014.