Sometimes the kinds of questions we ask about literature are the very questions philosophers ask in perpetuity.
In Dagberto Gilb's short story, Love in L.A., the situational irony within the story points to its existentialist underpinnings. The ending makes the reader question the main character's unethical motivations. Upon further examination, readers find that this main character simply makes choices that lead him toward greater comfort and freedom.
This story indicates that like all of the referenced drivers sitting in traffic, all people can be divided into two types: those who are like Jake, the irresponsible winner, and those who are like Mariana, the responsible loser. Good things do not happen to good people in the world of this story, and bad things do not happen to bad people. Even more, Jake behaves as though he is, as Comte might say, alone in an indifferent universe. He shows no indication of fear of punishment for his actions and choices. This character knows there will be no divine retribution. As readers, we find ourselves reacting in a very primal way when Jake drives away from the scene of the crime having gotten away with such abysmal behavior. "It isn't fair," readers cry. However, rewards and punishments in this world are not doled out in a way most people have come to think of as “fair,” and therein lies the situational irony.
Even deeper into the heart of the story and the situation, there can be found existentialist underpinnings. Jake, and therefore those like him, choose to act, no matter what the situation, with an eye only toward self - with a "natural attitude of self preservation" (Appignanesi & Zarate, 2002, p. 24). The only love within this story is the love of self. More specifically, even after behaving despicably and irresponsibly toward Mariana, Jake thinks only of his own material comforts within the confines of his car. It's here the narrative voice gets to the heart of this existentialist character with the use of the word "freedom." Not only has this character escaped justice, but pride is indicated when the narrator tells the reader, “His sense of freedom swelled as he drove into the now moving street traffic” (Gilb, 1993, p. 63). Jake is free from any of the conventions that tie him to the responsibility to make honorable or noble decisions. He is free to make any choice at all without punishment.
To Jake, and those like him, there are no values to uphold and no moral gauge to appease. In this world, the world of the story, the situational irony within the story points directly to its existentialist underpinnings.
- Gilb, D. (1993). Love in L.A.. In Schakel, P. & Ridl, J. (Eds.), Approaching literature: Writing+reading+thinking. (2nd ed.), (pp. 60 - 63). Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s.
- Appignanesi, R., & Zarate, O. (2002). Introducing Existentialism. New York; Lanham, Md.: Totem Books.
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