Our Work Obsessed Society English Literature Essay

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Unfortunately, this simplistic and optimistic relationship with work ceases to exist as we perceive toil as a stressful duty required for creating a living. Today, work is the pivotal determinant of happiness, freedom, and social status. Even forthcoming generations have become engrossed with our work obsessed society. Children dismiss the importance of knowledge, but educate themselves for the sole purpose of augmenting their worth in the workplace. Through their novels, Solzhenitsyn and Mahfouz portray the horrors of a work-oriented society by exposing readers to characters that are tragically imprisoned by their work. In Midaq Alley and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, work enables the protagonists to survive and provides them with self-worth in a degrading environment, yet it absurdly perpetuates the systems in which they live.

Even though the Gulag's prisoners are condemned to work, toil ironically is crucial for Ivan's survival. Not only is work a venue that protects the prisoners from the intense cold, but it serves as a source of resilience in the oppressive camp. "Shukhov and the other masons felt the cold no longer. Thanks to the urgent work, the first wave of heat had come over them" (Solzhenitsyn, 79). Faced with an indefinite prison sentence that usually led to death, the zeks are forced to live in the moment to escape their horrific reality. Shukhov understands that it is unrealistic to survive off of the hope of one day leaving the Gulag, so he must find an alternate motivation that will provide him with a purpose for remaining alive. Instead of perceiving his forced labor as a source of punishment as it was intended, he derives from his work a warming sensual satisfaction. Ivan basks as he immerses himself in his work, enabling him to endure the camp's dehumanizing conditions, and even more absurdly, have a "good day" (133). However, this work that acts as Shukhov's source of pleasure and survival can be detrimental if he overworks himself to exhaustion. "Work was like a stick. It had two ends. When you worked for the knowing you gave them quality; when you worked for a fool, you simple gave him eyewash" (12). Shukhov has to conserve his strength, especially when both nature and humanity are merciless towards his struggle to remain alive. By bending and adapting into his environment, Ivan survives by exerting the minimum effort in his work that will still reward him with food rations and protection from the blistering cold.

Unlike Ivan who enjoys the labor that helps him manage the Gulag's horrors, Abbas works solely to appease his materialistic lover, even though his work causes him despair. Once a simpleton barber of moderation who worked each day to "scarcely [pay] for that day's expenses," Abbas pursues drudgery for "ambitious" Hamida (Mahfouz, 37).

"You are the cause, Hamida. It is because of you, you! I love our alley and I am deeply grateful to God for the livelihood He provides me from it. I don't want to leave [it]…. The trouble is, I can't offer you a life here which is worthy of you and so I have no alternative but to leave." (108)

Abbas sacrifices his dreams and dismisses his personal comfort in order to acquire the worldly pleasures his lover yearns for. Shukhov anticipates his work and indulges in its fleeting pleasure, but Abbas is devastated at the thought of abandoning the alley to work in Tell el Kebir. Ironically, Abbas pursues a disheartening difficult job beyond the Alley in order to increase Hamida's intimacy for him, but he returns from work to find that his absence permitted his lover to run away with another man. In contrast to work's ability to help Shukhov endure the oppressive conditions of the Gulag, it tragically dehumanizes Abbas, stripping him of all of his happiness so that "he [sees] no reason for living" (236).

Abbas sacrifices his life in the Alley in attempt to attain self worth by working at Tell el Kebir, but tragically fails. He left to work for the British Army as a naïve, gentle and good-natured young man looking to earn the heart of the woman he loved. "In the past two months [at work] I've been dreaming away [about Hamida], happy as could be. Have you ever noticed how a man often dreams of happiness while disaster waits nearby to snatch it?" (235). While Abbas dreams of the happiness and self-worth that his work could bestow upon him and Hamida, the reality was quite the contrary and Abbas returns degraded. In the alley, Abbas regularly adhered to the religious code of Islam and "attended Friday prayers and fasted during the month of Ramadan" (33). But while working at Tell el-Kebir, Abbas comes to violate his religious values, and "smokes hashish occasionally" (232). Abbas submits to all of his temptations and indulges in drinking at Vita's bar despite Radwan Hussainy's advice to "keep away from wine and pork" while at Tell el-Kebir (110). Not only does Abbas's job rob him of his values and individuality, but it instills in him the seed of immorality. While once content and "inclined towards peace," he returns with a heart filled with violence and capable of murder (32). When Abbas is beaten and kicked by the same British Army boots he once wore, Mahfouz suggests Abbas's work leaves him worthless and pitiless.

