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August 30, 2005

Here’s my long awaited essay.  Of course, some of the elements of conversations about my earlier blogs played a role in shaping it.  I’m looking over it now and thinking I shouldn’t have done it so late… “Society is a powerful force”?  That’s all I could think of to open my essay?  But I’m sure it’s fine.



           Society is a powerful force.  It can make a person happy or sad, strong or weak, social or reclusive, curious or ignorant, unique or uniform.  Almost everything we do is a reaction to some societal stimulus; almost every idea we have was the idea of someone before us, communicated to us through society.  Though we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we are no more than what society has decided for us to be.  In literature, this omnipresent concept’s effects on the individual can be magnified so that one can clearly see how a character changes in response to his or her surroundings.

            Brave New World by Aldous Huxley features an extremely controlled society, where each person is conditioned to behave in much the same way as everyone else.  Notions of individualism are destroyed, and very few are able to break free of the society’s vice grip.  Epsilons have no hope whatsoever of becoming more individual; their intelligence is stunted, and they are created in batches of dozens of identical children.  Only Alphas are given this chance, and there are very few of even these who exhibit any major differences from the rest of the population.  Bernard is one exception; he enjoys activities that no one else can understand, such as taking long walks alone.  “I want to know what passion is,” he says.  “I want to feel something strongly” (94).  Such talk is far beyond the society’s usual standards.  But upon closer inspection, he too is molded by society.  He was born several centimeters shorter than the rest of the population, which caused most people to view him as an outcast.  As an outcast, Bernard is forced to develop his own thoughts rather than simply absorbing the ones that everyone else repeats.  If the masses treated him the same way as they treated everyone else, he would be no different from the rest of them.

            It is quite common indeed for people to become what society sees them as.  Prose is peppered with examples of this phenomenon.  In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, everyone views the man that Victor creates as a monster because of his horrid features.  When he is new to the world, he is free of the effects of society, but gradually, it begins to take hold of him as people consistently run or attack him as soon as they see him.  Before long, he commits murder in his frustration and despair, and he becomes the monster that everyone expects him to be.  In The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, it is likely that Katherine becomes more of a shrew as people view her as one.  Her abuse of Bianca is an act of jealousy; she says to her father, “What, will you not suffer me?  Nay, now I see / She is your treasure” (Act 2 Sc. 1, 34-35).  Katherine is frustrated that no one sees her in the way that they see Bianca, and she takes out her frustration in a way that give people more reason to hate her.  In The Natural by Bernard Malamud, Roy Hobbs goes through periods of success and slumps according to the crowd’s expectations.  He is only able to break his slump when Iris shows faith in him, breaking the pattern; otherwise, he has only the spectators’ jeers to respond to.  Brave New World’s John the “Savage” is driven to lose control of himself and begins savagely “slashing at [Lenina] with his whip of small cords” (257) after the irrepressible society surrounds him.

            It is an upward spiral that perpetuates itself.  Society produces a stimulus, then a character responds, creating another stimulus that society in turn responds to.  The character falls more and more into stereotypes and expectations, and all of this is rooted in society’s very first act on the character.  This is how people appear to be so different, when in reality, the subtlest of nuances could propel a person down a completely different path.  Can we be so sure we would not act in exactly the same way as the shrew, the monster, the failure, or the savage?  We are far more alike than we realize; all of us would act in practically the same way if placed into the same situation from birth.  It is the principle upon which Brave New World’s society is based.

            Once we realize this, can we really blame someone for the crimes they have committed?  After all, these people are mere victims of society; they have no control over the way their behavior is molded.  This is the assertion that Richard Wright makes in Native Son.  Max, the lawyer, defends his African American client, Bigger, who has committed a murder, by explaining that society expects this sort of thing to happen with someone of his color and background and that there is therefore little he can do in his position but give in to these expectations.  Yet Max does recognize that simply letting a murderer go free would only create chaos; he will still be under society’s glaring eye, so the upward spiral will simply continue to rise.  The only way out that Max sees, the only way to break the pattern, is to give Bigger a life sentence instead of the death penalty as recognition that despite his horrible misdeeds, he has done no worse than any of them would do in his position.

