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Alientation in Early American Literature

Estrangement From Self or Society…Your Choice:
A Closer Look at Alienation in Early American Literature

‘Alienation’ has become a prominent, even common, theme in current appraisals of man’s situation in society. (Easton 193)

Early American literature, even when classified as Realism, is comprised of Romantic qualities expressed within Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists believe “that within the nature of human beings there was something which transcended human experience—an intuitive and personal revelation” (Holman 449). This individual revelation and struggle between social obligation and personal freedom can often lead to being alienated both from themselves and from society. When being socialized, an individual is taken from nature and put into a community filled with written and unwritten laws. This journey between existences results in self-alienation—the more an individual is socialized, the farther away they will be from their natural inclinations. Furthermore, following their intuitions to avoid self-alienation often leads to being alienated from society.

There are characters within Early American Literature who become alienated from themselves or from society due to either their innocent ignorance of societal norms or through their decisive self-reliance in following their own intuition as to what they believe is right or wrong. I will explore the elements of alienation in The Scarlet Letter,

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Daisy Miller, The Age of Innocence, and Billy Budd.

First, it is important to discuss alienation as a concept dealt with by Hegel’s The Phenomenology of the Spirit and Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Marx expanded on Hegel’s idea of alienation because Hegel tended to speak of alienation as being a concept within the mind and of the “self”. It did not include other worldly considerations like man’s alienation from other men. “For the young Marx man’s own deed in government, wealth and culture ‘becomes to him an alien power, standing over against him instead of being ruled by him’”(Easton 193). Although man creates society, it eventually starts to rule over him. Hegel believed that self-knowing was more important than any other institution including art and religion. Many of the characters in Early American Literature gave up their self at the expense of the society and others renounced society in order to be true to themselves.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, all four main characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, Pearl, and Chillingworth, experience their own type of alienation. The setting of the story is ideal for this illustration. “Hawthorne suggests that the Puritan community actually intensifies the alienation of its individual members, who are compelled to subordinate their own natures to an external and abstract moral order” (Rowe 1213).

Hester Prynne, however suffers the most obvious form of alienation—that of being publicly outcast by society for breaking their rules. She consciously commits adultery because she feels in heart that it is the right thing to do. Although her “social

alienation” and branding with the “A” enables her to wear her true “self-consciousness” upon her breast, she is unable to come to terms with it by allowing her lover, Reverend Dimmesdale, to confess to the public. “…the “A” becomes a point of reference for the entire dialectic of self-consciousness that moves from alienation to recognition and ultimate universality” (Rowe 1224). The “A” is a symbol of the displacement of the self as it moves from its natural inclination to the highly structured laws of society. Hester’s ability to live her self-consciousness is a privilege that society, who might as well be wearing letters themselves, is not afforded until it can be recognized and accepted. According to Hegel’s idealism, society could possibly realize that they all share these natural inclinations to rebel against the society they have created in a collective Absolute Idea. Hegel’s Phenomenology attempts to explain the process of alienation resulting in a “self-consciousness” which when recognized can become universal.

Dimmesdale’s suffering is representative of the “pain and guilt common to all” (Ragussis 877). “The first [crime, Hester’s,] is an object of scorn set apart from all others; the second is ‘he’ conceived as the invisible self that we all share but fail to recognize” (Ragussis 877). Society as a whole suffers from an unrecognized alienation: one where Freud’s id and superego clash.

In the novel, Dimmesdale suffers from intrapersonal alienation. This type of alienation is characterized by an inner struggle between what one feels they are on the inside and what one feels they have become on the outside by repressing their true self. Dimmesdale feels the need to function as a clergyman within the Puritan society, yet his self-consciousness is guilt ridden from being hypocritical from having an adulterous

affair. In short, he struggles within himself and against himself. Interestingly, the only place that he can find relief from societal restriction is in the forest…among nature. “Dimmesdale returns from the woods through a psychological maze, in which he wanders between social Sittlichkeit and his own idiosyncratic impulses toward rebellion” (Rowe 1222). Dimmesdale ultimately finds piece in attempting to bridge the gap between his conflict with his duty to his family and his duty to the community by his public revelation. This piece is found when he realizes that he has not sinned in his heart. “Hegel concludes, the self becomes aware of its ‘torn and shattered condition; and in knowing this it has ipso facto risen above that condition’. Thus alienation is overcome through knowledge” (Easton 195). Marx adds that man is able to finally define himself as a result of his search for this knowledge—a fruit of his labor. Unfortunately, this knowledge comes to Dimmesdale too late; his revelation cannot save his life—it can only help his family.

