The topic of sacrifice has been a subject of numerous works of literature since it refers to the range of qualities and actions that people do in order to bring good to others. Discussing sacrifice in the literary context is seen as beneficial because the acts of selflessness are reoccurring themes and are important for understanding the nature of humanity as a whole. People make sacrifices in the name of love, to protect others (for example, at war), to guard the vulnerable against the horrors of the modern world.
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While sacrifice does not always result in positive outcomes for those involved, considering how it can affect people is fundamental. With the help of examples from Idiots First by Bernard Malamud, The Origin of Stories told by Henry Jacob, and Yo! by Julia Alvarez, the topic of sacrifice will be explored, focusing on the hypothesis that the value of a person can be determined by what they sacrifice.
Idiots First are the story of love in which the main character, Mendel, gives all that he has in order to ensure that his special needs son, Isaak, gets on the train to California. Despite being weak and prepared to face his last day, the protagonist goes from one man to another offering everything he has in exchange for money on a train ticket. The presence of Ginzburg, the anthropomorphized embodiment of death is a continuous reminder that Mendel is close to an end and that he would not succeed in getting Isaak on the train.
However, Mendel sells his last precious belongings, he does not eat or drink, he is cold from the blizzard of winter, but still determined to do everything he can to protect his son. The delivered sacrifice of all material possessions along with the mental strength shows that love drives many acts of selfless kindness toward those who need help and support.
The Origin of Stories
Mendel’s story is close to heart for many parents who happen to read Idiots First. Despite the ironic title, the story depicts the character of a parent who is only concerned with the well-being and safety of their child. Any parent would do the same in situations of danger and despair – abandon all possible considerations of self-preservation in order to be sure that their child is safe. It is notable that on his journey, Mendel does not meet many people who understand his situation and are willing to help.
For instance, when Isaac and Mendel come for help from a Rabbi, the latter felt pity and gives them his new fur-lined coat while his wife starts screaming and calling the two thieves. Therefore, Mendel only had the help from himself, and living his last minutes on Earth; he saw his son getting on the train: “When the train was gone, Mendel ascended the stairs to see what had become of Ginzburg.”
The Origin of Stories discusses the topic of sacrifice from a completely different perspective if compared to Idiots First. The protagonist of the story, a boy named Poyeshao, trains himself to be a successful hunter in order to sustain his living in the future. According to a woman who cares for him, learning how to hunt would allow the boy never to be hungry and help her sustain the household. However, Poyeshao sacrifices the birds that he hunted once he encounters a talking stone in the forest that promises to tell the boy stories about what happened before: “If you will give me your birds, I’ll tell you stories.”
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As the boy becomes better at hunting and gets more birds, he sacrifices more and more birds to the stone that tells stories. Subsequently, the stone convinces the entire village to bring food to sacrifice in order to hear the stories that it had to tell. In this context, the sacrifice occurs to gain the knowledge and wisdom needed to build society. The Native American tribe of Seneca did not have written the language, and all stories and myths were passed through word of mouth. Their sacrifices to the stone show that the tribe could give away everything it had in order to gain knowledge and transfer it from one generation to another.
Yo! Written by Yulia Alvarez is focused on the life of the novel’s protagonist, Yolanda, “nicknamed Yo in Spanish, misunderstood Joe in English, doubled and pronounced like the toy, Yoyo.” The sections of the story are dedicated to the reflections of people who have known her and discussed the facets of her personality when encountering her. Each of the sketches included in Yo! deals with some global themes such as spousal abuse, homosexuality, political oppression, AIDS, Third-World poverty and exploitation, immigrant issues, and many more.
Sacrifice is explored in the novel through the character’s abandonment of the mentioned life issues and taking responsibility. In Alvarez’s perspective, sacrificing means being oneself and striving for freedom, which is the idea that Yolanda transferred through her character.
Thus, the topic of sacrifice has different manifestations in literature because it applies to different situations and settings. In Idiots First, the love of a father made it possible to persevere through challenges and reach the final goal of getting a son to safety. In The Origin of Stories, the sacrifice was made in exchange for knowledge and wisdom necessary for building society while in Yo! sacrifice meant the abandonment of worry about life issues.