Human Motive Explained through Carroll’s Structure

The need to control and understand our surroundings is of human nature. The world is chaotic and the arts, particularly literary art, give humans the ability to interpret their environment. The arts create “emotionally saturated images,” that help create a sense of “total cognitive order” (Carroll 86). The concepts and ideas within literature can subsequently be used to study human nature and behavioral systems. While animals must use instincts that are inbred by thousands of years of evolution, humans are able to decipher their environment using cognitive abilities. With the human imagination, we are able to take appropriate courses of action. Our ideas of the world are continuously evolving and changing.

The use of what Carroll calls “domain-general intelligence” (Carroll 86) is what gives us the ability to have a flexible response to an unpredictable environment. Humans respond to their surroundings using mental maps and models. These emotionally driven ideas help determine human behavioral systems. In his essay, “Human Nature and Literary Meaning,” Carroll devises a diagram of human nature to explain the behavioral systems. It can be used to understand basic social dynamics of the world at large or simply a piece of the literature.

The top of Carroll’s “Hierarchical Motivational Structure of Human Nature” categorizes behavior as a product of two types of effort, reproductive and somatic. He explains that humans desire more than to reproduce and acquire resources to survive. They want to create families, feel friendship and prosper. The choice of names for the two types of effort appears to be conflicting, because in a literal sense, reproductive effort is of a physical, somatic nature. It also leaves room to question what ideas of love and relationships would be categorized under. Regardless of the discrepancies, under these headings, he creates seven general systems responsible for human behavior. They are survival, technology, mating, parenting, kin relations, social relations, and cognitive activity.

As with any structure, attempting to create generalizations about life or literature will result in significant flaws. Carroll’s diagram connects one of the seven basic emotions with each of the behavioral systems. In reality each behavioral system can actually have several different emotions associated with it. Survival for instance is usually associated with fear. In most instances, it seems reasonable to assume that fear for one’s future is the correct emotion.

Both the stories of “Adrift” and “Sorrow-Acre” demonstrate examples of different emotions associated with survival. In “Adrift” the two boys mature in the depths of poverty. Living day to day is an accomplishment. The desensitization caused by the boys’ environment leaves them in a state of ignorant bliss. They live for each day with little regard for surviving tomorrow. Each new experience, no matter how trivial, is taken to heart and is met with a sense of enjoyment. In “Sorrow-Acre” a twist of irony is associated with survival. Adam acts as an onlooker as his uncle literally works an old peasant woman named Anne-Marie to death. Multiple times Adam intervened in what he saw as the useless killing of a human being. In contrast Anne-Marie accepted her punishment for her son’s deeds with open arms, “indeed amongst all the grave and concerned faces of the field hers was the only one perfectly calm, peaceful and mild” (Dinesen 46). Her suffering would help ensure the survival of her son. She meets the demise of her own body with calmness and harmony. These emotions contradict Carroll’s structure.

Technology is another area that contains discrepancies of emotion. Technology is generally correlated with joy. Technological innovations have helped ensure that mankind with live an easier life and thrive. The extra time created through the use of technology has helped each of us live fuller lives and thus can be associated with joy. However, in many instances technology can be associated with death and destruction when used and abused on the battlefield. Weapons of the Iron Age were more physically devastating than any weapons of the previous era. The newer technology dramatically impacted how battles were fought and kingdoms defeated. Much of the violence of “The Saga of the Volsungs” can be associated with technological innovations such as the iron sword. Sigurd’s sword named Gram was magnificently crafted and gave him a distinct advantage on the battlefield and in the slaying of Fafnir. But as a tool for Sigurd’s survival, it only caused pain and suffering for those it afflicted.

An overlapping of the seven distinct behavioral systems is also quite common. Carroll attempts to separate motivations into contrasting fields when in all reality they are interrelated. “Sorrow-Acre” is one case in which it is evident that parenting and survival are interconnected. From an evolutionary standpoint, each is necessary for your genetic constituents to survive. Parenting and favoring of kin is necessary for relatives and offspring of an individual to survive. In “Sorrow-Acre” Anne-Marie accepted her fate not only to save her son, but also to extend her own legacy. From her point of view this seemingly selfless act is truly in self-interest. Upon her son’s death, Anne-Marie’s legacy would also die. In addition, she would have no one to care for her as she grew older in age. Using reason she decided to risk her own life in an attempt to save his. Adam has a difficult time understanding this logic until he has an epiphany and, “saw the ways of life” and understood “it was not given him or any mortal to command or control it” (Dinesen 150). Survival is interbred as the central theme of human nature.