Unlike Abbas, Shukhov is able to maintain dignity through work. In the Gulag's inhumane environment, work ironically provides him with civility and self-worth. "There was easy money to be made, you see, and made fast…. Easy money weighs light in the hand and doesn't give you the feeling you've earned it (Solzhenitsyn, 35)." Work provides Shukhov with a way of remaining civilized amidst the oppressive system. Although he can bribe the guards for extra rations, Shukhov prefers to work in the cutting cold, for it is a venue to boast his talents. "All right, it's a 'special' camp. So what? Does it bother you to wear a number? They don't weigh anything, those numbers" (56). Skilled at manual labor, Shukhov maintains his individuality in the Gulag despite the system's attempts to morph him into a meaningless machine. Shukhov challenges the system and wakes up early each day to perform errands for extra food rations, thus providing himself with a routine that protects his uniqueness and distinguishes him from the other zeks. Through work, both Shukhov and Abbas seek a reaffirmation of civility. But unlike Abbas whose work entraps him and robs his dignity, for Shukhov, work is an escape from the Gulag's dehumanization.

Despite the primitive competition that the Gulag promotes, the squad is able to maintain interdependence through toil. "You put your back into the work. For unless you could manage to provide yourself with the means of warming up, you and everyone else would give out on the spot" (48). In being condemned to this harsh labor, the prisoners are drawn into a cohesive family like camaraderie that gives them the strength to survive. The inmates depend on each other for protection from the Gulag's dehumanization, and for the daily sustenance they receive for completing assigned jobs. Because each prisoner affects the fate of the other zeks, the inter-reliance of each man establishes unfaltering loyalty. In one instance when the prisoners fail to complete an assignment by the end of the day, Shukhov pushes to finish the task single-handedly and protect the squad from punishment. At the same time, Senka faithfully stands by to ensure Shukhov is not reprimanded for tardiness. This interdependence that results from the squad's work eases the prisoner's struggle for survival. Their collective toil provides them with companionship, the nourishment of extra rations and even a method to secretly defy the Gulag's rules.

In contrast to Shukhov whose work draws him into an interdependent microcosm, Abbas is isolated and neglected as a result of his job. Reluctant to seclude himself from his beloved fiancé and the comfort of the Alley, Abbas leaves for Tell el-Kebir with the paradoxical belief that his distance from the one he loves will ultimately bring him closer. He nevertheless has reason to be suspicious of the solidity of his support system when he incessantly asks Hamida to pray for him. "You prayed for success for me and now there is no backing out" (Mahfouz, 87). Abbas commits himself to a lonesome job in a remote area in his burning need to find happiness for Hamida, but she in return overlooks his selflessness. In Hamida's first encounter with a man of a higher paying job and a greater social status she does not hesitate to alienate Abbas and "wonder[s] how on earth she [gave] him her lips to kiss" (204). Whereas Shukhov and the members of his squad come to depend on one another through work, Mahfouz suggests Abbas is a helpless victim of a modernizing capitalistic society, a self-sufficient yet omniprovident commodity that can be replaced. Tragically, Abbas is sentenced to the extreme isolation of his grave when he is beaten to death by the British Soldiers he once worked for.

Although Shukhov and Abbas are condemned to suffering in their work, each character's fate relies on the nature of his working environment. When part of mutually supporting microcosm, a worker will tolerate the misery of labor. Shukhov endures the dehumanizing Gulag when he realizes that his work ensures his and his squad's survival. However, Abbas is prophesized of "alma'sah," a tragic death when he works without the reaffirmation of his unrequited love, even though he sacrifices his life for her happiness (Mahfouz, 44). In examining Abbas and Shukhov's relationship with work, it becomes coherent why research has demonstrated that a person who retires and escapes the anxiety of work dies prematurely when he ceases to find the purpose of his existence.