            Max failed in his appeal to the jury.  Tragic as it may be, it is often the case that society is not so quick to change; such a powerful force needs an equally powerful one to pull it in a new direction.  John could do no better in changing society; his attempt to break the Deltas free of their bonds by throwing their soma out the window is no match for the “Voice of Reason, the Voice of Good Feeling… unwinding itself in Synthetic Anti-Riot Speech Number Two” (214).  Frankenstein’s monster does his best to get the world to look past his horrid features and see the man inside, but even after he talks to DeLacey, the blind man, he is deserted once DeLacey learns what it was that was talking to him.  The eloquence and reason the monster employs in persuading people that he is no different from them is nothing compared with society’s predispositions.  With such seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it is not so difficult to believe that we could turn to making a uniform society that does its best to bring everyone up with absolute equality, at least within each class.  We do love our individuality, but if we are all just the products of society anyway, does one society really make us any more special than another?  If we treat free will as an illusion, which it may very well be, than free will is an infinitesimal sacrifice to make for a society free of crime, anger, or sadness.  Yet one would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not repulsed by the uniformity of this “utopia.”

            So we find ourselves at an impasse.  We cannot tolerate a society that perpetuates violence and sadness, and we cannot tolerate one that eliminates it.  What is it that we hope for, then?  How can we aspire to improve society when there is no ideal?  Is the only answer to shut ourselves off from society altogether?  Frankenstein’s monster has this option, and for a while after his conception he does choose to stay alone with nature, but the desire for human contact soon outweighs the fact that humans shun him.  Like anyone, he yearned for society to accept him.  John also attempts to shut himself off in moving to a secluded area to live the rest of his days in peace and solitude, but eventually, society catches up to him.  Despite his strongest resistances, he finds himself participating in an orgy, destroying the last barrier between him and the society he so despises.  For John, the last remaining option was suicide.  Are we all to despair as John and the monster did, knowing that they had no hope of changing society or escaping its grasp?

            Occasionally, however, society does offer a way out.  Bernard and Helmholtz learn that since society does not accept them as it does others, they can move to Iceland and thrive in a community with others who have proven to be more individual.  Katherine is also able to break a lifelong pattern when Petruchio decides to “tame” her.  Though it is highly debatable whether she really wanted to become what Petruchio turned her into, she clearly showed little enjoyment of her former life.  Roy Hobbs has the option of trading his life where he constantly hungers for recognition from the masses for a life that could actually make him happy, a life with Iris.  Even though he was corrupted by society’s demands his whole life, he could start afresh.  But instead, he gives in to the side of him that leaves him unfulfilled.  In these cases, the key is accurately assessing what one really wants out of life.  Roy ignores the feelings that tell him to give up his old life, so he makes the wrong decision.  Bernard, too, does not realize that going to Iceland would give him the acceptance he has always desired, so he begs Mustapha Mond not to force him to leave.  Fortunately, he is able to come to terms with what he really wants before it is too late.  As for Katherine, she may or may not be completely happy with her new life, but the simple fact that she is able to start a new life is a herald to the possibility of change.

            What is needed, therefore, is a society that best helps people make decisions based on what will make them truly fulfilled.  Brave New World’s society attempts this with its conditioning, but it is impossible to determine that everyone is really happy even when they are conditioned to like their position in society.  Bernard was just the only one who spoke up; how many more could there be that live their lives in quiet desperation, like Roy, knowing that continuing down their path leaves a thirst that is insatiable yet feeling compelled to continue anyway?  Lenina shows occasional signs of being different, such as her interest in Bernard.  Perhaps she has something hidden inside her that wants more than what she has, but she has no idea how to go about making things different.  The fact that there is even a need for soma is a testament to how unfulfilling the society is for its citizens.  Like soma, the life they have is an addiction, and even when someone like John offers them a way out, they lash out, unwilling to admit that they have a problem.

            The society does its best, but it is missing what leads to real fulfillment: diversity.  Only a society that accepts all varieties of lives in equal proportion can leave the Roys free to follow their Irises, the Katherines free to act amiably, the Frankenstein’s monsters free to connect and live in harmony with their peers—for humans are indeed their peers—the Bernards and Johns free to find their own lifestyle, the Biggers free to make a positive impact above the level of their neighborhoods.  If we expect people to make the right choice, we have to give them the choice in the first place.

            Society will always be the main factor in shaping the individual’s life.  Whether it knocks people down in their prime or brings them forward to realize their full potential, however, is up to each society.  And society begins with the individual.


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  1. Anonymous permalink

    that is good.

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