In the society-centered world that has existed for thousands of years, Emerson’s and Thoreau’s recommendation of living as a self-reliant individual can be a difficult task to accomplish. Society puts pressure on its members to conform to its standards. Nonconformists are shunned by society and as a result have difficulty retaining their nonconformist position. According to Emerson’s Self-Reliance, though, this nonconformist, independent stance is the only thing that can bring a person peace. Emerson believes a truly great man lives in the world, but at the same time trusts himself, believes in himself, and is, in a word, independent.
Many people have applied the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau not only to their lives, but also to the characters in books they have read, regardless of whether the author intended such interpretation. The ideas of Emerson and Thoreau can be applied to many of the novels we read in class this year, including The Natural, A Separate Peace, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Scarlet Letter. In each of these novels the main character experienced many difficulties in which he either succeeded or failed. The successes and failures of any particular character were a result of his self-reliance or of his society-reliance.
In The Natural, by Bernard Malamud, the main character, Roy, failed to focus on what was best for him because of his reliance on society rather than on himself. This problem became evident early in the story when the woman Roy met on the train shot him. Had Roy focused on his game, perhaps gone out and practiced baseball rather than visited the woman, he never would have gotten shot. Having such skill as he had, he could have easily signed with the Cubs, and he could have had an extraordinary baseball career. Unfortunately for him, Roy put too high a priority on his relationship with the woman from the train. As a result, Roy’s baseball career not only didn’t start for another 10-15 years, but also was nothing compared to the career he would have had with the Cubs.
Generally, people learn from their mistakes. As Malamud writes on page 217, “He [Roy] thought, I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again.” Rather than straightening out his priorities in the years between the time he was shot and the time he actually played baseball, Roy made no change. Because Roy wanted to keep his relationship with Memo, he acted unwisely again and lost his career: First he ate all the food because “she [Memo] had gone to all the trouble, and he [Roy] wanted to please her” (pg 165). Then, he agreed to set the game because Memo pressured him to do it, he knew he wouldn’t be able to play anyway, and he wanted to earn a lot of money so he could marry Memo and support her.
Obviously, Roy failed in his struggle with keeping his priorities straight. Emerson and Thoreau would agree and attribute the failure to how poorly Roy acted as an individual. There were many examples of situations in which Roy let others affect his decisions and actions. Roy was influenced by Sam to play professional baseball; later, by his relationship with Memo and also by the judge to set the game; then by Iris to win the game for his baby; and by others in various additional circumstances. Roy conformed to those around him, and he didn’t trust himself. Had Roy acted as an individual, his self-reliance would have kept him out of the problems into which he got himself.
Another novel modeling a society-reliant character is A Separate Peace by John Knowles. In the story, the main character, Gene, went through school, all the while struggling with becoming a true man. According to Emerson, it’s easy to live in the world and depend on society, and it’s easy to live in solitude and be independent, but being an individual in society (self-reliant) is a difficult task, the determining factor in a great man. Therefore, Gene’s struggle can be seen not only as a struggle to grow up into a great man, but also to become self-reliant.
One small struggle Gene experienced that came as part of growing up into a great man had to do with his best friend, Finny and with his academic studies. When Finny invited Gene to play games every day Gene began to think that Finny was jealous of him and was trying to prevent him from doing well in school. In actuality, it was because Finny was naturally athletic that he thought good grades came naturally, without effort to Gene and that he didn’t need to study. Gene’s fantasies of Finny’s jealousy eventually made him jealous of Finny, jealous that things came so easily to Finny, but not to himself. Rather than trusting himself, as Emerson and Thoreau would say is required for self-reliance, Gene let his jealousy of Finny grow.
By the end of the book, Gene had grown older – he had become a man, but he hadn’t gotten any closer to becoming a great man. In his jealousy, Gene had done some horrible things to Finny, things that eventually lead to his death. Gene had let his desire to be accepted by society and his interpretation of his best friend’s actions eat away at him. Rather than growing into a great man (by Emerson’s definition), Gene grew into a society-dependent man. He let society’s values, society’s thoughts about the way things should be, rather than his own ideas, take charge of him and rule over his life. Gene may have achieved some type of peace (as suggested in the book), but he didn’t achieve peace, according to Emerson’s definition (“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. ” – Self-Reliance, paragraph 50).
In both The Natural and A Separate Peace, the main characters weren’t self-reliant and failed the struggles in their lives. In The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, though, the main character, Santiago, succeeded in his struggle with the fish because he was a self-reliant man. The day Santiago hooked the fish, he was out alone. He struggled for days with the fish, pushing himself to extremes. Despite Santiago’s aching body and cut hands, he was able to feed himself, deal with his thirst, catch the fish, for a time ward off the sharks, and bring what was left of the fish back to shore.