Carroll’s motivational chart can be proficiently used to explain the dynamics of kin relations and social relations. Goals of kin relations such as “favoring kin,” “distinguishing kin,” and “maintaining kin network” are evident in the “Saga of the Volsungs.” The time period in which this tale takes place was filled with violence and instability. After the fall of the Roman Empire, law and order was nonexistent. The ruling party for each region was determined through battle and bloodlines. Kinship acted as a form of social protection. In a time of limited law enforcement, kinship helped create a network of relatives with power that would be on one’s side during a time of conflict. Stemming from this idea was the theme of revenge. Throughout the story revenge of death to kin was used in attempt to right a wrong. A classic example of revenge occurs after Siggeir has all of Volsung’s sons including Sigmund, chained up to be eaten by his mother in a she-wolf form. After several nights, all of Sigmund’s brothers were killed and Sigmund was able to defeat the she-wolf and escape certain death. His mind was thus set on revenge for the loss in his kin. Years later Sigmund and his son, Sinfjotli, don their wolf skins to seek vengeance for Volsung and Sigmund’s siblings. As they set the hall of Siggeir on fire Sigmund exclaims, “we want for you to know that not all the Volsungs are dead” (Saga 45). With those words the building burned to the ground along with King Siggeir. Sigmund’s sister, Signy, decided to stay with her husband, Siggeir, and die. This action demonstrated the importance of her vows to her new kin and association with the importance of marriage in that culture.

The social structures of both stories are easily distinguished using Carrol’s structure. The “Saga of the Volsungs” is based upon building coalitions to gain power. At the time this story was relevant, a useful way to build connections was through marriage. A marriage would call for land and power exchange between parties, making the decision of a marital partner for their offspring to be of great significance. In the case of Helgi marrying Sigrun this is apparent. After Helgi had defeated Hundling and gained many lands he was deemed fit to marry Sigrun. As a reward for his noble deeds and marriage to Sigrun, lands “were filled with new owners” (Saga 50).

Until the last few centuries feudalism and aristocracy have been the most commonly practiced forms of government. In the “Saga of the Volsungs” power is passed through bloodlines. Control of lands was determined by heredity. Scandinavian people viewed the Volsungs as heroes. Their blood was of mythical origin as they descended from the God Odin. They were a magnificent clan who were dominant in stature and nobility. Their larger than life image is used to drive the events of the Saga. “Sorrow-Acre” takes a dramatic view of the situation. It pits the traditional ways of thinking against newer, progressive ideas of the value of the human being. The uncle represents the old guard. He is a landowner ruling over his servants in a feudal-like structure. The power of inheritance and bloodlines is evident with the arranged marriage between himself and his new wife. His nephew, Adam, has traveled Europe and has taken in ideas of democracy and equality. He questions the power and validity of traditionalism. The society in which they both live in Denmark favors the aristocrats. In times of famine and decline the landowners loose money, while the peasants are afflicted with disease and starvation. The Uncle and Adam clash until Adam finally understands his uncle’s thinking, “life and death, happiness and woe, the past and the present, were interlaced” (Dinesen 150). Tradition had won that day but was soon to change to the democratic ideas of today.

Both “Sorrow-Acre” and “The Saga of the Volsungs” demonstrate one relevant fact. Regardless of technology, parenthood, kinship, or social status one fact remains constant; we all will eventually meet our demise and die. Whether by the way of the sword in “Saga” or by tragedy and exhaustion in “Sorrow-Acre” we all lose are battles with survival. The seven behavioral systems offered by Carroll attempt to understand life as “a twined and tangled design” (Dinesen 150) and the human beings attempt to strive for it.



by Trevor Mooney
Major: Movement Studies/premed
Expected graduation: May 2010
Hometown: Mission Viejo, California

It was quite interesting how Carroll attempted to classify all human behavior and emotion into distinct systems. When applied to both "Sorrow Acre" and "The Saga of the Volsungs", it made for intriguing commentary on social dynamics.