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It has been custom for American authors to depict the theme of freedom in their literary works. Although the theme of freedom is carried out in various works, it changes from author to author in the role that it plays. In Nathaniel Hawthorne s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne exercises her right to free will which ironically causes her to loose her freedom to live and become a part of society. She lives a life of physical and mental isolation; she is free yet this freedom comes with restrictions as she is forced to wear the stigma of her sin. In Frederick Douglass account, Narrative of the Life of An American Slave, he writes about his life as a slave, and being the result of a violent rape of slave by master. Having never had freedom, Douglass goes from place to place trying to discover what freedom is. He discovers that freedom comes through education, through which he can achieve a mental emancipation. In Mark Twain s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck escapes from the rules of society to find freedom in self-reliance. Through there are variations in the role that freedom plays, it is nevertheless a strong factor in American literature. Hester Prynne is raised in a society that is heavily oppressive, it is therefore no wonder that the Puritans shun Hester from their society for committing a sin. For the Puritan society there exists no gray area when it comes to sinning, there is merely black or white: “The witnesses of Hester Prynne s disgrace had not yet passed beyond their simplicity. They were stern enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence, without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the heartlessness of another social state which would find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the present.” (Oxford, 56). Although the Puritans feel the punishment is just, they do not express emotions. For them, the punishment that has been dealt is befitting the crime. It is at this point that Hester no longer becomes a name, but rather a symbol. The taking away of her name further reduces her freedom to exist merely as an entity and not a person. Hester, however turns this symbol into an expression of a spiritual freedom. She uses her gift of embroidery to lavish the symbol with intricate designs. The colour red, combined with the gold thread turn the symbol of shame into something further Un-Puritanical and that is something that is colourful and bright: “She wore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill, of which the dames of a court might gladly have availed themselves, (Oxford, 81). This fancy thread work is a clear indication of Hester s ability to take the symbol of her shame and express herself through it. It is not to say that Hester is rebelling against the punishment, she knows that what she has done is wrong and she must live with it, yet she expresses herself nevertheless. She removes herself from society and lives a life of solitude that both she and the town prefer: “Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of earthly punishment Hester Prynne therefore did not flee. On the outskirts of the town within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation there was a small thatched cottage.” (Oxford,80-81). Hester could have left since it would have been far easier for her to pick up and begin a new life where she was not known for her sin. However, she stays in the place that decreed her guilt until she feels her punishment has been met. Pearl is yet another tool for Hester to exercise her spiritual freedom. Pearl becomes the physical personification of Hester s creativity: “The mother in contriving the child s garb, had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination their full play; arraying her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold thread.” (Oxford, 102). Hester does not flaunt Pearl, but she does not hide her away as well. Through Pearl, Hester is allowed to express her spiritual freedom in the form of colour and design. Pearl becomes the vehicle of expression for Hester. Pearl, herself is “dauntless”, she has no fear of children who ridicule her. Together with Pearl, Hester, continues to live with the symbol of her shame. There is however one point in the novel that Hester lets go and tries to experience a physical freedom. For one moment she thinks of running away with Dimmsdale, but just as quickly as the moment comes it leaves. Leaving Hester to tell Dimmsdale “no” and thus allowing herself for the first time a physical release where she allows herself a physical process of achieving her freedom: she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom! By another impulse she took off the formal cap that confined her hair ” (Oxford, 202). As the weight is lifted from the removal of the stigma, Hester feels a physical freedom that comes from release, which in turn changes her physical appearance as well: “A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back (Oxford, 202). She is once again a woman and not a mere symbol. This physical freedom however is short lived, Pearl, refuses to acknowledge this new woman as her mother until the letter is replaced back on its rightful place. Pearl is the constant reminder to Hester of what she has done. Pearl remains with her mother until she grows up and gets married leaving her mother behind in New England. Pearl s role of judge has now passed, Hester has a new understanding of her role in society and she achieves further enlightenment in her later years as she consoles women who have sinned: “Hester comforted and counseled them, as best as she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that at some brighter period a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relationship between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” (Oxford, 263). Hester foresees a future where women who have committed such sins as hers will not be so punished. By the end of the book she has reached a new spiritual freedom as a result of her new found insight. Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of An American Slave, tells his account of being a slave; physically he has no freedom, his mother being black, and his father owning her. Douglass goes through the early part of his life without any sense of real belonging. Douglass goes through physical contradictions as he moves from place to place. He goes from seeing a brutal scene of whipping in the plantation, to experiencing a kindness of his new mistress, both these things are new to him and he doesn t quite know what to do with it. It is here that he first receives an education from Mrs. Auld, and it is here that he learns that the path of spiritual freedom on the way to a physical freedom is through education. Douglass figures this out for himself when her hears Mr. Auld speaking: ” A Nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best Nigger in the world. Now if you teach that Nigger how to read It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” (Norton, 889). Douglass experiences an epiphany at this moment when her realizes that the only thing separating him from the white man is an education: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, a white man s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” (Norton, 889). Mr. Auld had inadvertently instilled upon Douglass the need to get an education, learning how to read, and therefor achieve a personal sense of freedom.
