Belonging in Human Life, Literature and Visual Arts

“The longing to belong seems to be ancient and is at the core of our nature” The 1623 play As You Like It (AYLI) by William Shakespeare, the 2004 poem ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’ from the Immigrant Chronicle by Peter Skryznecki and the 1942 painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. The play, poem and painting were constructed by completely different composers with completely different contexts, and this fact alone shows us that belonging is universal and will always play an important role in human life. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, written in 1943, demonstrates that a basic need of human beings is to feel a sense of love, acceptance and belonging in order to avoid problems such as loneliness and depression.

The relevance of his theory to our modern world is astounding; his interpretations of the human condition remain fundamentally helpful in understanding social behaviours.

All three texts that will be analysed support Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and prove that one needs a sense of belonging to feel happiness, security and self-esteem, but also present the duality of belonging showing that the absence of belonging can lead to loneliness, isolation and even depression.

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In As You Like It (AYLI), it is the setting that plays a crucial role in communicating belonging along with Shakespeare’s effective use of juxtaposition of settings, structure, form and genre. The play is a pastoral comedy because it idealises nature and rural life but also mocks the simple life within the Forest. It provides a place of healing where true identities can be found.

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The structure of AYLI allows Shakespeare to use the juxtaposition of acts and scenes to emphasize the contrasts between the two settings; the Court and the Forest of Arden which in turn explores the ambiguity of belonging. In Act 1 the play is set in various parts of the Court. The Elizabethan chain of being is disturbed by the usurpation of Duke Senior. Oliver and Orlando have an unusual and unnatural relationship as brothers which is suggested by Oliver’s soliloquy in Act Scene 1, “I hope I shall see an end of him, for my soul – yet I know not why – hates nothing more than he”, when talking about Orlando. Already we are given the idea that the Court is an unnatural place where it is difficult for people to belong.

Rosalind’s sense of belonging is disturbed by her own uncle, Duke Frederick, when he banishes her from the Court, “Mistress, dispatch you with your safest haste and get you from our court”. Shakespeare uses a negative tone to emphasize Rosalind’s loss of belonging. Rosalind is very upset, anxious and nervous however she clearly feels a sense of belonging with Celia and even the fight between their two fathers cannot break the strong bond between them; “Well, I will forget the condition of my estate to rejoice in yours”. Rosalind also has the self-esteem to be able to embrace the Forest of Arden. She is enlightened in the idea that she can disguise herself, another typical convention of the pastoral comedy, as a male, Ganymede, as a form of protection in the forest. Shakespeare explores the disconnection and disloyalty of families due to greed for power and depicts the absence of belonging which can lead to loneliness. In contrast to AYLI, Peter Skrzynecki explores the concept of cultural belonging, the loyalty of family and suggests that you must feel comfortable and happy in order to belong in his 2004 poem ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’ from the Immigrant Chronicle. Skrzynecki addresses the ambiguity of belonging in his poetry with the suggestion that he admires but can’t share his father’s lifestyle.

The poem is rich in praise but reveals the difference and distance between Peter and his father Feliks. Belonging is represented from the first line, “My gentle father”; the possessive pronoun ‘my’ is used as a technique in the first stanza to establish the strong and respected relationship between Peter and his father. It also informs the reader that the poem is in first person giving the poem an authentic and deeply personal tone. Cultural belonging is explored through the first stanza, showing how Feliks is disconnected from Australia, but belongs to his garden because it not only reminds him of his previous life within Europe, it makes him feel at home. Skrzynecki shows that his father “loved his garden like an only child”. The use of emotive language demonstrates the connection between Feliks and his garden. The man the poet represents for us has created his own place in a new world; he “kept pace only with the Joneses of his own mind’s making”. A sense of cultural belonging is evident in the third stanza through the maintenance of a connection with his Polish culture through friendship. Imagery is used within this stanza to convey the sense of belonging that Feliks once had and still maintains “Talking, they reminisced about farms where paddocks flowered with corn and wheat…”.

We are given a sense of the poet’s struggle to maintain his own Polish language – “remnants of a language I inherited unknowingly” and anger and humiliation when a bureaucrat insulted them both in the offensive comment “Did your father ever attempt to learn English?” We are also faced with the antithesis of belonging, “His Polish friends always shook hands too violently…that formal address I never got used to”. Here Peter feels embarrassment and clearly does not feel comfortable. This is sustained in the last stanza when Peter reflects upon his teenage years, “I forgot my first Polish word”, which is a metaphor for forgetting about his own culture and the poem ends with him “pegging my tents further and further south of Hadrian’s wall”. Hadrian’s Wall is used as a symbol to represent the European culture that he is moving further away from as he gets older. While Feliks feels comfortable and happy with his Polish culture, particularly to his early years of growing crops and animals in Poland, and this is why he has such a connection to his garden; Peter does not feel this security and this is why he belongs more to the Australian culture even if it’s in a tent.

Skrzynecki effectively explores belonging and demonstrates that belonging leads to acceptance, comfort and happiness. Similarly to the way Feliks finds comfort in his garden, the characters in AYLI find the natural environment of the Forest a healing and therapeutic place. Shakespeare juxtaposes Act 2 with Act 1 to show the differences between the Court and the Forest of Arden. Act 2 begins with Duke Senior talking about the joys and peacefulness of the Forest, “tongues in tees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything”. Immediately the composer creates imagery of the Forest and a metaphor describing the forest as a peaceful and intellectual place that is good in every way. We are informed that the forest is a natural place with very different values than the Court and is a place to which Duke Senior instantly connects.

The dialogue between the characters in this part of the play is mainly prose, which seems more down to earth, casual and comfortable, highlighting the relations between and the simple life of the forest dwellers. Celia’s description of Orlando, “I found him under a tree like a dropped acorn”, is playful and pleasant which shows how comfortable she is around Rosalind. Orlando in AYLI is a character who longs to belong because he sets off to the forest at his own will to seek a sense of belonging. When Orlando reaches the Forest he adopts the style of the pastoral poet-lover; speaking rhymes and writing poems to Rosalind. Shakespeare is mocking conventional love but is also showing us that Orlando can be his true self in the Forest, something that he could not do while in the Court.

Rosalind regains her happiness when she falls in love with Orlando “how merry are my spirits”, and feels she belongs with Orlando after testing his values and his love in many ways and both, Rosalind and Orlando, accomplish a sense of belonging through the love they share. “You and you no cross shall part”, hymen uses a symbol to tell Orlando and Rosalind that no difficulties now will separate them. Orlando and Oliver’s relationship is also restored when Orlando saves his brother’s life in the Forest from a lioness, we as viewers do not see this on stage but Oliver tells the story to Rosalind and Celia and the result of the event, “committing me unto my brother’s love”. The marriages at the end of the play symbolise restoration to a state where all belong in their true place in the natural order. Shakespeare has deliberately used the setting of the Forest to show that this is the place where belonging can be found. Every character who had their belonging disturbed in Act 1, in the Court, was able to regain a sense of belonging in the Forest. Shakespeare successfully communicates a sense of belonging through the juxtaposition of settings, structure and the drive and motivations of the characters in their pursuit of happiness, security and self-esteem. Shakespeare’s perceptions and ideas of belonging in AYLI, broaden our understanding of ourselves, others and the world because he evokes issues to which all humans can relate to in one way or another.

Further to this argument, the 1942 painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper shows us that a lack of belonging can lead to isolation and loneliness. Nighthawks was painted shortly after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour to reflect the depression and isolation that was common at this time. The vector of the painting is the lady in the red dress, which grabs our attention, and directs our line of sight to the objects and people surrounding her. We notice that the people are distant, the diner seems to be uncomfortable and the vast open space towards the left side of the picture cynically depicts the loneliness and existential angst of the big city. The distance between the people in the painting also shows the lack of belonging and security. The long shot of the diner and street distances us from the painting which adds to the sense of emptiness. The composer’s choice of a night-time setting highlights the gloom and encourages the use of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark, which gives off a feeling of fear and discomfort. While the street is dark, and the diner in contrast is brightly lit, the light seems cold and unwelcoming and signifies that the people inside are exposed and vulnerable.

