Literature and society
The authors of the 19th century have inspired many changes to our society, their works have created the basis of society as we know it today. They have changed the idea of marriage, the idea of religion, and have broken down the barriers of what can be written onto a piece of paper with the intent of mass publication. They have gone and changed the many facets of our understanding about the relations of the individual and their society. Austen has challenged the idea that marriage is only for financial gain, along that love in a marriage wasn’t necessary during that time in society. During the time, if you loved the person you married, it was entirely by chance. That when you marry, you would typically marry within your class. With her Brilliant novel “Pride and Prejudice”, she challenged that basic societal view with the love between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. Their love between several social classes has changed the way people marry today, we now choose who we marry through love. Hawthorne challenged the conformity of religion. As the times had demanded, one’s loyalties belonged to the church, and if you were to deviate from their teachings you would be exiled for heresy. “As if by her own free-will.” (Hawthorne pg. 43). In the quote above, Hester had gone against the church and had committed one of the most shameful of sins, and after the sentence to imprisonment has been fulfilled, she had walked out of the doors as if nothing had happened, that she wasn’t ashamed of what she had done. Along with Walter Whitman, with his publication of the poem “A Song of Myself” had changed what could be talked about in conversation, along with what could be printed in a book. “you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me” (Whitman pg. 4 sec 5 line 7). Here is one of the many points in the poem that had stretched the boundaries of society. He talked about sexuality along with other taboo subjects such as prostitution, although he was quite unsuccessful in his time, he has greatly changed the world. In the words of my professor “we are just now starting to catch up with Whitman, I think we may never will though.” (Robison), he has talked about subjects that are just now becoming okay to talk about in public. These authors have made it possible to have the conversations in class about previously taboo topics of the time. Between man and woman, the boundaries have been pushed as far if not further than the ones of society. Hawthorne was quite aware of the feminism movements growing across the United States at the time he was writing the book “The Scarlet Letter”.
Human nature must be contained, so that morally undignified acts are avoided. But who is to decide what is morally right and what is wrong? The “Scarlet Letter” explores the restricting laws and hypocritical systems humans employ in an effort to contain and manipulate chaos, by using a Puritanical religion as a representation of a legalist civilization, and through the perspective of a Puritan society in the 17th Century and focuses on the harsh punishment the town leaders give to Hester Prynne after her adultery is revealed. The novel explores the nature of secrets, the agony of guilt, and most importantly the role of society in chastising people for “unholy” acts. It explores the nature of secrets along with the agony of guilt through the reverend Dimmesdale. “they grew out of his heart and typify it may be some hideous secret that was buried with him” (Hawthorne pg. 103). Here Hawthorne was showing the nature of secrets, that they can damage a person, and haunt them even after death. With the use of the waxy black plants, he is conveying how secrets can harm a person’s heart. This book also has an almost feministic aspect to it. Most people see feminism as an anti-male movement bent on women becoming the dominant gender, but this is not the case. In this novel, “The Scarlet Letter”, Hester Prynne embodies these ideals by conquering her public humiliation and rocked the boat of the predetermined ideas that the Puritan town holds her to. She is a perfect example of what a feminist should be, which is a real treat considering the time period and the fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne really had no inspiration for his radical ideas. The Scarlet Letter is “accidentally” a feminist novel because of the way Hester stands up against the Puritans’ harsh criticism, and because of the fact that Hawthorne’s ideas of women empowerment ahead of his time. Hester could be a feminist because of the way she blatantly goes against the Puritan’s ideas of how a woman should live her life. The “tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.”(Hawthorne pg. 156) She no longer has to follow the same set of rules as the other Puritan women. Hester has obtained a “passport into regions where other women dared not tread.”(Hawthorne pg. 156) By having this “passport”, the scarlet letter, it makes it acceptable for her to not have a regular life; toiling over her children and husband, and putting up with everyone in town. She is able to pass through the forest, the town, or anywhere she pleases. She no longer has boundaries because she has nothing left to lose. She can also cross the boundaries between men and women. Because her whole life has been strewn out for people to see, she has let everything go; all her reservations, expectations, and inhibitions. One of the many reasons behind the question of this being a feminist novel is the fact that Hawthorne composed “The Scarlet Letter” before feminism had taken off across the country. It makes one wonder, where did he acquire the feministic ideas. Who influenced him during his writing? Was he even influenced at all, or was it the spirit of Hester that brought these ideas out of him. I would side with the latter and say that Hester as a character is so strong and passionate that she herself has challenged some of the ideas of the Puritan lifestyle. Hawthorne even presents the idea that we should “let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!”(Hawthorne pg. 138). Hawthorne has made an enormous impact on how we view the relationship between man and woman, along with individuals in society.
