Tables Made into Trees Transformation is one of principal themes of David Malouf’s short novel An Imaginary Life. Sent to a barbarian village in the outskirts of the Roman Empire, Ovid is forced to make changes to himself to find even the smallest bits of happiness. He starts to notice and absorb nature which, in turn, helps teaches him about himself. He first starts to notice his mental state improving from bleak to bright. He also begins to observe his surroundings and allow them to open his eyes and improve his attitude.
These surroundings have a beautiful and powerful effect on Ovid and he learns that they can teach him more about his own emotions and thoughts than society ever could. The Boy is also a part of Ovid’s transformation. He is a tool and a link between human society and nature. While Ovid tries to teach the Boy about human culture, it is the Boy that teaches Ovid about being human. Malouf uses many tools including Ovid’s mind, nature, and the Boy to facilitate Ovid’s transformation throughout the novel.
One of the major aspects of Ovid’s transformation is based on his mental state and his outlook on his situation. The first glimpse we get into his thoughts comes in the opening paragraphs when he is describing what seem to be his surroundings. He portrays the setting as a bleak and dull place with nothing worth mention and no hope to be had but he ends his description with “But I am describing a state of mind, no place”(16). This shocks the reader and exposes Ovid’s current state of mind. This bleak, pessimistic description is then contrasted to a joyful, beautiful description of a scarlet poppy.
The contrast provides insight into the importance of changes in the natural environment, as Ovid is change from being troubled by the bleakness and emptiness of life that surrounds him to being overcome with joy from the color of the poppy. While he is on this high of emotions, he questions whether the people from his old life in Rome would look poorly upon him for the exaggerated happiness he feels because of the flower. This shows the separation of his natural surroundings and society. It also marks the beginning of his transformation to natural world acceptance.
Ovid’s identity is also molded by his surroundings. He starts to adapt to his new home and become more in tune with the people and the landscape. An example is when he starts to learn hunting from the village people. It brings him closer to nature which, in turn, teaches him aspects about himself. He finds himself able to purely express himself physically and emotionally rather than being caught up in Roman traditions. He learns that nature has the ability to teach men about human existence. The societies, like him, are shaped by their surroundings.
In Rome, he was surrounded by civilized and advanced culture. This culture had formed by changing the nature that surrounded them. They built great buildings and intricate roads; thus distancing themselves from nature. This not only changed the way they lived, but the people that lived there. On the other hand, the barbarians that Ovid was exiled to live with are much closer to nature. They live more modestly and are more in tune with the environment. When the poet is engulfed by this society, he changes naturally to fit in over time. Even the language changes Ovid.
His point of realization of the language’s affects on him is when he decides to teach the boy the barbarian dialect. “I have come to a decision. The language I shall teach the Child is the language of these people I have come among, and not after all my own. And in making that decision I know I have made another. I shall never go back to Rome… So I admit openly to myself what I have long known in my heart. I belong to this place now. I have made it mine. I am entering the dimensions of my self” (94-95). This is a major turning point in Ovid’s transformation.
It is when he makes the decision to shed his old life and replace it for his new on one. He is fully submerging himself in this new existence and is opening himself up willingly for change. The Boy is another tool of transformation during the novel. Once again, it can be accredited to the environment and conditions he and Ovid are in. Ovid strives for a sense of belonging and unity with all the elements and tries to force the same upon the boy. After some time he becomes fascinated with the Boy’s ability mimic the sounds of nature.
Ovid starts to admire the Boy’s personality and is intrigued by the fact that he has mastered life in nature. Nature and wilderness made by God are what the boy has faced and lived through while all Ovid has done is survive a society made by mere men. The Boy and Ovid are very similar though. They are both affected and react to changes in their environment. When first captured, the Boy reacts violently and is tied up with cloths. This is symbolic as it signifies both the physical and mental restraints caused by the conformity of civilized society.
These bonds hold him back just as Ovid’s cultivation impedes him. Later on in the wintertime, the Boy’s sickness reflects both the physical sickness caused by captivity and the lack of freedom that men endure in order to work against, not with, the elements and nature. Conversely, when the Boy is finally released into his natural habitat, he is happy to return and is even willing to care for Ovid in it because he thrives there. At the end of the novel, when he is in the field, he finds ultimate satisfaction and freedom from what he used to be.
The vast openness and immensity of the land which once scared him becomes his source of food and drink. Through his progression and changes, he finds himself at and endpoint in which he is satisfied in mind, body, and spirit. The vast openness and immensity of the land which once scared him became his source of food and drink. The natural environment impacts Ovid so much that age and small details of life no longer bother him. He sees that the existence of human life is everlasting. He is transformed to the point of total satisfaction. His final statement sums up his conversion to his new self, “I am there. He benefits from belonging to the wilderness and not being defined by society. Ovid makes a complete transformation over the course of this novel. He is influenced by his surroundings and finds himself being changed by them. These conversions first happen in his mind, then through nature and language, and finally through the Boy. Ovid finds himself changing as the book progresses and reaches a point of complete happiness and contentment at the end of the novel.? Works Cited Malouf, David. An Imaginary Life. New York. Vintage Books, 1996. Print
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