Self-Reliance Analysis
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance book cover
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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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Analysis

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 entire section is 779 words.)