Literature as Social Commentary

How does an individual manage to find a stable place within the larger society? How can the abstract and unknowable mass of men and women we call society come to define the gritty and distinctly immediate person? Some of the most powerful works of literature deal with these questions regarding the intricate and profound balancing act between individual and society.

While it would be accurate to say that narrative literature (like novels, stories, plays) often deals with identity, we can make a more pointed assertion and say that the most enduring works of literature tend to examine a particular kind of identity crisis wherein the individual struggles to integrate into the community around him. Unable to attain stable identity within his or her society, this tragic figure stands alone, starkly anachronistic against the backdrop of the culture. The question becomes, why?

What forces within the protagonist make assimilation into the community impossible? What forces within the community does the protagonist resist, question or protest? Using these questions as our guides, we arrive at a fascinating cross-roads between cultural politics and psychology – – a place that great writing explores with great interest.

We also begin to see that the root of the conflict in stories where a character struggles to integrate into the community is also often an expression of conflicting value systems.

Consider some examples. Let’s take The Catcher in the Rye and its protagonist Holden Caulfield as our first case in point.

Holden Caulfield is one of America’s most famous literary figures. He is known for his insistence that the world is filled with “phonies” and falsities. Society, for Holden Caulfield, is a pale and bitter contrast to the honest virtues of childhood. Over the course of a few days, Holden runs away from his boarding school and journeys through New York City, encountering danger and deviance but also striving to find ways to foster his romantic sense of the possibilities of life.

Not only is Holden Caulfield a romantic, but he is also in mourning for his younger brother. The grief the Holden feels is at the center of his character and, so, at the center of the novel. It is grief that leads Holden to look askance at the world around him and wonder if any of it matters. It is the loss of an innocent child that turns this teenager into a curmudgeon of epic proportions, capable of boo-hooing everything from screenwriting to ice skating. His point of view is dominated by grief.

In this context, Holden’s famous question to the cabbie about where the ducks in the Central Park pond go in the winter becomes almost painful and certain poignant. Struggling to hang on to the frayed edges of his own childhood, Holden Caulfield finds himself at odds with a society that expects him to grow up, get with the program, and prepare  himself to be an adult.

But he can’t let go of his brother Addie. He can’t let go of the ideal that his brother represents. Thus Holden’s value system is incompatible with his society. Placing innocence above all else, Holden effectively takes a lonesome stand and winds up in a mental hospital. His story illuminates a variety of ideas relating to the effects of grief and the conformist expectations of American life in the 1950s and it does this by metaphorically posing some of the questions mentioned above. What forces within the protagonist make assimilation into the community impossible? What forces within the community does the protagonist resist, question or protest?

A potentially important point to make here is that many readers will not consider these questions when reading The Catcher in the Rye and so will come away from Holden Caulfield’s three-day saga thinking that the story is only about the teenaged protagonist. And, sure, the story is centrally interested in what happens to this young man – – and what is happening inside him.

But, looking at the novel’s focal identity conflict as a social commentary as well as a psychological one provides a compelling view of the text that can be considered outside its main character. We are given a larger conceptual scale with which to weigh the ideas of the novel when we ask not only what Holden is like, as a character, but also what keeps him from assimilating into his community and what specifically he might find unacceptable about his community.

The world around him demands that Holden release his grip on childhood and Holden is apparently unable to do this. Letting go of his childhood means losing his brother Allie for good. Innocence is the only thing that seems to connect Holden to this person and, as it happens, this person represents everything that is positive about life – – a love of poetry, a quiet joy at being alive, and the ability to make others feel that they are not alone. The adulthood demanded of Holden then can be seen as a somewhat joyless independence. While it offers the promise of self-sufficiency, this cultural definition of what is most valuable about life is a cold contrast to Holden’s perspective symbolized in his departed younger brother.

In this example we can see that the content of the differences between the protagonist and his culture point rather directly to an essential commentary presented in the novel.

And, taking things a step further, we can say that this may be generally true for literature that explores themes of identity conflict (or individual versus society). The challenges to assimilation faced by the protagonist might indicate weaknesses in the social fabric or problems the author sees in a certain cultural world-view. At the same time, these challenges might point to weaknesses in the human character that are particularly highlighted by the condition the author believes his culture to be in.

In literature, the theme of individual versus society is best seen as a two-way street, offering a perspective on a society’s values and practices as well as insights as to the difficulties individuals face as they attempt to foster their own complete humanity within the life of the culture.

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