Santiago’s success with the fish came as a result of his self-reliance. Although it would have been much easier if the boy had been with Santiago, he was able to catch the fish alone. Santiago trusted himself; he knew he could catch the fish if he kept at it, and he was able to motivate himself to do so. Regardless of how tired he got, he refused to give up. Also, in his town, the younger fishermen and some of the other townspeople (for example, the boy’s parents) looked down upon Santiago. This was mostly due to the fact that he was old and didn’t catch much any more. Even though Santiago had been a much better and more renowned fisherman at a younger age, he wasn’t bothered by the fact that society looked down upon him because he had aged and had lost some of his touch. If Santiago hadn’t been self-reliant, he wouldn’t have had the determination that he had. Rather, he would have listened to society and quit fishing because he was old. Santiago was truly a great man when looked at from Emerson’s and Thoreau’s perspective. He lived in society, but didn’t conform to it. Just as Santiago’s self-reliance aided him through his struggle with the fish, so also it carried him through the rest of his everyday life.
In The Scarlet Letter, as in The Old Man and the Sea, the main character, Hester Prynne, succeeded in her struggles due to the fact that she was self-reliant. In fact, Hester was probably more self-reliant than Santiago because she had to endure more grief from society. Early in the story, Hester’s struggle became evident. Hester was banished, set apart from the society in which she lived. She had to deal with the punishment for her actions and the treatment she received from the Puritan society. The ironic part in this is that her actions came about as a result of her self-reliance. She was originally from Europe, but when she came to America, she never fully accepted the Puritan way of life and the Puritan beliefs. She didn’t conform. (According to Emerson, not conforming to society is a key aspect of self-reliance.) In her non-conformity to the society, she committed the sin. The scarlet letter was placed upon Hester as a symbol of shame. She was shunned by society, and she dealt with this by continuing in self-reliance. As long as she stayed self-reliant, society couldn’t touch her.
Furthermore, Hawthorne showed that when Hester appeared for the first time before the town for her public ignominy she was unaffected. In the second chapter, Hawthorne wrote, “she repelled him [the town beadle], by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free-will.” Two paragraphs later, Hawthorne wrote, “Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.” This clearly shows how Hester is unaffected by the ignominy, how she acts as if nothing is happening. Some may argue that Hester was actually affected by the punishment. The public shame may have had somewhat of an effect on Hester – suddenly being treated in a demeaning manner will affect anyone, even the most self-reliant person. Hester quickly realized, though, that being self-reliant and giving no regard to ill treatment from society would pull her through her life as a social outcast. Had she truly learned from her punishment, she wouldn’t have planned to leave town with Arthur Dimmesdale.
When society said adultery was wrong, Hester committed it nevertheless and was going to commit it again (by leaving with Dimmesdale). When society punished her and looked down upon her, Hester survived on her own. Not only did she support herself, but also her daughter. Hester dealt with the stigma of the scarlet letter brought about because of her self-reliant actions by continuing in self-reliance.
Although many people have taken Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas about self-reliance and the individual seriously, it doesn’t mean that they are true. The fact that their ideas can be seen in literature, (with or without the intent of the author) does not give them any merit whatsoever. Emerson’s Self-Reliance includes many references from the Bible. The irony is that his ideas don’t follow the Bible. He used only the verses he liked and then forgot the rest. For example, Emerson wrote in the 34th paragraph of Self-Reliance, “…tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, to shed healing to the nations…” Emerson drew the emphasized phrase directly out of John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Since the Bible describes this Word as God in John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. “), Emerson’s reasoning leads to the conclusion that man is God. Emerson twisted the passage that can refer to ABSOLUTELY NO ONE EXCEPT JESUS so that it referred to mankind – the same mankind who succumbed to the temptation to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
Furthermore, as was stated, Emerson focuses on the role of the individual. He explains that the only way to peace is through yourself. He wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He even went so far as to say that prayer to God or anyone or anything else shows weakness and is a sign of a person who isn’t self-reliant. Again, the actual teachings of the Bible are quite different. First, Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Alone, without God, we are dead, as opposed to Emerson’s belief that we’re only truly alive when we are self-reliant. Second, the Bible explains that we can have true peace – peace with God and knowledge of where we will go after we die. This peace is in no way a result of anything we have done – Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Third, prayer isn’t a sign of weakness, as Emerson believed, but a sign of God working in a person’s life. Through prayer, a person can speak to God and make requests or just worship Him. Rather than being self-reliant, we should be and we need to be reliant on God.
In the eyes of Emerson and Thoreau, both Hester and Santiago succeeded in their struggles. The value of their struggles comes into question, though. At what did they really succeed? Santiago caught a fish, but lost all the meat. Hester succeeded in committing adultery and keeping the shame from destroying her, but in the end, her lover died. Maybe Hester and Santiago did succeed, but what did their struggles matter? What bearing did their struggles have on eternity? As James writes, “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14). By following Emerson’s suggestion to live in the world but trust in oneself, no one will get anywhere. By trusting in God, however, anyone will truly succeed in life and have true peace.