Alienation as a Literary Theme Analysis

Thematic Significance

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

As Alfred Kazin points out in On Native Grounds (1956), much twentieth century American literature “rests upon a tradition of enmity to the established order, more significantly a profound alienation from it.” In its celebration of democracy and individualism, post-World War II American literature has consistently demonstrated its suspicion of and antagonism toward the established order. The theme of alienation is objectified in characters’ emotional conflict as well as in their detestation of social establishments, which are not only oppressive in nature but also ethically ambiguous. Such experiences result from characters’ having to deal with a reality that belies their true identity.

Alienation as a Literary Theme Alienation and Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In contemporary American literature, there is a large group of characters whose attempt to define their relationship with society leads them to alienation from their true identity. From Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman to the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), tragedy becomes ineluctable when characters believe that they do not have any other identity than the one that is imposed on them by society. The invisibility of the main character in Invisible Man, for example, is occasioned by society’s prejudice, or in the narrator’s words: a “matter of the construction of” people’s inner “eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality,” and by the character’s lack of self-awareness. It takes the narrator almost twenty years to realize that he cannot expect other people to treat him as who he really is if he himself does not know who he really is.

Alienation as a Literary Theme Alienation and Culture

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The celebration of multiculturalism has brought the importance of reconnecting people with their ethnic and cultural roots to the fore. Many contemporary American writers, especially writers of color, have taken it as their responsibility to celebrate their ethnic cultural heritage and to reclaim their sense of history and identity by giving voice to where silence used to reign. In their works, characters’ lack of self-awareness is frequently associated with their alienation from their culture. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts the author portrays a group of characters who, in their attempts to assimilate into the mainstream of American society, have rendered their relationships with their own culture dubious. Woodrow, Roosevelt, Worldster, and Ed are first-generation Chinese immigrants who can barely speak English. Worldster has “a thick mustache” and tries “to look like Clark Gable”; Ed dresses “like Fred Astaire”; Ed and Woodrow once catch “sight of themselves in windows and hubcaps” on Fifth Avenue in New York City and think that they look “all the same American.” Not accidentally, Woodrow, Roosevelt, and Worldster start their cultural transformation by trying to change their physical appearance; they complete the metamorphosis by closing Ed out of a Laundromat deal. In doing so, Woodrow, Roosevelt, and Worldster have betrayed a traditional Chinese ethical code, which has been repeatedly chanted by Ed, the dupe in the money game: Friends are “fairer than brothers.”

Alienation as a Literary Theme Alienation and Society

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Because of the restrictive and sometimes oppressive role society often plays in relation to individuals, many contemporary American writers believe that society works against democracy and individualism. Ellison once posited that “all literature is about minority; the individual is a minority.” In T. S. Eliot’s narrative poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the poet creates a very complicated character. Prufrock is very perceptive; he is aware of what his problems are but refuses to face them. His ambivalent relationship with society reveals his vulnerability as a human being. Prufrock, a white, well-educated man, is still a minority of one.

Alienation has demonstrated its recurrent power in literature. Whether alienation results from characters’ estrangement from their true selves, or from their cultural heritage, or from society, the thematic concern has been used successfully by many contemporary American writers to study the relationship between an individual’s true and false identities, between assimilation and cultural heritage, and between the individual and society. For some characters, the feeling of alienation is brief. For others, tragedy becomes ineluctable when they fail to reconcile who they are with who they are meant to be.

Alienation as a Literary Theme Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering. New York: Viking, 1973.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Delta, 1966.

Graff, Gerald. Literature Against Itself. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Hoffman, Frederick J. The Modern Novel in America. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1951.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956.

Leary, Lewis. Criticism. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Ruland, Richard. The Rediscovery of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.