Self Reliance Essay, Research Paper
I will, in the following, discuss the theme of self-reliance in the above-mentioned texts. But what exactly is self-reliance? In his 1841 publication called Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson includes an essay simply entitled Self-Reliance in which he states “Trust thyself…Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…” . Self-reliance is thus defined as the ability to be your own master and to seek your own fortune free from influences from your surroundings.
Hawthorne wrote Young Goodman Brown in 1835, some 6 years before Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Still it is obvious from the text that the notion of self-reliance was, if not named, very much alive. In the text we encounter Goodman Brown – a pious puritan settler – as he embarks on a strange and perilous journey into the woods surrounding the settlement. Hawthorne, being a harsh critic of the puritan society from which he himself derived, uses the story as an allegory, a metaphor, for the necessity of facing your internal demons and doing it alone. The Puritans believed that the wilderness was the home of the devil and his minions (Indians, wild beasts and the like) and
as such was a place to be shunned. Still, Goodman Brown leaves behind his devoted and maiden-
like wife (appropriately named Faith) and walks off. In the woods he encounters a man with features remarkably like his own (it is himself, his demon within) that guides him to a place of evil worship. Goodman Brown has visions of unthinkable evil that leaves him paranoid and unable to feel happiness for the remainder of his life. Because he has succumbed to fear of failure, he fails. But why does he fail that way? Simple. Goodman Brown fails to trust in himself. Instead he leaves his mental well being in the hands of the community from which he comes. To the Puritans the individual mind was fragile and prone to heresy if tempted. Only united did they stand a chance against the endless temptations of the devil. This is exactly the notion against which Hawthorne revolts. Had Goodman Brown had the willpower and the self-esteem necessary, he would have prevailed. With the ability to trust in one-self comes the ability to deal with any problem that life might throw in ones way, even the temptations of the soul. Thus we see the idea of self-reliance creeping into view.
Samuel L. Clemens first published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, a time where the idea of self-reliance was firmly established in the minds of the American people. The narrator and main protagonist Huck Finn is a young boy already introduced to the public in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) in which Huck is a runaway. He lives in an old barrel free of all obligations and is generally a happy boy. As Tom Sawyer progresses the boys help find a band of highwaymen, get them arrested and punished, and become rich in the process. Huck gets himself adopted by the Widow Douglas and this is where we encounter him in the beginning of Huckleberry Finn. Although he has been given everything the society deemed appropriate at the time (i.e. a family, a home etc.) Huck finds himself uncomfortable in his new clothing, unable to conform to strict house rules enforced upon him by the widow (“…The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time…” ). He generally misses the old days when he and Tom would wander about doing what they pleased. It is obvious that Clemens infuses Huck with his own ideas of freedom and wanderlust as something very positive. In fact it is almost certain that without these qualities Huck would never have survived to this point. As the story advances we encounter Huck’s father: A violent drunk with a massive inferiority complex towards everybody. He was the reason that Huck ran off and found his barrel in the first place and he is the only person that Huck truly fears. On the other hand he is his father and deep down Huck wants for them to have a normal life together. At
his reappearance, Huck’s father takes Huck away to a cabin by the river where they can live together. He does this, as Huck is the only person that he can bully around in the way that he feels society bullies him around. In the fact that he survives also this encounter with his father and that he is even capable of excusing the deeds of this evil man to some degree, Huck emerges as an epitome of self-reliance. Without his innate ability to deal with the trials posed against him, Huck would have succumbed to the harshness of the world. This embodiment of self-reliance is perhaps even more evident in Huck’s relationship with Tom. Tom Sawyer is a dreamer. Always scheming, always on the lookout for adventure, Tom’s only link to the real world is the ironic observations of Huck, who – because of his self-reliance – simply knows what can and cannot be done in reality. Having said this it should also be mentioned that Huck personifies a much more humane view of self-reliance than is presented to us in the essays of R.W. Emerson. Emerson states that: “…do not tell me…of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? … I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men…I shall have the manhood to withhold.” This is invariably in conflict with the way Huck behaves throughout the book, notably towards old Jim. But I nevertheless feel confident in claiming that Huck to some extent is self-reliance incarnate.
In comparison I feel that these 2 texts read with the overall theme of self-reliance in mind goes to show that this philosophy did not arise from one day to the other. It slowly formed itself at the base of the American culture and literature in particular played a key part in this manifestation. Self-reliance defined the thought of American exceptionalism to the point where it gave birth to the American dream. Literature was itself influenced by these developments, but it also helped further them by spreading the above-mentioned notions to the common people. In any case the 2 texts are among the best American literature I have ever read.
Young Goodman Brown
Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition
Page 613 to 623
Clemens, Samuel J.
The adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition
Page 1265 to 1453