Dimmesdale’s illegitimate daughter, Pearl, is finally relieved of her alienation. She is unable to be defined until her parents are able to define themselves. “Pearl is estranged both by the absence of Hester’s defining symbols and the presence of Dimmesdale, who still remains alien [until his revelation at the conclusion of the novel]” (Rowe 1222). One can make a connection once again, with Hegel as he “initiates modern philosophy in the Phenomenology by defining the subject as the very process of its own becoming” (Rowe 1226). Here we have the process of the formation of a literal “pearl”: a grain of sand that forms into precious treasure—and the definition of a little girl which is dependant on the recognition of her parent’s self-consciousness.

Pearl’s alienation is caused by her parent’s actions and/or inactions, however Chillingworth’s alienation is self-inflicted. Throughout the novel he does not even go by his real name. He does not assume his role as Hester’s husband. Instead he turns himself into a demon of revenge, feeding off of Dimmesdale’s misery.

Chillingworth chooses to alienate himself, as does Huckleberry Finn in Mark

Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The major difference however, is that Huck chooses to alienate himself from society to escape its evils—not alienate his “self”. Throughout the novel he struggles with the ideas of right and wrong because the rights and wrongs of society do not match up with his: Society dictates that helping a slave escape is wrong; Huck feels that Jim should be free and would “go to hell” for him. Society dictates that black people are subhuman; Huck realizes that Jim has feelings. Society dictates that money is power; Huck would rather have no money at all in order to avoid conflict because he witnesses all the corruption. Hegel realizes that “wealth, state power, etc. [are] things estranged from man’s nature” (qtd in Easton 193). Huck remains true to himself when he experiences the hypocrisy and inhumanity of society.

Huck’s only refuge is in the Mississippi River. There among nature, he is not constrained by societal regulation. He chooses to alienate himself from society rather than abandon his self-conscious. Both in the beginning and in the end Huck runs away and alienates himself from society when others try to “sivilize” him. In this way he is not alienating his true self—instead, he prefers to return to nature and his own ideals.

Henry James’ novel Daisy Miller is yet another example of social alienation, however, unlike Hester and Huck, she did not intentionally disrespect the social codes.

Lynn Wardly states that you can“…fortify against the incursions of alien cultures and the temptation to pick up alien ways…by learning to emulate the ‘proper’ speech, manners, and customs” (qtd. in Weber 743). Daisy does not do any of this, however, her ignorance makes her innocent of any wrongdoing. It is this same ignorance of social codes that eventually leads to her death. “Daisy Miller…show[s an] American whose romantic endeavors end poorly because [her] naïve behavior in foreign cultures clash with society’s expectations” (Gale Group part 9). Although Daisy dresses appropriately, she does not speak of behave like a lady. She is straightforward and almost tactless, she is improperly familiar with her courier, and she is constantly in the company of men in inappropriate places at inappropriate times. Unknowingly, Daisy becomes “the outsider expelled in disgust by a closed society” as do other characters in James’ novels (Weber 740). James’ works “recognize that…alienation [is] the modern condition” (Weber 740). Alienation is simply bound to occur when a person is at the mercy of society’s restrictions.

Not only was Daisy Miller alienated, the actual novel itself was not accepted by the American public either on grounds that it was not an appropriate portrayal of an American girl. James, however, refused to alienate himself by not allowing the opinion of the public to affect his work. James says of his writing:

One must go one’s way and know what one’s about and have a general plan and a private religion—in short have made up one’s mind as to ce qui en est with a public the draggling after which simply leads one in the gutter. One had

always a ‘public’ enough if one has an audible vibration—even if it should only come from one’s self. (qtd in Murray 19)

James realizes that to write according to public popularity would mean to alienate himself.

