The turn between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries brought enormous changes for the American society, and these changes are cogently reflected in the works of the most important writers of the time. In the light of Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of the significance of the frontier in the American history, one could argue that the multiple changes that took place at this time were determined, in part, by the closing of the frontier in 1890. The ever expanding frontier had functioned as a catalyzing element for the shaping of the American culture, with its main characteristics, pragmatism and individualism.
The frontier, as the limit between wilderness and civilization, may have indeed contributed to the development of pragmatism, just as the closing of the frontier affected the following cultural epoch. After the Civil War and up to the World War I, the American economy developed immensely, to the point that The United States was among the greatest world powers at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This was due especially to the ever increasing industrialization of the country, to its capitalism, but also to the great number of immigrants that arrived during this period.
While economically the changes were indeed positive and influenced the future of the nation, their social impact was more dramatic. As the main literary works of the time show it, the individual suffered inevitably from alienation, and was overwhelmed and oppressed by the major social and economical fluctuations of the time. Civilization however desired begun to feel as a threat for the individual who lost his sense of identity and felt as a wheel in some greater mechanism. The literary works of the time revealed the pressure that the environment now exercised over the individual.
This pressure was even heavier for women, who began to feel that they were not even part of the tumultuous activity of the epoch, since they could not even play an active part in the changes they witnessed. One of the most important writers of the time were thus the early feminists, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, and a little later, Edith Wharton. Their novels put the American discriminating society on display, and point to the gender stereotypes that trapped the women into immutable and pre-established social roles. Gilman (2000) discusses the place of the women in society in her work, Women and Economics:
“In spite of the power of the individual will to struggle against conditions, to resist them for a while, and sometimes to overcome them, it remains true that the human creature is affected by his environment, as is every other living thing.[…] To take from any community its male workers would paralyze it economically to a far greater degree than to remove its female workers[…]
This is not owing to lack of the essential human faculties necessary to such achievements, nor to any inherent disability of sex, but to the present condition of woman, forbidding the development of this degree of economic ability. The male human being is thousands of years in advance of the female in economic status. Speaking collectively, men produce and distribute wealth; and women receive it at their hands.”
As Gilman suggests, the woman was in no way able to participate in society, and was taken to be a mere recipient of what the man would provide her with. She also infers that this role is not necessarily the natural role of the woman, but actually the one that was forced on her after many centuries of gender discrimination. The women appear to be even more trapped in their environment at this point in American history.
Another salient writer of the time, Henry Adams in his book entitled The Education of Henry Adams constructs a very telling image of the American individual crushed by civilization and by his social circumstances: he represents the dynamo as a great force and a symbol that replaced in the American culture the missing pieces of tradition which were respected by the Europeans, such as Venus or the Virgin. The image has feminist implications as well, as Adams (2001) compares the sexless energy of the dynamo with both the Virgin and Venus, symbols of the woman in European tradition:
“All this was to American thought as though it had never existed. The true American knew something of the facts, but nothing of the feelings; he read the letter, but he never felt the law. Before this historical chasm, a mind like that of Adams felt itself helpless; he turned from the Virgin to the Dynamo as though he were a Branly coherer.”
Stephen Crane also creates a memorable image of the cruel universe, which seems to care nothing for the individual existence, and which binds everything to its general laws, not minding the separate lives of the people but only the system:
“A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.” (Perkins, 1999)
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is perhaps one of the most remarkable works of her time for its audacity, and it accurately gives a view of the individual in general oppressed by the social, inescapable nets and alienated from his primitive, natural state, and even more emphatically, reveals the condition of the woman, which is even worse. The imagery of the novel is fraught with opposite symbols of freedom versus entrapment, and of the human and natural individual, versus the unnatural and artificial society.
Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of the story, is the character who undergoes a true awakening by the end of the novel, both as a woman and as an individual who finally escapes the laws of society and returns to the purity of the natural impulses and natural feelings in a human being. As a married woman and mother of two children, Edna is supposed to fill in the role of the perfect mother as society required, which is personified in the novel by Edna’ s friend, Mrs. Adele Ratignolle.
The frequent fights that Edna has with her seemingly perfect husband depict even better her pre-established role as a self-sacrificing mother, who is supposed to think of nothing else but childbirth and all the other things related to nursing. From the start, even before her awakening Edna feels the oppression of her environment, although as yet she is not able to pinpoint it to a specific cause:
“An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.”(Perkins, 1999)
This unconscious feeling is not fully understood even by Edna herself, since the women were not used to thinking and feeling as individuals, and to dissent in any way from what was already prescribed as their imposed conduct. Chopin’s insistence that Edna did not fit in her society and that she did not fit the mother profile is very significant, as it points to the sense that women have to be regarded as individuals who are entitled to their own inner lives, and not limited to their nursing activities, that would eventually “efface” any trace of their personality:
“In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”(Perkins, 1999)
The awakening of Edna is exactly her realization that she is a passionate human being, and moreover an individual who can relate to her environment as she chooses, and not on the basis of some foreordained laws of behavior:
“Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight–perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.”(Perkins, 1999)
Chopin is sharply ironical in the commentary she makes with regard to the unexpected wisdom in her character: for centuries women had been discriminated as individuals and as rational beings who could judge for themselves. The main transformation of Edna consists thus of her flaunting of all the social law, and willingly giving in to adultery to escape from the tyranny of her own husband:
“To-day it is Arobin; to-morrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier–but Raoul and Etienne!” (Perkins, 1999)
However, in the end, before she drowns in the sea, undoubtedly a symbol of liberation, Edna achieves more than asserting her own rights and independence as a female. When she faces the sea, that is her freedom, she turns her back to the entrapping civilization and artificial society and is elated when she discovers her own nakedness, a symbol of the primitive and natural state of man:
“[…]she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her. How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.”(Perkins, 1999)
Thus, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American literature displayed the rupture between the individual and his environment, and the alienation of the human beings in the midst of the overpowering civilization. This marked the beginning of the modern, urbane era, in which the developed society is apt to destroy individuality and the basic and natural humanity of every man.
Adams, Henry (2001) The Education of Henry Adams. Bartelby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/159/25.html
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (2000) Women and Economics. The Celebration of Women’s Writing.
Perkins Charles and Barbara Perkins (1999). The American Tradition in Literature Vol. 1. New York: Mc-Graw Hill College