A group of people consists of individuals who live together as members of the same family or community, or who belong to the same nation and society. Being part of a group may mean conforming to specific norms and conventions, abiding by a common set of laws, and sharing the same values and beliefs. For individuals to be able and willing to stick together, they need to have things in common: language, history, traditions, rituals. What people in a group also need is to feel a sense of belonging, while remaining their own man or woman. Negotiating the balance between individuality and the collective is a much debated issue, and the subject of many novels, plays, films and works of art. Many writers and artists have been grappling with the following questions; how can individuals exist and thrive within society? Why does society turn against some of its members and what are the consequences? How can the individual rise above society or the group to (re)assert him- or herself?
The individual within society
Society is one of the most common group structures and includes many different people in terms of backgrounds, age, abilities, aspirations and opinions. As members of society, individuals have agreed to coexist peacefully to serve both collective purposes and more personal interests. A person is an essential part of society, of a bigger whole. Society means living together, which is why there is a social self that behaves differently from the true self.
An essential part of a bigger whole
A person is an essential part of a bigger whole: society. Humans need to live in a society: microcosm and macrocosm are linked. This idea was quite strong during the Elizabethan era in England.
The need for society
People need to live together, they depend on each other, this is what Plato describes in The Republic. Society is an organisation in which individuals work together to build a better society, a better group. "No man is an island" as John Donne wrote.
In The Republic, Plato's most famous dialogue about politics in relation to individual happiness, the Greek philosopher promotes his ideal city and society, in which each individual enjoys justice and personal happiness. According to him, society works through what could be described as a system of give and take. Each of its members contributes his or her bit depending on his or her abilities and social status. Everyone's roles and places is thus carefully defined to serve the group as well as each and every individual. This organisation enables individuals to be integrated and to benefit from others' skills, while finding themselves much better off within than without the group. As essential parts of the same entity, these individuals are also very dependent on each other for their well-being, prosperity or survival. That's why individual desires and aspirations may sometimes be crushed to safeguard the common good.
John Donne's poetic statement that "no man is an island" resonates with Plato's view of society as a close-knit community of mutually dependent individuals.
"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
To Donne, belonging to society or humankind, is both a necessity and a blessing for the individual. His short meditative poem can be read as one long metaphor which likens humanity to a continent and underlines that no man or woman can exist singly. Through the geographic metaphor of the island, John Donne claims that no human being can live and thrive on his or her own, because they belong to each other, be it only organically ("any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind"). This notwithstanding, John Donne does not deny people their individuality, as is evidenced by his use of "every" to refer to humans as "a piece of the continent, a part of the main." "Every" signals that individuals are unique, albeit similar, because they are inseparable elements of the same entity. The political message of the poem is hard to miss, since the poet advocates unity through diversity in what sounds like a plea for a peaceful union between countries at war on the same continent. Moreover, Donne's poem has a religious meaning. Genesis narrates how God created Eve out of Adam, a process replicated endlessly, through which flesh grows out of flesh to create more and more individuals. To question this is to refuse being part of God's creation. Donne seems to equate humankind to one huge body of which every individual is a limb which is amputated when someone dies: "never send to know for whom/the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
That poem went viral on social media after Brexit was triggered and eventually proclaimed.
|Give and take||Donnant-donnant|
|To thrive||Prospérer/se développer|
|To toll||Sonner le glas|
Elizabethan microcosm and macrocosm
In the Elizabethan era, the idea that an individual was part of a bigger whole was quite important. At that time, scholars studied the links between the microcosm and the macrocosm: what one does on an individual level has consequences on a greater level. Shakespeare's plays are an example of how writers at the time linked microcosm and macrocosm, the individual and the society.
In the 16th and up until the early 17th centuries, the world was viewed as a system of correspondences between a macrocosm, nature and the universe, and microcosms, namely smaller-size entities such as a nation, society or an individual person. It was scholars' strong belief that whatever changes or upheavals took place in the microcosms would affect the macrocosm, and conversely.
This world view, which was inherited from Ancient philosophers, puts the individual at the centre of everything, which implies taking responsibility for one's actions and decisions. In this respect, no individual born into the world and belonging to society can exist independently. Many plays by Shakespeare feature characters whose (mis)deeds have entailed critical consequences on their environment, Macbeth and King Lear among them.
In Act 3 of King Lear, the eponymous character has come to realise that he had been blind to his eldest daughters', Goneril and Regan, true venal intentions, and has treated his other child Cordelia unjustly, assuming she was ill-intended. This injustice is causing disorder in his family, his kingdom and the universe. Indeed, Goneril and Regan have bolted the doors of his own house against him and his court is plagued by murder and conspiracy "There is division,/Although as yet the face of it be cover'd/With mutual cunning," Kent underlines in scene 1. The raging inner turmoil resulting from Lear's realisation and described in the following excerpt from scene 4, is paralleled in the wider world by a violent storm which his fateful mistake seems to have triggered.
"SCENE IV. The heath. Before a hovel.