“Pride and Prejudice”, by Jane Austen, is a novel that pushes the confines of society in the 19th century. The novel is stuffed full of Austen’s views on development, education, marriage, along with women’s roles in society. The novel focuses on middle-class life in England in the 1800’s, where a woman’s social status was determined by marrying a man who had considerable wealth and could provide them finical security in life. Elizabeth is strong, striking, and an extremely intelligent young woman. She does not want to become one of the submissive and obedient women of which fills society in the time. She occupies a society filled with unbearable, braggartly and stiff social customs. She renounces the confines of custom, believing that women deserve to be as happy as men. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s character changes to a strong personality and such wit that she is one of the most loved heroines of all time. Throughout “Pride and Prejudice”, Elizabeth is faced with several situations of which her character and mindset are tested, shown through her thoughts and actions that she is a woman that is ahead of her time. Her personality, belief in freedom in choosing who she marries, and her ideas about social class benefit her in the long run of the novel. During the time when women were always supposed to be sweet and passive, Elizabeth Bennet is awfully clever, blunt and not afraid to do what she thinks is right. “…She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to temp me” (Austen pg. 7). A woman can barely keep her calm when her image is insulted, but Elizabeth is not an ordinary woman. She puts her character above her appearance, which is different for her time. Along with being intelligent, Elizabeth shows an independence along with a stubbornness of will, clearly shown when she walks the three-mile hike to the Netherfield mansion, to be with her sick sister. This is an example of when Elizabeth puts her mind to doing something, there is no way of stopping her from doing what she sees as the right thing to do. She does not allow society to change her ethics or her beliefs, no matter the cost. Elizabeth sees that society wants too much of women and denies it’s view of a woman of whom she has many accomplishments. “I never saw such a woman, I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united” (Austen pg. 29). Elizabeth is not anxious to speak her mind about her believes. Despite Miss Bingley’s and Mrs. Hurst’s objections, she does not deflect her sharp tongue and the tendency to make hasty judgments, that often lead her down the wrong path, as she spends most of the book with a severe prejudice against Mr. Darcy along with a bogus view of officer Wickham. Elizabeth’s strong self-regard lets her manage an impression of individuality that is uncommon of women at the time, yet it is highly common in the female characters of today’s literature. Elizabeth is shown as an able, self- reliant and a modern woman when she denounced societal ideals by refusing to marry without it being a person she loves. women depended on a beneficial marriage for fiscal survival during the time period of the composition of the novel. Elizabeth is not financially independent and must depend on a beneficial marriage for a comfortable future despite her wishes to marry for love. Against the strain of society along with her parents, to marry the first wealthy man that crosses her path, Elizabeth advocates for her own feelings in marriage and rejects the proposals of both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy on the grounds that they are not right for her. The marriage proposal from Mr. Collins, the presumptuous clergyman, who is supposed to inherit the Bennet estate at the time of Mr. Bennet’s demise, is the first of two proposals that Elizabeth rejects. Even though Mr. Collins’ “having now a good house and very sufficient income” (Austen pg. 53), Elizabeth says no as he could not make her happy. Elizabeth’s strong beliefs that a woman should marry for love is something that Mr. Collins cannot understand; because he thinks that the only reason, she could possibly be rejecting his marriage proposal is due to the “true delicacy of the female character” (Austen pg. 82). Austen differs Elizabeth’s views on marriage with the convention of the down-to-earth Mrs. Charlotte Lucas who to the acrimony of Elizabeth, ends up marrying Mr. Collins because she “ask only for a comfortable home” (Austen pg.95). While Mr. Collins is too arrogant for Elizabeth, Darcy is different. He is handsome, intelligent, and wealthy but still, Elizabeth rejects him. When Darcy confesses his love to her, she condemns him for his behavior towards Wickham and his unacceptable intervention in the relationship between her sister and Mr. Bingley. She rejects Darcy’s proposal without a second thought; “you could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it” (Austen pg. 145). The bluntness of Elizabeth’s words could have made her the enemy of a very rich and authoritative man, but she is disconcerned about the possibility. Luckily, Darcy fell deeply in love with her spirit and determination, so her actions did nothing to change the excessive attraction that Darcy