Understanding Society Through the Novel, Being There

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Being There, a novel written by Jerzy Kosinski satires the natural human tendency to “make mountains out of molehills” as the saying goes.  The story follows the life of Chance, a humble gardener, who is only educated academically and socially by the television media that he has watched in his lifetime.  This gardener speaks quite infrequently, and usually only about the topic he knows best, his garden.  As the story continues he leaves the privacy of his home and his mild-mannered comments about his garden are mistaken by society as profound and prolific metaphors for life and politics.  This mistake soon leads him to become the sole beneficiary of a Wall Street industrialist as well as the unanimous candidate for President.

The reasons that Chance is confused about his surroundings after joining society are explained by the description of his lifestyle.  His reliance on media to teach him of the outside world “cripples” him in a social sense because he is then too uneducated to truthfully understand the world.  The question remains however, why does the outside world, both the educated and socially successful alike, experience such confusion when relating to Chance (“Chauncey Gardiner”)?

Chance received all his knowledge from farcical television programs and expected society to conduct themselves in these comical and outlandish ways.  Chance, in this sense, applied what he knew to interpret what he did not.  He applied his only knowledge to create an understanding of that which he failed to understand.  Ironically, it seems that society itself reacts to Chance in the very same way.  Failing to understand Chance’s words and actions, they viewed and interpreted him using the overly scholarly, social, and metaphorical concepts that they were used to, thus creating “Chauncey Gardiner”. 

“No single outside influence can make a man do a thing which is at war with his training. The most it can do is to start his mind on a new [track]and open it to the reception of new influences…”   People rarely think about the influences that lead them to decisions, much less assumptions.  Media teaches us to be wary of the dangers of cities, food contaminants, doctor malpractice, etc.  Yet how often do we recognize that our continuous paranoia is spawned from this “training”? 

“Urbanization, industrialization and modernization created social conditions in which the mass media developed.”   And now, as it seems, that very media that was created by these developments, is what helps to control these elements.  How often do we take into account that the ways in which we interact with people in our daily lives is a reflection of the expectations we have developed through our familiarity certain lifestyle?  From the magazines to which we subscribe, to the news we watch the newspapers sections we read and the people we surround ourselves with, each and every influence helps to shape the expectations with which we will judge and interpret those with whom we interact from this point in our lives forward.  Continuing with this real life concept, both Chance and the society around him show their mutual misunderstandings as well as their mutual tendencies to judge and perceive the out of the ordinary in commonplace media like perspectives. Chance interpreting through sitcom humor and society he is in, interpreting him through their own most commonly viewed forms of media: political and financial and high class social media.

A second question raised when reading the novel, is how to interpret the meaning of the title itself?  What is the significance of the words, “Being There?” A review of the novel by BrothersJudd.com points out that: “Ultimately the society that Chance emerges into is one where he succeeds simply by being there; other people are so self-absorbed that he is merely incidental to what’s going on even if it’s a conversation or sex.  There is no true interaction between people; he might as well still be watching television.”  Going by this interpretation, it can be assumed that “Being There” represents the fact that Chance is actually “There” in the life that he has always idealized.  On a larger scale, this would mean that people enter into the very lifestyles that they expect.  But with such a large, widely ranging society, with so many altering expectations, how can this be the case for each and every person? 

Just as the point is made above that, “Urbanization, industrialization and modernization created social conditions in which the mass media developed”3 as well as the fact that that media is now (vice versa) “creating” the Urbanization, industrialization and modernization…People make their lifestyles, then their lifestyles lead them to the forms of media which support those lifestyles, which then help to promote those lifestyles.  Ultimately, it is a never-ending circle. 

The title of the book, “Being There” helps to describe the point that people will attempt to “redecorate” the world around them into “colors and styles” with which they feel the most comfortable.  Just as the characters do so in this novel, people unconsciously interpret the world in the way that they are most used to seeing it.  In Chance’s case, he goes from watching comical, outlandish, “sitcom” types of situations to, “being there”, where he is part of one himself, the world, in his case is ultimately operating in just the way he expected.

Society on the other hand, interpreting Chance in the ways which they are the most comfortable, read what they want to read and understand what they want to understand in Chance/now Chauncey’s, words and actions.  Unknown to them, it is their own lifestyles which are influencing them to come up with their own interpretations.  Although society gives Chance all of the credit, the true brilliance lies in the irony that they too are convinced that they are “being there”, in that world which they seek to find.

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