As Douglass furthers his reading he finds a restraint in the freedom of being able to read. The more he reads, the more knowledgeable he becomes and thus more tormented he becomes: ” I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.” (Norton, 892). As he reads and experiences a freedom that his fellow slaves can not feel, he feels a restraint just as strong as the freedom. He realizes that ignorance was a state of bliss, but now that he has opened the door for himself he can not turn back: “Freedom now appeared to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in everything. It was present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it. ” (Norton, 893). He sees freedom everywhere, yet physically it is out of his reach. Douglass begins to experience mental anguish that causes him to lash out physically against Mr. Covey in what he calls: the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” (Norton, 904). Douglass feels a rejuvenated sense to accomplish freedom physically. Since Mr. Covey no longer beats him. Douglass gains a sense of freedom , whereas Mr. Covey loses a grain of freedom by not being able to tell others of this occurrence. He becomes a slave to his own restraints among white men. The final step that Douglass goes through in order that he might get freedom comes when he lives with Mr. Freeland: “I began, with the commencements of the year, to prepare myself for a final struggle, which should decide my fate one way or another.” (Norton, 908). He has decided now that he must be free or else die trying. Towards the end of the narrative, Douglass does not obtain the complete freedom that seeks, he picks up a trade, continues to fight physically against white men, He began to earn money for his master as well as some for himself. He discovers a type of freedom that is not completely physical but spiritual: “I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental visions ” (Norton, 916). He now has the leisure time on his hand to further contemplate the ideas of freedom for black slaves like himself. He knows that although he can never be completely free, he will never be a complete slave as well. Mark Twain s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the concept of freedom first is obtained geographically as opposed to spiritually. The concept of self-reliance is clearly presented in this novel. Huck needs to be free from the rules of society that have been instilled upon him the moment he becomes a part of a real home: ” Don t put your feet up there, Huckleberry; and don t scrunch up like that Huckleberry – why don t you try to behave? ” (Norton, 1203). These rules bind Huck until his need to escape the confines of his life with the Widow Douglas escalates until he fakes his own death just to get away. This “death” is symbolic of the concept of re-birth, Huck now has the chance to begin again with a fresh start at freedom. Before the Widow Douglas, Huck had an abusive home life but the freedom to act as he wished, with the Widow Douglas he has a decent home, yet restraints are put on him by the everyday rules that he has to follow. After Huck elects to go off with his Pap again, he again experiences a physical freedom: “It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, I didn t see how I d ever got to like it so well at the widows, I didn t want to go back no more It was pretty good times up in the woods there, (Norton, 1216). However, his life with is father gets pretty tiring as he gets beaten by him on a consistent basis. Once again, Huck escapes, this time to Jackson s Island where he meets up with a real slave to society, Jim. Both Jim and Huck own themselves on this island, thus the two of them embark on a journey free from societal restraints. On the raft that they sail down the river, the two of them create their own world that exists as a separate entity then that from the rest of society. On the raft, the two of them experience a natural setting, free from interruptions. It is on this raft in the middle of the river that they themselves are at their most natural. They shed their clothing, thus shedding the rules of society that enslaves them both: “We said there warn t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up an smothery, but a raft don t, you feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” (Norton, 1280). The shedding of clothes represents the idea of a perfect society, and Eden that has been created on this raft where man-made substances such as clothing can not interfere. The two of them by shedding their clothing also create a sense of equality between the two of them. Their perfect existence is only interrupted when they touch shore now and then. The taking on of the King and the Duke is the taking on of a hierarchy and the disappearance of the equality that was created just prior. Even the language that Jim and Huck enjoyed between the two of them changes as well. Words such as, “Your Grace”, “My Lord”, or “Your Lordship”, (Norton, 1284), have now entered the conversation. So long as Huck and Jim stay on the raft that they remain free. It is also on this raft that Huck experiences an epiphany: ” he was setting there with his head down betwixt his knees, mourning and moaning to himself He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folk do for their n.” (Norton, 1304). The realization that blacks and whites have the same emotions is radical in its free thinking. On this raft, away from society, rules, and hierarchy, Huck realizes that whites and blacks are not so different from what he originally thought. As the novel progresses, Huck begins to see Jim more and more as a man. He no longer wishes to sell Jim, showing a growth and commitment to Jim. He tries to atone for his sin by writing to Miss. Watson about the whereabouts of Jim, and as a result he feels something that he has never felt before: “I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.” (Norton, 1339). Huck is resilient in his need for self-reliance right until the very end of the novel: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can t stand it. I been there before.” (Norton, 1386). The reader gets a strong sense that his quest for a personal freedom is far from over. The word “sivilized” spelled wrong shows Huck s refusal to accept rules that restrain him by civilizing him. It is only too easy to see Huck scampering off to a new adventure, where he can act as he wishes. Overall, Hester, Douglass, and Huck are American embodiments of freedom, both physically and spiritually. Hester s isolation causes her to express herself artistically on the very stigma of her sin. She finds a spiritual release in doing physical work such as her embroidery. Douglass gains a spiritual freedom through education that at first enlightens him and then torments him, as he realizes that spiritual freedom is not enough, a man needs physical freedom as well. Huck, too, needs a physical freedom from societal restraints to achieve self-reliance, he grows spiritually as he discovers the equality between men.
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