Transcendence Issues in American Literature
Touching upon various ethical and religious issues, contemporary authors define the concepts of physical versus spiritual life and transcendence. It is important to consider all the symbols and the context of the previous works of the writer or poet and his/her life experience for decoding all the messages of the work of literature.
Robert Frost, a well-known American poet of the twentieth century, touches upon philosophical issues and moral dilemmas in his poetry, hiding his messages behind the trivial things depicted in his poems. Because his poems are full of symbols, readers should understand the meaning of his words literally. For example, making the swinging of the trees the main theme of the poem Birches, Frost implied much more than evaluating the beauty of the landscape.
It is advisable to consider not only the described objects but the manner of their presentation as well. Observing birches bending left and right, the author thinks of the forces that make them swing and it becomes a kind of escape from everyday reality making transcendence from earth life possible and doubting the meaning of the concept of truth and its importance. Focusing on the birches, the poet offers readers to abstract away from their routine and think over the sense of existence.
Drawing the parallels between the wildlife and destiny, he delivers his main moral messages: “life is too much like a pathless wood” (Frost 31). Implementing the techniques of the flow of feelings and ideas, the poet switches between the different dimensions of life and relies on creating the associations, appealing to the readers’ emotions.
In Birches and Bonfire Frost touches upon the children’s perception of life for the purpose of simplifying the discussion of the most complicated issues: “war’s not for children—it’s for men” (Frost 46). The impact of the commercialized world on individuals’ life is discussed in the poem The Christmas Trees.
The main protagonist of the poem faces the moral dilemma of selling a thousand of firs for three dollars and concludes that the flow of commerce into everyone’s life is inevitable: “the trial by market everything must come to” (Frost 11). Touching upon the issues of freedom and devotion in marriage in the poem Snow, Frost sheds light upon the psychological aspects of interpersonal relationships, adding a new dimension to the world of his poetry.
Great Poems by American Women: An Anthology edited by Susan Rattiner demonstrates how diversified are the themes covered by poetesses and what original symbols and techniques can be used for discussing the issues of life, death, and transcendence. Shedding light upon various aspects of earth life, American women described the strongest possible human feelings in the context of Ethics and Religion.
Touching upon the love affairs, Ella Wilcox, for instance, uses the concepts of sin and duty, depicting the inner struggle of the main protagonist and the enormous power which the desirable woman might have. In her poem Delilah the poetess describes her decision between love, morality and public opinion, admitting that “my soul turns its back on its duty/ To live in the light of her face” (Rattiner 74).
Another strong feeling is the mother’s love to her child, and along with freedom and slavery, it is one of the main themes of the poem Slave Mother by Harper. The poetess shows all the horrors of slavery on the example of mother-child separation. “They tear him from her circling arms,/ Her last and fond embrace” (Rattiner 85). The enslavement is shown as not only a social phenomenon of suppression and financial exploitation of a particular group of society but also a violation of the basic human rights.
Concerning the issues of death and afterlife, the American poetesses chose the original symbols for expressing their opinions of these philosophical issues. The buzzing of an insect in the poem I heard a fly buzz when I died by Emily Dickinson symbolizes one of the last links with the earth life, which cannot be adequately interpreted by the dying protagonist who is left “With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,/ Between the light and me” (Rattiner 61).
This condition can be compared with the transcendence of the soul which is located between the two worlds. Another poetess Phoebe Cary shares the idea of transcendence and is certain that the soul flies to the native places after the death of the physical body and describes the condition of the dying person in the poem Nearer Home: “her feet are firmly set/ On the rock of a living faith” (Rattiner 92).
Developing the idea of an afterlife, Emily Dickinson points at the inevitability of the end of the physical life in a poem Because I Could Not Stop for Death: “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity” (Rattiner 65). It is possible to interpret the messages of the American poetesses only after the critical analysis of all the symbols of their poetry.
The issues of freedom and enslavement, racial prejudices and transcendence are raised in the popular novel Moby-Dick by an American author Herman Melville. The main plot lines of the novel can be considered as a mere background for the development of the debates concerning the place of the religion in the system of beliefs of every person and tolerance towards representatives of other races and classes.
