Prejudice in American Literature
Throughout the history of mankind, the issue of oppression between certain racial or ethnic groups has remained an issue of concern. This has taken the form of hostility towards migrant workers, the enslavement of certain racial groups, the injustices encountered by women, among other numerous forms of hostility between the dominant racial groups and ‘inferior’ groups deemed to be less worthy and even subhuman. Because these issues have played a role in shaping the history of America, we see these issues addressed in many ways in American literature.
One such story to address the issue of the injustices encountered by women in America is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. In the first story, the wife suffers from post-partum depression (not known nor formally recognized as a psychological disorder at the time, for which reason her husband — a physician — fails to fully comprehend the nature and severity of her condition). The husband rents a house for the summer where he confines her to the room upstairs. She becomes obsessed with the color of the wallpaper and encounters various hallucinations. In the end, her condition progresses to a more severe nature, countering the husband’s aspirations that she would improve. Though he had good intentions, his tactics failed. The author shows that the woman is actually liberated because she becomes her own master rather than becoming subversive to her husband’s tactics or desires. The second story also shows liberation and irony. The story begins by introducing the fact that the woman suffers from heart disease. It would naturally be expected for her to pass on before her husband, yet the news arrives that it is her husband who was involved in an accident, costing him his very life. The friends and family of the husband hesitate to break the news to her for fear that it will affect her in regards to her heart condition acting up. Yet, though she naturally cries and laments his death, she feels a certain independence which she had longed for. At the time that these stories were written, women were expected to be subversive to their husbands, and even this was not of the initiative of the husbands as it was a social expectation imposed upon men. The wife in this story is said to have loved her husband – sometimes. It was not that she did not truly love him; rather, there were times when he behaved rigidly towards her, not for a lack of love towards her on his part but to show that the two fulfilled the social expectations of the time. She rejoiced at this new lifestyle of autonomy and began to manifest it in external behavior and interior attitude. The irony of the story is shown in that the husband did not die in the accident nor was he involved in it; he was at another location at a distance from it. She sees him as she walks down the stairs and faints to the point of death. Many say she died of joy that kills, but it was out of shock that she dies. These two stories manifest the injustices that women faced in the time that these stories were authored, and they further manifest their desire for liberation from such a lifestyle, for equality and autonomy.
Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial” shows a strained marriage, but for different reasons: there exists a lack of proper communication and mutual understanding between the two spouses. The couple’s child dies, and the husband buries him. Aside from proving that he was the head of the household, men at the time (and even in our day) were taught by society and by their families to hide and suppress their emotions. To show affection or emotion in any manner was to manifest a lack of proper masculinity. Thus, in this story, we see that the husband buries the child he discusses not the burial but his daily worries or other matters. The wife fails to understand that the man showed not a lack of concern for the recent death and burial of their child, but the fact that he had to suppress his emotions for the twofold motive that he wanted to distract himself from the cause of his sadness and the fact that he had to do so in order to maintain his masculine image. The husband fails to understand that the woman resents his actions because of her lack of understanding and her belief that he does not care about what had recently happened. Three times he tries to speak about how to communicate properly with her, but then insults her further by stating it would be impossible to please her or even learn how to do so.
The conflict between men and women is not the only form of prejudice and discrimination. Racism and segregation are two prominent issues that have played a role in American history and literature. This is show by literature discussing the effects of these issues on the races, and the approaches taken by social activists to address and resolve the issues of racism and segregation. The latter is manifested in stories such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Tom Sawyer. In it, Huck and Jim flee northwards in search of a better life: Jim, because he is a slave, and Huck, because he is fleeing his father’s abuse. Huck has a wrong perception of Jim at first, but as they get to know each other, a friendship begins to form between the two – a friendship no longer at a level between a “slave” and a “free man” or between a “black” and a “white” man but between two human persons. Huck begins to perceive Jim for the human person that he is rather than for the social status he holds.
In regards to American literature manifesting the approaches social activists assumed to resolve the conflict between the races, there are the writings of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington: The Souls of Black Folk and Up From Slavery, respectively. The two were African American social activists who aspired to attain the same goal: the social equality between the races. Yet the two perceived the manner in which this was to be attained in different perspectives: Washington sought to do so gradually and thus focused on “social responsibility” whereas DuBois wanted radical, not gradual, reform, hence his focus on “social equality.”
These works manifest the role that prejudice played in American history and literature, and how the two affected each other. American writers often focused on the social issues of their time, and the readers of these authors often affected history by their reaction – whether positive or negative – to the works of the authors discussing issues often overlooked and taken for granted. Although much has been achieved in improving the relations between the races in America, there exists some prejudice in the nation, and much remains to be enhanced. Yet the work of these authors manifests the truth of the old saying: the pen is mightier than the sword. Civilizations and individuals may be annihilated by the “superior” race or group, yet an ideology is never easily laid to rest, and those who embrace ideas differing from mainstream society often pave the paths for social reform through their literature rather than by the sword.