Self-Reliance Analysis

  • Like many of Emerson's essays, "Self-Reliance" emerged from the copious journals he kept during his writing life.
  • Emerson makes ample use of allusion, drawing on examples of notable historical figures to illustrate his case that genius is defined by individualism. There is an irony in how Emerson draws on numerous outside sources to make this argument for self-reliance.
  • Emerson tone is at times casual and at other times deeply poetic and carefully wrought.
  • Emerson employs a variety of devices in his prose, including anaphora, parallelism, and personification, the last which allows Emerson to vivify the concepts he discusses. 


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Throughout his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson kept detailed journals of his ideas and drew on them extensively for his essays. “Self-Reliance” was first published in 1841, but it incorporates thoughts Emerson recorded in his journals as far back as 1832. The essay is therefore the product of many years of thought, a fact which clearly shows in its carefully constructed argument and polished, epigrammatic style.

Emerson alludes to a plethora of great writers, philosophers, explorers, scientists, and statesman—from classical figures to Emerson’s contemporaries. There is something of an irony here, since the principal point of the essay, referenced in the title, is the idea that one should rely on one’s own ideas and standards rather than seeking external authority from the great individuals of history. However, although the essay is full of allusions, they are all glancing and illustrative. Emerson does not claim that the towering figures he invokes would necessarily have agreed with his ideas, only that their lives illustrate the claims he makes. Furthermore, the sheer diversity of the individuals to whom he refers helps to make the case for individualism. None of these figures imitated anyone else, and he is not imitating any of them. An Arctic explorer will serve as well in making his case as a philosopher or a writer.

Emerson begins in a conversational tone (“I read the other day…”) but quickly adopts a loftier rhetorical style, with frequent use of anaphora and parallelism. This is an essay which often reads like a speech, directly exhorting readers to follow its precepts. The diction is elevated and occasionally rather antiquated, especially in stylized passages such as:

It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Emerson is a poet as well as an essayist, and he uses a four-line poem of his own as one of the essay’s three epigraphs. He also employs various poetic devices throughout the composition. He is fond of brief, forceful alliteration (“Bashful or bold,”) and uses personification and metaphor to give force to the points he makes, as in his condemnation of the pernicious influence of society upon the individual:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.

Abstract concepts such as society are personified throughout the essay. Malice and vanity are described as wearing “the coat of philanthropy, while an affected type of love “pules and whines.” This personification not only renders the writing more vivid but also creates the impression of a tribe of enemies ranged against the individual’s attempts to be self-reliant and self-expressive, thereby emphasizing the difficulty of the task.

One of the devices most reminiscent of a political speech is Emerson’s tendency to pile up examples to drive his point home. He gives a variety of examples to illustrate the ways in which one might hide between different types of conformity:

If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are.

Even having given these four examples, Emerson presses the point by expanding on the instance of the clergyman and adding the further example of a lawyer who is paid to speak on behalf of his client. His use of rhetorical questions is also striking. In the same paragraph, he asks:

Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister?

Here, three rhetorical questions are arranged in an ascending tricolon, with anaphora for added emphasis. A similar level of intricate verbal arrangement, somewhat reminiscent of Classical Latin prose, can be found throughout the essay.

All these rhetorical devices, colorful images, far-flung allusions, and highly polished epigrams may seem somewhat incongruous in an essay that is essentially exhorting the reader to introspection and self-expression. However, these devices and examples serve to emphasize that the task is very much more difficult than it first appears, encouraging the reader to consider the many obstacles that prevent the majority of people from realizing their individual genius.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements