American Literature Nineteenth Century American Essay

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Emerson would have commended Douglass for his achievements. Emerson decried the evils of social hierarchy as when he stated, "A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me." Frederick Douglass was directly rebelling against white supremacy and the institution of slavery. Moreover, Douglass noted the role that social conformity and peer pressure played in creating the plantation culture of the south. When he first goes to Baltimore, Douglass is suprised by the kindness of Sophia Auld. Yet Douglass notes the effect of social conformity on Sophia in Chapter 7 of the narrative: "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear...Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities." Douglass suggests that the institution of slavery was at least in part sustained by the complicity of men and women like Sophia, who could not think for themselves. Slavery had a more immediate and visceral effect on Douglass. Because he practiced self-reliance while understanding the restrictionsn of racism, Douglass eventually does achieve freedom and even happiness. "It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced," he writes upon arriving in New York (Chapter 11). Douglass proves that it is possible to achieve happiness in spite of the most formidable obstacles.

Gender roles and norms place restrictions on women, creating major obstacles to happiness. In Hawthorne's the Blithedale Romance, gender is portrayed as a significant social issue. Priscilla embodies the passive female who has no will of her own. In Chapter 20, for example, Priscilla is described as "only a leaf floating on the dark current of events, without influencing them by her own choice or plan." In Chapter 25, the otherwise strong Zenobia breaks down in a diatribe that upholds gender stereotypes. Zenobia calls herself "a woman...weak, vain, unprincipled (like most of my sex; for our virtues, when we have any, are merely impulsive and intuitive), passionate, too, and pursuing my foolish and unattainable ends by indirect and cunning," (Chapter 25).

By the end of the Blithedale experiment, Zenobia is a completely different person from who she was at the onset. Zenobia's downfall is partly due to systematic sexism. When she is first introduced, Zenobia is portrayed as a strong, sophisticated, and independent woman who does not conform to gender stereotypes. In Chapter 3, her laugh is described as "not in the least like an ordinary woman's laugh." She is "deficient in softness and delicacy" whereas by the end of the novel Zenobia has completely fallen apart from emotional weakness. At the same time, Zenobia admits to holding the same gender stereotypes that prevent women from being viewed as individuals such as when she states, "we of the softer sex," (Chapter 3).

The Blithedale commune, like Thoreau's house on Walden Pond, was a social experiment designed to confront and rebel against materialism. Yet the difference between Thoreau's experiment and the one at Blithedale is that the latter was a social one. In Walden, Thoreau devotes an entire section to the value of solitude in the pursuit of happiness. Blithedale and Zenobia's dreams are dashed because of the conflicts that inevitably arise among people living together. The only way to achieve absolute peace is via solitude. The problem with Thoreau's method is that is impractical except for short periods of time. To achieve a lasting happiness, the individual must find peace within the social world. Obstacles such as institutionalized discrimination would not have confronted Thoreau, for he was a white male. He might have shed materialistic urges but Thoreau did not obtain the same quality of freedom that Frederick Douglass did once he arrived in New York.

Ultimately, institutionalized discrimination, materialism, and social conformity are interrelated problems. The discrimination against people of color and females retains a social hierarchy that favors the material advancement of white males. Greed was one of the motivating factors behind slavery. Conformity prevented the types of social rebellions that would have helped females and people of color from achieving social justice. These interrelated problems are explored in depth and with aplomb by Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry…[continue]

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