The technique of flow of thoughts of the main characters allows viewing the dilemmas from various perspectives and considering the peculiarities of their lifestyle and background that have a significant impact on their views and attitudes. For example, in chapter Ramadan, readers are initiated in the inner world of Ishmael who celebrates the greatest religious holiday and tries to convert Queequeg into his religion, but the latter does not look impressed at all.
The approach chosen by the novelist for comparing and contrasting the beliefs and interpretations of transcendence is progressive for his time because instead of comparing different theories, he tried to get to the roots of the issues, explaining the reasons for which people belong to different religions. The same goes for exaggerated racial prejudices. Contrasting the meaning of the whale to Captain Ahab and Ishmael, Melville shows how absurd the interracial struggle may become.
The whiteness of the whale is interpreted as the symbol of the superiority of the white people by Ishmael who is ready to kill the whale only because it is white. “That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more, loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect” (Melville 269).
The themes of absorption with colorless daily routine and the benefits of transcendence from it are developed in the short stories Paul’s Case by Cather, A New England Nun by Freeman, and Transcendental Wild Oats by May Alcott. The main characters of these works are stuck in their daily routines for various reasons and the authors suggest different variants of their salvation and escape from their colorless existence.
The main precondition for the passion of a young man, the main protagonist of Paul’s Case by Cather, to operas and theatres is his desire to find a sense of life and change his colorless existence. Readers can notice the inconsistency of this approach, paying attention to the fact that he wants to remain an observer of theatre life instead of participating in it. “What he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything” (Ward 121).
Sympathizing with the main protagonist because of his alienation and doubts as to the sense of his existence, the author points at the inconsistency of his choice at the same time. A short story A New England Nun by Freeman depicts the life of Louisa Ellis, a woman who has been waiting for her fiancé for more than fourteen years. She has so absorbed with her monotonous routine that her life resembles the processes in a clock mechanism – so monotonous they are shown to readers.
Even after the girl gets to know about her relationships of her beloved with another girl and releases him from his promise, nothing is changed in her way of life. In this case, the routine itself appears to be the reason for the alienation of the main character and the way of transcendence.
Transcendental Wild Oats is an autobiographic sketch by Alcott, who chose a satiric key for depicting the involvement of her family into the so-called Transcendentalist community. The writer made her father the prototype for the main protagonist of the work, describing him as a dreamer who is separated from the objective reality and showing the devastating results of his unrealistic views for the family during the harvest time.
Hemingway develops the themes of escape from reality, alienation in society, and transcendence in his story Soldier’s Home. Krebs, the main protagonist of the story, reenters his prewar life after participation in a military conflict. Describing his daily routine and meaningless talks with the members of his family, the author shows Kreb’s dissatisfaction with his life and the desire to change this colorless existence.
The inner conflict and the postwar stress make the protagonist to look for the ways of possible escape from the society in which he is induced to speak and lie about war and his true feelings. Integrating the dialogues into the story, the author contrasts the words to the character’s feelings. Kreb’s mother admits that “Charley Simmons are on their way to being a credit to the community,” motivating her son to return to the real life (Hemingway 48).
Though the author does not disclose all the inner dialogues of the main protagonist, readers can make the conclusions from his indifference to the surrounding world. Leaving this space for analysis, Hemingway involves readers into the process of interpretation of his messages. For example, the opposition of fishing and bullfighting in Hemingway’s prose can be considered as the symbolic expression of the author’s religious belief.
Depicting various dimensions of human existence, along with the social phenomena, American writers and poets touch upon the issues of spiritual life, describing the inner conflicts of their characters and the main reasons for them.
Frost, R. The Road Not Taken, Birches, and Other Poems. Claremont: Coyote Canyon Press. 2010. Print.
Hemingway, E. In Our Time. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Books. 1977. Print.
Melville, H. Moby-Dick. London: CRW Publishing. 2009. Print.
Rattiner, S. Great Poems by American Women: An Anthology. New York: Dover Publications. 1998. Print.
Ward, C. (ed.). Great Short Stories by American Women. New York: Dover Publications. 1996. Print.
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