An American Childhood Essay, Research Paper
“Waking Up to the Reality of a Personally Fulfilling Future”
Throughout Dillard’s, An American Childhood, she describes the distinct gender roles of men and those of women in the 1950’s. Dillard tells us of the explicitly different duties and responsibilities men and women had. The influence which society, specifically adults, has on Annie is extremely powerful and ultimately acts as a guiding light into her future. This influence eventually drives her to desire knowledge about why society has structured such gender roles. Annie specifically questions why women of her era allow themselves to be subservient to men, and therefore intentionally further affirm the notion that women are not as capable as men. She does not intuitively believe that she shall feel satisfied pursuing the envisioned mold society and generations past have created for the women of her time. The ultimate effect of Annie’s reaction to society’s pervasive influence is her realization that a future containing personal fulfillment shall only be attained through the pursuit of her own intuitive and conscious decisions and actions.
From early childhood, the society which Dillard grows up in, attempts to shape and mold young boys and girls in hope of producing cookie cutter images of their elders. It is the adult portion of society, which holds the dominating influence over children. Dillard writes, “Here we all were, boys and girls, plunged by our conspiring elders, into a bewildering social truth that we were meant to make each others acquaintance.” (87) inferring that it is the adults who are in steady control of the path children are proceeding along. Young minds are like brand new sponges; obliviously willing to soak up anything and everything that surrounds them. Children are extremely impressionable and therefore apt to do and think as their role models, adults do.
Dillard writes about the feelings encompassing the initial experience of a child’s awakening process. This process offers children fresh insights and new ideas about the changing and growing world that they can choose to be a part of. She shares her own experience here:
“A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside her skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade, and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life-the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives-as an actual project underway, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them. I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers,” (74).
Her indication of children being “asleep” refers to their inability to perceive all of life’s true possibilities. If they fail to grow and change along with the world around them, they shall fall victim to society’s plan for their future. In Annie’s environment, society’s plan for each child’s future is determined by one specific characteristic, gender. It is through Annie’s persistent questioning of society’s standards and structures that she is able to break from the norm and pursue a life that is personally fulfilling. To better understand how and why Annie chose to pursue her own path, distinct from societies intentions, it is essential to look closely at society’s powerfully influential role.
In Pittsburgh, during the 1950’s, females were generally expected to grow up to be mothers and housewives. Their anticipated duties included such things as tending to the children, cleaning the house, cooking for the family, socially interacting with other women, etc. A sketch of a women’s place in society becomes evident through Annie’s portrayal her mothers everyday tasks and responsibilities. All of what Mrs. Dillard undertakes is domestic. Annie confirms this in saying, “She saw how things should be run, but she had nothing to run but her household.” (115). Women were not expected to have aspirations to join in the busy, productive working environment of males. Not only were they not expected to desire to be involved in the economic world, women were not socially regarded as capable of being successful at anything but their domestic responsibilities. Women were supposed to be passive and consumed with trivial matters. These female gender roles and duties were not widely discussed in society, or determined because of any specific reasoning, yet just simply followed as a part of tradition. The carrying on of these traditional duties often times went unnoticed and unappreciated by the outside world, the living world that existed outside the home. This environment initially gave Annie the impression that, “Nothing girls did could compare with it, “, (45), “it” meaning what boys did.
The men within this society held the honorably viewed responsibility of working in a world, which extended beyond that of the domestically oriented females. Males were to produce the income that provided for their families. From childhood, Dillard explains:
“They had been learning self-control. We had failed to develop any selves worth controlling. We were enforcers of a code we never questioned; we were vigilantes of the trivial. They had been accumulating information about the world outside our private schools and clubs. We had failed to notice that there was such a thing,” (91).
The females became oblivious to and/or deny the possibilities of the “actual world before them” (91). It was seldom during this time that females in this traditional society would dance to a beat of a different drum. Since childhood, young boys were surrounded by the idea “…that it was theirs by rights as boys, a real world.” (92). Boys quickly caught on that they were to be the ones who would soon be doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. They could dream and plan a future they desired for themselves and know that it was probable for their dreams to soon become their realities. Young girls, on the other hand, did not often dream of comparable possibilities with the same positive outlook that the boys were able to Women role models symbolized the most probable fate for a female child, to take care of a household. The continuous attempt to imitate past generations is what drives this 1950’s, suburban, upper-middle class, society to try to mold the existing generation of young children, once again.
As Annie grows and matures, she is further influenced by other sources outside society, such as books. Her knowledge and conscious awareness level expand further as she begins to question the world and its actual possibilities. Dillard further explains this growing process when she writes, “Later the child wakes and discovers-and adds facts to the impressions, and historical understanding to facts,” (35). When Dillard enters her early teens she begins to perceive herself as a free being, independently in charge of her own actions. She rebels against society’s standards by engaging in such things as drag racing and smoking. She becomes particularly interested in science and poetry and decides to quit going to church. Annie, “… began to understand then that you do what you do out of your own private passion for the thing itself” (49), not because it is your suggested duty as a male or as a female. In one instance, Annie’s parents show no interest in seeing the amoeba she has discovered; Annie comes to the realization that her days and nights are her own to fill. She understands that what the outside world may think or feel about what she is doing is irrelevant to what she thinks and feels is important to her. Annie realizes that what actually matters are not what others (society) think of her. She comes to desire personal satisfaction and fulfillment from the life she is choosing to pursue. Once she is reassured by this epiphany, Annie decides that, “…anything (is) possible. The sky (is) the limit.” (149).
It is because of people like Annie, who have the courage to question the norm, that we are able to gradually break from specified gender roles more and more. Whether one is a woman or a man has nothing to do with one’s true dreams and capabilities. Annie’s rebellious behavior is looked down upon at the time, but as history progresses, and newer generations read her story, her actions become admirable. There is a lesson to be learned from Annie’s actions:
“The boundary of knowledge recedes, as you poke about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climb its cliffs. And each area of knowledge isn’t a body or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being-whatever pervades, whatever never ends and fits into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.” (107).
Knowledge and personal liberation come from stepping outside of one’s comfortable boundaries and questioning the unquestioned. Boundaries only limit possible discoveries and new understandings. Annie detaches herself from society’s expectations of the female gender through daring to venture outside society’s boundaries. Knowledge can expand, like air, and suffocate ignorance, and Annie’s growing process of questioning, realizing, and finally understanding, is a mirror image of precisely this.