Although the man behind the counter seems to be captive, he is in fact free, he has a job from which he can come and go. It is the customers who are the ‘nighthawks’, waiting to prey on men or women trying to achieve a sense of belonging. However it is only the absence of belonging that has caused this cynical behaviour and deep down it is the longing to belong that brings them to this diner. The man and woman sitting with each other appear to be a couple, however their contrasting body language conveys something different. Their hands are close, but not together, the man stares into space and the lady appears to be staring at the cigarette in her hand. They are lost and can’t communicate, stuck in a prufrockian-like state. The solitary man on the other side of the bar juxtaposes against this. It is difficult to say exactly what he is doing and even more to say how he is feeling. We could say he is in the shadows, and hunched over and is clearly sad and isolated; with the use of dark and light, and the man’s positioning we are given the impression that he does not belong. The painting has had significant influences in popular culture featuring in various other forms such as the movie Blade Runner. It is used to depict times of sadness and loneliness which clearly reveal that the painting is about not belonging and shows that the absence of belonging leads to loneliness and unhappiness.

Each text represents a different perception of belonging that is important but it is the links between texts that reveal the nature and importance of belonging. Rosalind in AYLI and the bartender in Nighthawks can both be compared to Feliks in ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’. Rosalind and Feliks are alike because they both find their own happiness, and thus a sense of belonging. Rosalind embraces the fate of going to the forest and creates happiness by disguising herself as a male and Feliks creates a sense of belonging through the maintenance of his garden beds that give him satisfaction. The bartender in Nighthawks can also be compared to Feliks because they are both seen to be very content men; the bartender has a job that he can come and go from as he pleases and Feliks is happy in his own surroundings. ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’ and Nighthawks both address more personal aspects of belonging because they were composed for specific audiences whereas AYLI is more universal because it was composed for a wide audience and can be interpreted as you like it.

While Skrzynecki explores the perception of family loyalty between himself and his father, Shakespeare highlights the disloyalty of families due to Duke Frederick and Oliver’s greed for power but Hopper does not address family belonging, rather the absence of family that could perhaps be a result of the war. Whether it be Orlando in AYLI, Peter in ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’ or the ‘nighthawks’ in Nighthawks each character has a longing to belong at the core of their nature. Composers choose different mediums to create their work, each with specific characteristics that aid them in achieving their purpose. Edward Hopper successfully created a symbol for the antithesis of belonging in his painting Nighthawks, evoking a strong sense of not belonging through his manipulation of medium, colour, framing, chiaroscuro and the positioning of characters and their body language, proving that without belonging we feel isolated and discomfort. In contrast, to Nighthawks, Peter Skrzynecki explores cultural belonging in his poem ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’ with the help of first person narrator, symbols, imagery and metaphor to prove that one must feel comfortable and happy in order to belong and Shakespeare demonstrates the duality of belonging through the juxtaposition of structure, settings, metaphors, imagery and soliloquy’s in AYLI to illustrate that places play just as an important role to achieve a sense of belonging as relationships and events.

The relevance of the perceptions and ideas of belonging in these texts is astonishing; the composers have raised issues that we are all able to understand and relate to, they create an emotional response within us, allowing us to understand the longing inside of us to belong and that it has always been and always will be a part of human life at the heart of our soul. Without belonging we feel discomfort, insecurity and isolation but once we achieve a sense of belonging we are offered happiness, security and acceptance. By analysing numerous texts by different composers we broaden our understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us because we understand that each and every person has different values that explain why they belong or do not belong. “By building relations we create a source of love and personal pride and belonging that makes living in a chaotic world easier.”- Susan Lieberman

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Belonging in Human Life, Literature and Visual Arts. (2016, Apr 03). Retrieved from

Belonging in Human Life, Literature and Visual Arts

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