Themes of Powerlessness and Choice in Literature

The works for this week are all centered around themes of powerlessness and choice. Our first work is ‘The Metamorphosis’, by Kafka. In ‘The Metamorphosis‘, the main character awakens and finds himself to be transformed into a massive insect, powerless to change his fate, left with the decision of how to cope with it. The second work was “The Guest“, by Camus. In this story, a school teacher is given the order to turn an Arab man over to the authorities and must choose whether or not to do so, while the prisoner is powerless to influence the decision. The third work is “Requiem” by Akhmatova, a poem about the hopelessness of war, the powerlessness of being one person amidst so much evil, and making the choice to be a witness and documentor of the tragedy. Finally, the fourth is “Faust“, by Goethe, a story about a man who feels powerless choosing to make a deal with the devil. 

Theme: Powerlessness and Choice


One of the best examples from these works that showcases the central themes is Faust. At the beginning of the story, Faust, the main character, feels completely powerless. He sees no point in living, and is about to kill himself until angels intervene and stop him. Then, through a series of events, he is offered a deal from Mephistopheles, the devil. In exchange for his soul, he is offered worldly pleasure and knowledge. He decides to make a bet with Mephistopheles, believing the Devil is incapable of following through on the deal. If Mephistopheles can show him something that eases his suffering and satisfies him, Faust will be his servant forever, trading his soul for that satisfaction. From his powerlessness, he makes a powerful and risky choice. 


Here is an example of an activity to teach these themes to students. 

Ask the students to think of an example of powerlessness in other media, such as movies and popular shows. 

See if they can look in those same media and find themes of choice. For example, suppose someone chose the movie “The Lion King” for their theme of powerlessness, since Simba was powerless to save his father. If they look, the theme of choice is also present in the narrative. Throughout the movie, Simba must choose whether to claim his place on the throne, or to continue to run from his past. Or, another example, the movie “Brave”, in which Merida is set to be married off against her will, and chooses to try and use magic to avoid it. There are many examples in pop culture of a theme of powerlessness and choice, and inviting students to look outside of the assigned texts may raise their interest in learning to identify themes. 

Once everyone has thought of an example, either have each student explain either out loud in discussion time why they chose that piece of media and how the themes show up in it, or have them turn it in as a written assignment. 

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