It has been suggested by novelist Ralph Ellison that no American feels truly free unless alone, an idea seemingly contradictory to the most American of ideas of democracy, commerce, and fidelity. What is it that creates this need, a search for isolation or independence? Within some of America’s greatest novels this motif has been an underlying theme, exposing our almost subconscious need for selfhood. A number of themes express this desire, from dissatisfaction with the trappings of civility to the rejection of societal morality. Examining these ideas it’s easy to see how dramatically this plays into our cultural mindset.
The rejection of civility is a theme common to American literature, society being portrayed as restrictive, hampering the thrills and adventures that are meant to be our joie de vivre. Characters such as Chopin’s Edna Pontellier feel that the values of society have been forced upon them, not matching their own desire for happiness, an idea at the roots of our nation’s founding. Finding those around them oppressive, our proto-American seeks their freedom in isolation, finding sanctuary in the wilds or within their own person. Time and time through American literature we see characters like Edna Pontellier spiraling deeper and deeper into introversion.
Also common in the writings of our nation is the way we view nature, as a powerful force alien to the ways of everyday mankind. At times this view of nature can be benevolent, as is Twain’s view through the eyes of Huck Finn, seeing nature as a benefactor that we have distanced ourselves from at our own loss. While the fine points of civilization seem only a useless veneer, the honesty of the river and his place on it offer a more substantial reality. Others, such as Faulkner, portray nature as cruel; a force not only uncaring to our plight, but at times downright malicious. However polarized these views may be though, one thing is consistent; the deeper meaning behind nature, its otherness, and the way it symbolizes the world in which, or from which, we seek out isolation.
Another striking characteristic common in American literature is our view of morality, and how the ideals held by a society may not always mirror those held by the heart. In both the works of Twain and Chopin, as well as many of their contemporaries, characters find that the moral standards of their time and place are restrictive if not completely contrary to their nature. This conflict with societal norms pushes characters into escape or, more commonly, into introversion. Alone, the protagonist can live their lives according to their own moral compass, in a state of true freedom. As Chopin herself wrote “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
In “Huckleberry Finn” we see a boy aware of the stagnancy and falsehood of the world that was being imposed on him and struck out for greener pastures. No, he didn’t have a great plan, and know he wasn’t very well prepared, but he took his life into his own hands and that’s what counts. Out on his own his discovers things about himself and about the world that not only underline the problems that he was trying to escape from, but also help him to establish a solid worldview of his own. Though he still finds value in his camaraderie with Jim, the moments of revelation for him come when he is contemplating alone, with only the gentle ebb and flow of the river to keep him company.
In “The Awakening” we have a tale that is in many ways much darker. We find a woman who is tied down by her social bonds and the morals of thoughts around her, when in her heart she urges to live her life on her own terms. Her husband, as she herself said, is “seemed to her now like a person whom she had married without love as an excuse.” Edna is older than Huck though, far more inhibited and with children to tie her down and no source of income of her own she is trapped, and searching for a lover she finds that the men of her time and circle suffer from the same social biases. It’s only in the one place we all go to truly alone that she eventually turns to find piece
Why would it be that American writers would need to express tendency toward romanticizing the loner? An idea like this, from one point of view, seems entirely contrary to the most American of beliefs; democracy. From another standpoint, though, it is a mindset that is almost uniquely American; the pioneering spirit. America was a country founded by pioneers, a pioneering spirit that continued on to our settling of the western shores, and led us on further to dare to put men on the moon. The real question is whether or not that spirit still exists today.