James was completely aware of the causes and effects of alienation yet some critics believe that Edith Wharton does a better job of expressing the matter. Cynthia Griffin Wolff contends in her comparison of Henry James and Edith Wharton: “Wharton surpasses James specifically in her ability to reveal the psychological distortions, the self-alienation, that a woman suffers when she accepts the status of idealized object” (39). Daisy Miller has very little substance to her character compared to the characters of Edith Wharton. Although James can be said to have experienced some social alienation himself, perhaps Wharton was able to express it more clearly when speaking of female alienation. Alfred Kazan asserts that Wharton “could speak out plainly with a force [James] never could muster; and her own alienation and loneliness gave her a sympathy for erratic spirits and illicit emotion that was unique in its time” (qtd in Gale Group part 10). Whereas James would rather be alienated from society than to alienate himself, Wharton had a better understanding of the self-alienation that women are put through in a rigid society.

In Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, Ellen Olenska alienates herself by conforming to society’s expectations and abandoning her desire to divorce from her abusive husband. Like Daisy Miller, Ellen is apparently unaware of her social faux pas, however, unlike Daisy; she is genuinely concerned with reconciling her differences with

New York society. Ellen even goes so far as to advise her love interest, Archer, to do the same and alienate himself for the good of society.

Therefore, Archer ends up alienating himself from his natural inclinations to abandon his socially acceptable wife and live out his passionate dream with Ellen. “Archer, with his insecurity, his sensitivity, and his passion has obeyed the moral imperatives of his class and time and has given up Ellen and love for the furtherance of the shallow-seeming aims, all amorphous as they are, of his [New York] world” (Gale Group part 10).

Captain Vere in Herman Melville’s short story, Billy Budd, also obeys “the moral imperatives of his time” when he acts against his own inclinations to judge the “handsome sailor”, Billy Budd as innocent. He exclaims of Billy’s victim, Claggart, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (Melville 64). Captain Vere has an obligation to the entire fleet to uphold the martial law regarding mutiny. He knows that if he doesn’t give Billy the proper punishment—death, it could cause an entire social upheaval aboard the ships. Doing what he feels is right in his heart must be replaced by doing what he feels is right according to martial law. “But for us here acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with” (Melville 72).

The victim of Billy’s mistake, Claggart, is another example of social alienation. His duty aboard the ship is similar to being a high-ranking cop, which sets him apart from the rest of the crew. He yearned to be as popular and comely as Billy and eventually his envy leads him to accuse Billy of a crime that he did not commit. Claggart’s lack of

social acceptance makes him very unhappy which is a good illustration of what social alienation can do to someone.

Many of the characters portrayed in Early American Literature such as The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Daisy Miller, The Age of Innocence, and Billy Budd, had to make a choice between alienating themselves or being alienated from society. Those who chose to be true to themselves often found themselves outcast from society. Those who chose to alienate themselves were accepted by society, but were not necessarily happy unless they realized that had finally found their true identity. The ironic part is that if everybody in society was true to themselves they all might find that they have some natural tendencies in common—the universality of the self-conscious that Hegel suggests. Until they realize this the will continue to be alienated and in search of their true identities.

The great American novels, or ‘romances,’ may best be regarded as dynamic complicated metaphors—representative, each of them, to the tense conflict that each artist aesthetically resolved in his individual quest for self-definition.

(Rovit 121)

Works Cited

Easton, Lloyd D. “Alienation and History in Early Marx.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 1961.
“Edith (Newbold Jones) Wharton.” Contemporary Authors Online. 2000. 23 Jan. 2001
“Henry James.” Contemporary Authors Online. 2000. 23 Jan. 2001
Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. 4th ed. Indianapolis, IN: ITT Bobbs-Merrill Educational, 1980.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. New York, NY: Washington Square, 1972.
Murray, Donald M. “Henry James and The English Reviewers, 1882-1890.”
American Literature. 1952.
Ragussis, Michael. “Family Discourse and Fiction in The Scarlet Letter.” ELH. 1982.
Rovit, Earl H. “American Literature and ‘The American Experience’.” American Quarterly. 1961.
Rowe, John Carlos. “The Internal Conflict of Romantic Narrative: Hegel’s Phenomenology and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” MLN. 1980.
Weber, Donald. “Outsiders and Greenhorns: Christopher Newman in the Old World, David Levinsky in the New.” American Literature. 1995.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Lily Bart and the Beautiful Death.” American Literature. 1974.

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