had for her. In fact, Elizabeth’s actions are what make Darcy realize his pride and is what transforms him into a proper gentleman. The idea that a woman could change a man was unheard of during that century. Although she does end up marrying Darcy at the end of the book, the prospect that she would reject two marriage proposals and only agree to a marriage when she is positive she loves the man she chooses to marry, because she would rather “do anything … than marry without affection” ( Austen pg. 280), is radical for the time period. Elizabeth’s iron strong will is shown in her tendency to speak her mind and say what she thinks is right, whether they fit the social restrictions placed on her. Her conversations with Darcy are the clearest examples of her being candid. Apart from Elizabeth’s rejection of his marriage proposal, of which she doesn’t hold back any opinions that she had of him, Elizabeth shows her verbal bravery in other conversations throughout the book as well. Darcy’s social and economic dominance does little to scare Elizabeth, as she seems to take any chance to mock him and make him disgrace himself by openly criticizing him. While staying at Netherfield, Elizabeth once again rejects Darcy when asked “Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?” (Austen pg. 38). She rejects him by saying, “I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all- and now despise me if you dare” ( Austen pg. 38).Elizabeth is not afraid to test Darcy and finds amusement in receiving any reactions from him. His remarks only encourage her remarks. Darcy’s higher social ranking does nothing to stop Elizabeth from freely vocalizing her thoughts and running conversational rings around most of the people she converses with. She’s changed our ideas about marriage and how women should act in society.
Whitman has changed many subjects, by publishing taboo subjects in his books, he had hurt his career, but it has opened our eyes to the real world. Back in the early 19th century poetry had always rhymed, it was also always about love, beauty and sentimental. Walt has changed that by writing about the reality of life, nature and much more in his creation of free verse poetry. His poem, “Song of Myself” was an extremely influential poem. It inspires the ideas of self-reliance, and that the best way to do things is your own way. It was also extremely controversial because of the sexuality and erotic sections, which for the time was extremely controversial and we still haven’t caught up to Whitman in today’s time with homosexuality “I love him” (Whitman pg. 12) being a controversial subject, but in the poem, he embraces it. He knows no shame when it comes to the sexual parts of life, from prostitutes to loving men, he had no shame. He would never judge anyone and would barely criticize; he would use his words to bring everyone together. The poem has several themes of which are equality, sex and sexuality. He preaches equality throughout the entire poem, from the beginning in the line “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman pg. 1). He believes that everyone is equal no matter if you are white or black, which was extremely controversial at the time of the publication of the book, because slavery was commonplace in the United States at the time. He was one of the many people that thought and pushed for the freedom of slaves. Sex and sexuality are also common themes in the poem. His passionate beliefs in the goodness of nature drove his lust the same as his belief in the connection of body and soul. “ I have said the soul is not more than the body, and I have said that the body is not more than the soul … and I say to any man of woman, let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes” (Whitman pg. 51). He has influenced many people with his writings, pushed the boundaries of sexuality and sex, and has helped form society as we now know it.
These authors have pushed the limits of society, of which were thought to be inflexible at the time. They have pushed society to change for the better, sometimes at the sacrifice of their professional career, such as Whitman had. They have changed how we think about marriage, love, religion, guilt, and nature. Hawthorne has opened our eyes to the fact that people who may have done wrong in the past can do good with their life. Austen has shunned the traditional ideas about marriage, the idea of marring for love rather marrying for fortune and social status. Whitman had invited us to go sit beside him at the river, and we have just began sitting with him for the afternoon. He has changed the idea that there isn’t more to life than work and making a family. He has shown us the beauty of nature again, he has shown us that there is no reason to disapprove of anyone, such as prostitutes, because we should celebrate ourselves rather than comparing ourselves to one another. These ideas have changed our society forever and has let us flourish in life.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Bantam Books, 1981.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, et al. The Scarlet Letter. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Whitman, Walter. Song of Myself. Dover Publications, 2001.