Determined Autonomy

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How David Malouf and James Joyce Depict Free Will 


In his novel Ransom, Lebanese-Australian author David Malouf explores the dual concepts of free will and autonomy. Not only does he take a decisive stance on this subject: he also challenges the majority opinion amongst modern philosophers regarding its whole existence. The idea that people act on their own volition, ungoverned by forces exterior or subconscious, is a subject much debated (this division is often attributed to those with religious faith believing God created us with free will, and the non-religious who say we are governed by a miasma of psychological drivers). As this essay will demonstrate, the more accepted philosophy is that people are not free to dictate their actions. There is an extensive range of outside factors contributing to this notion. Some of these factors will be explored in both Malouf's novel and James Joyce's short story, Eveline.

While free will is depicted as holding significant importance with Ransom's principal characters, Eveline's theme of conflicted desire supports the belief that free will does not exist. The question as to whether humans are a product of their surroundings, status and DNA makeup – (or if they are truly free to direct their lives and make decisions for which they are personally responsible) - will be assessed by comparing each text's exploration of this controversial subject.

Reeve (2013) argues that humans do not "create themselves" - that is, customise their subconscious selves -  having limited control over what experiences shape them. Humans, ventures this perspective, are not responsible for their actions and outcomes.

Kershnar (2015) addresses moral responsibility, concluding that individuals are not morally responsible for their actions as their choices stem from prearranged "character states" they cannot choose or divert from. 

Johnson (2016) employs neuroscientific reasoning to explain why individuals cannot be held accountable for their actions as decisions are not based on conscious thought but on genetic structures in the brain. In Johnson's words: "the way that our neurons are wired and fire" (p. 56).

To incorporate neurology with literary criticism may be convoluting the matter, but it is important to address the accepted theories regarding free will in order to understand what modern philosophical thought says about the subject. Equally important, it will serve as a scaffold for analysis of how Malouf rejects these understandings, supporting through his narrative the idea that humans can have free will. "It seems to me," say Priam in Ransom, "there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. An opportunity to act for ourselves".

James Joyce, an atheist, does not take such an optimistic view. Eveline opens with the heroine sitting at her window, wanly thinking back on her life. Laced throughout this otherwise sombre affair is the exotic prospect of running away to Buenos Ayres with her lover. In O'Halloran's analysis the story is broken into three different sections, each one following through towards the final point when Eveline reveals herself as lacking the psychological freedom to attain her desires. 

The first segment has Eveline reflecting on her past, present and potentially hopeful future. The next segment shows her brief determination to break her past commitments and grasp the life she thinks she wants. The final segment sees Eveline's "psychological failure" to achieve her desire, reverting instead to her sense of prior duty. It is interesting to note that this duty to family also plays a large part in Malouf's novel. However, there it is presented as noble and heroic whereas Joyce uses this brace of commitment to signify his heroine's weakness in her failure to undertake an autonomous action.

In both texts one notices how aspiration governs behaviour in the face of making an important decision. In Ransom, Priam cites commitment to reclaiming Hector's body as owing "sacred duties that nothing can cancel". Eveline on the other hand feels bound by a promise made to her mother, regarded as a "life of commonplace sacrifices". Despite the mundanity she attributes to these duties, Eveline still shows a subconscious tendency to "not find it a wholly undesirable life".  While Priam fulfilling his fatherly duties brings honour to him and Achilles, Eveline's loyalty surfaces more as a subconscious anchor, preventing her from escaping her situation. 

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