Many people try to escape the prison that suppresses them, but fail to because of their moral obligations to themselves and others. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, portray the struggles one acquires through their own conduct. Ethan in Ethan Frome, Grant in A Lesson Before Dying and Hester in Scarlet Letter each try to elude their life dilemma’s, but are hindered due to their obligations. Ethan is obligated to his wife though he loves Mattie, while Grant is obligated to his society, but wants to leave.
Hester accepts her punishment but wants to be within society though they shunned her. Wharton, Gaines and Hawthorne all use various language devices to accentuate the gain of dignity and respect through moral struggle. In Ethan Frome, Wharton uses symbols and archetypes to create Ethan’s anguish to his moral obligation to his wife Zeena which keeps him from his true love, Mattie. His moral prison is established with the headstone of another Ethan Frome and his wife that bores that they “dwelled together in peace for fifty years,” which interests Ethan (Frome 66).
Later on, his own neighbors “don’t see there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard” (Frome 140). The symbol of “the Fromes down in the graveyard” establishes Ethan’s similarities to the dead illustrating his moral obligation to Zeena for eternity (Frome 140). When Ethan feels Zeena’s presence, coincidently Zeena’s grey cat “[elongates] its body in the direction of the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie” (Frome 69).
The cat then tries an unobserved retreat and “[backs] into the red pickle-dish, which [falls] on the floor with a crash” (Frome 69). The color archetypes of ? red’ establish Ethan and Mattie’s love while the ? grey’ cat establishes Zeena who breaks their love, the dish. Ethan is always besieged by Zeena even when lacking her presence. He wants to stay with Mattie yet his obligation to his wife thwarts him from her. When Ethan and Mattie finally reach the point by his mill “they descended [and] the darkness descended with them, dropping down like a black veil” (Frome 125).
The “darkness” symbolizes Ethan’s obligation and his moral duty to his wife (Frome 125). He cannot leave her though he scorns her because it is his morally obliged to reside by her side. Ethan who concludes to stay with the crippled and the sick gains respect out of the town and for himself by struggling with his obligation. Similar to Wharton, Gaines uses symbols and repetition to illustrate that to escape the moral prison, is to fight back and win the battle. Gaines’ language devices connect Grants’ obligation to Jefferson and to society.
Grants’ talk with Matthew Antoine, while he was still in college, proves that a person who does not run will “still be cold. [he’ll] always be cold” (Gaines 64). The use of the symbol “cold” represents the fact that people who do not run will always be trapped with the cold brutality of the south (Gaines 64). When the educated do not run at the right time, they will be frozen in the south and will therefore be obliged to stay and help the rest of the frozen people.
While trying to make Jefferson understand life, Grant discloses that “all of us on this earth, [are] a piece of drifting wood, until we? each one of us, individually? decide to become something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood? ” (Gaines 193). By perceiving Grant is as “a piece of drifting wood” (Gaines 193). Gaines implies that Grant has still not run because he is like everyone else who is morally obligated to help one another in this disdainful society. Grant is very confounded that he seeks help from an uneducated man and tells him that “[he needs him].
[He needs him] much more than [he] could ever need [Grant]. [he needs] to know what to do with [his] life” (Gaines 193). The repetition of [he needs] emphasizes that Grant does not know how to complete his life. He is confined in his prison between social freedom and the freedom of others. Corresponding to Wharton and Gaines, Hawthorne uses repetition and metaphors to establish that Hester struggles to accept her consequences which she believes are just and return to a society where no one trusts her.
Hester imprisons herself because she knows that “[here]? had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment” (Hawthorne 74). The repetition of “here” further emphasizes that Hester knows she deserves her punishment. Yet she does not want to live in solitude. She is morally obliged to stay away from society though she wants to go. Furthermore, Hester describes “her sin, her ignominy, [as] the roots which she had struck into the soil,” that “the [chains] that [bind] her here [are] of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but [can] never be broken” (Hawthorne 74).
The use of metaphors illustrates that Hester morally imprisoned herself; therefore it is her moral obligation to correct herself. But she is also chained by society who has shunned her, yet it is also her duty to break the chains. But still she is a moral prisoner because she has to correct herself, but the chains “can never be broken” (Hawthorne 74). All Hester’s attempts to rid herself of shame will only further remind her of the sin she committed. By trying to break the chains, Hester is able to gain some respect from the town knowing that she tried to redeem herself of her sin.
Many people try to escape from their moral prison and yet some just accept their fate. The three novels deal with the inner conflict of each character of bringing the moral and immoral solution to their problems. The use of literary devices emphasizes the true meaning of one’s struggle. It paints a realistic art show for everyone to interpret in their own way. Either one can fight the moral prison or they can accept it and try and move on with life. But to escape the imprisonment is to face the harsh reality of life.
Courtney from Study Moose
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