New Year’s Resolutions: Some Lessons from Literature

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Now that the ball has dropped, the confetti has been swept away, and 2017 has arrived, it is time to put those New Year’s resolutions into effect. Easier said than done. For readers who seek help along the road to self-improvement, we offer some unconventional advice and context, gleaned from the digital pages of Literature Criticism Online, on some common resolutions.

Drink Less: If that New Year’s Day hangover is not enough to prove the importance of moderation in alcohol consumption, perhaps the short fiction of Raymond Carver—treated in SSC 213—will do the trick. Carver himself struggled with the bottle for much of his adult life, and his stories often deal with characters whose alcohol abuse leads to broken relationships, alienation, and family strife. All is not bleak and hopeless, however. As critic Frank Kovarik notes, Carver’s short story “If It Please You” concerns James Packer, a recovering alcoholic who takes up needlework to “overcome his desire for booze” and “fill up the time formerly devoted to drinking.” Packer “knits things that connect him to others’ lives—‘caps and scarves and mittens for the grandchildren,’ ‘two woolen ponchos which he and Edith wore when they walked on the beach,’ and an afghan that he and his wife sleep under.”

Lesson: The best way to lose a vice might be to gain a hobby.

Lose Weight: In an effort to shed a few pounds, many will turn to dieting in the New Year. Maintaining a healthy weight is a laudable goal, but as Sandra Tomc explains in her analysis of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire—covered in TCLC 238—there can be a dark side to dieting. Her essay “Dieting and Damnation” argues that Rice’s novel equates the “act of staying hungry” with an “expansion of consciousness that is proportional to the diminishment of the body.” Such an idea, she notes, clashes with the argument of feminist scholars: “For them dieting is inimical to feminist agendas because, by forcing women to concentrate so completely on their bodies, it diverts them from the more politically constructive cultivation of their minds.”

Lesson: Eat healthy, don’t starve yourself, and keep hitting the books.

Quit Smoking: It is always a good time to turn away from tobacco use, but the deadly habit can prove difficult to kick. At the beginning of John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, the unsatisfied eponymous protagonist is trying to quit smoking, and after a pickup basketball game he tosses a cigarette into a trash can before lighting it. As Richard G. Androne notes in CLC 278, “Updike associates Rabbit’s impulse to quit smoking with larger dissatisfaction and the vague desire to change his life, which had reached its zenith eight years ago when he was a high school basketball star.” Rabbit succeeds, for a time, in quitting, but not under the best circumstances: asked by his wife to pick up some cigarettes, he leaves the house and does not return for months. During his absence he refrains from smoking but engages in an affair; when he is finally reunited with his wife after she gives birth to their second child, he slips back into the habit. According to Androne, his renewed smoking “signals both restoration and decline: ‘The effect is somehow of a wafer of repentance and Rabbit accepts. His first drag, after so many clean months, unhinges his muscles and he has to sit down.’”

Lesson: By all means put down the cigarettes, but try the patch instead of following Rabbit’s path.

Despite best efforts, many will fail to carry out their resolutions. For those who cannot see their improvement schemes through to fruition, perhaps the words of Mark Twain, printed on 1 January 1863 in the Territorial Enterprise, will soothe the sting of defeat:

Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.

If nothing else, let us all resolve to approach the New Year with good humor.

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