Enter KING LEAR, KENT, and Fool
Thou think'st 'tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so 'tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix'd,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou'ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou'ldst meet the bear i' the mouth. When the mind's free,
The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to't? But I will punish home:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,–
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that"
Lear is raving deliriously on a deserted heath, refusing shelter from the wrathful elements. Note the parallel drawn by Lear himself between the storm and "the tempest in my mind," as he laments his daughters' ingratitude and his disastrous lack of better judgement. The hovel in which he is kindly asked to take shelter stands for his home and ungrateful family, from which he is banished. The wind-swept moor may be interpreted as a metaphor for his empty heart and barren kingdom, where he finds himself desperately alone, the cause of injustice, hatred and unrest. Being a bad father, how could he possibly be a fit monarch? These combined metaphors powerfully illustrate the correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, the private and public spheres. The adverse weather is raging in response to Lear's angry entreaties to be avenged and removed from the face of the earth, so that law and order might be restored. Lear expressed his desire for redress in scene 2: "Let the great gods,/That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,/ Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,/ [...], Unwhipp'd of justice." As if following up on Socrates's own interrogations about social and individual justice in Plato's Republic, Shakespeare addresses people's moral responsibility towards one another within the same family, society, nation and world.
|Fateful||En rapport avec le destin|
|To rave||Se déchaîner|
|Wrathful||Furieux (connotations religieuses)|
|Better judgement|| |
|Law and order||L'ordre public|
Living together in a society implies rules and authority that are to be accepted by all the members, otherwise they become outsiders.
Rules and authority
For individuals to be able to coexist as part of the same community or society, they need to agree to follow the same laws, rules and conventions. They need to respect an authority. This subject is often addressed in utopian and dystopian fictions, the most famous utopian fiction being Utopia by Thomas More.
Laws, rules and conventions are designed to secure justice and equality, and safeguard freedom for all, but it may also be used against individuals. This duality provides the raw material of utopian and dystopian fictions, which are designed to show the two sides of the same coin.
Utopia comes from the Greek and means "nowhere," implying that the society it describes is ideal. Utopian worlds present readers with fictional worlds that represent enhanced versions of their reality, through which writers throw light on the flaws of existing societies and offer solutions and remedies – often in the form of alternative political and social systems. Thomas More's Utopia was the first such book written in England in 1516. He is actually responsible for coining the Greek word and related concept. Utopia consists of the fictitious account of a sailor on explorer Amerigo Vespucci's ship, who lands on an island called Utopia. From then on, More shows readers how a better society may be built to allow individuals to live together more peacefully.
As a journalist pointed out in an article entitled "The Golden Age of Dystopias," published in the New Yorker in 2017, "Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. [...] a utopia is a paradise, a dystopia a paradise lost." What she means is that a dystopia is often a utopia gone wrong. Indeed, utopias rely on perfection and happiness as the norm, so anyone dissatisfied becomes potentially abnormal and suspect. This is how individual freedom happens to be gradually suppressed in order to make the world a better place.
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World projects the reader into a world in which every single individual is given no other choice but to be perfectly happy. Indeed, everyone aspires to happiness, a basic human right enshrined in many countries' constitutions, including the US's: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That's why happiness is highly political, and can be used to subjugate and control individuals, as in Huxley's novel. In order to make people universally happy according to the totalitarian state's standards, they are provided with a drug called "soma," which cures anxiety, grief and negative/critical thinking to leave each citizen perfectly relaxed – and brainwashed. The story is told from a single individual's perspective, showing readers how an authoritarian regime has managed to obliterate selfhood and to force individuals to converge and merge into one single homogenous group. Through Brave New World, Huxley warns the reader against individuals' obsession with perfection and happiness, two illusions used by a powerful minority to enslave the majority. Happiness, which is both universal and very personal, shouldn't be entrusted to the state, as it is each and every individual's responsibility instead.
|Raw material||Matériau brut|
|To brainwash||Effectuer un lavage de cerveau|
|To merge||Se fondre|
|To entrust to||Confier à|
For a society to work, everyone must agree to follow the same rules and conventions. Some people remain outside of society: they are outsiders. That subject is essential in literature and question the rules or conventions society creates.
Agreeing to abide by the same rules and laws is an essential condition to peaceful coexistence, but may not always be enough for individuals to be accepted as legitimate members of a community or society. Indeed, individuals have to prove that they are trustworthy and willing to conform to the same standards. As literary figures, outsiders are the very embodiments of this quandary.
The outsider was a stock character in Victorian novels in which it often served to denounce social hypocrisy and conformism.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne Brontë's lesser known novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall centres on a female character named Helen Graham who finds refuge in the village of Grassdale, whose inhabitants form a close-knit community of fairly prejudiced people prone to passing hasty judgements and jumping to erroneous conclusions. Helen Graham rents a derelict property, hence the title which also emphasizes the fact that she was not born into this community, and may never belong to it. She has a son, but no husband, which is most peculiar. Rumours about her soon start spreading to the local gossips' heartfelt delight; did she run away with her child? Did she murder her husband? Is she a fallen woman with an illegitimate child? Helen Graham seems all the more bizarre as she is an independent woman and artist who proudly keeps to herself, making integration into the village all the harder. The structure of the novel itself was designed to reflect her status as a self-reliant and sufficient outsider. The heroine's story, which she recorded in a diary, is embedded in the main narrative, but could be taken and read separately. She ran away from her prurient alcoholic husband to save her child from scandal, shame and ruin. By attesting to her respectability as a brave mother, this lengthy tale of woe justifies Helen Graham in the eyes of the community. The villagers ultimately accept to include her, just like her story was integrated into the framing narrative told by the protagonist, himself a Grassdale dweller.
Francis Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, set in the Roaring Twenties, chronicles the rise and fall of a pauper who climbed up the social ladder through dodgy businesses and illegal deals. Jay Gatz went out of his way to become part of the New York elite of overnight tycoons and speculators and prove himself worthy of his wealthy beloved Daisy. At the end of the novel, he is shot by a dirt poor man avenging his wife, who was accidentally run over by Daisy driving Gatsby's car. His tragic demise makes him hit the dust – a symbol for his lower-class origins – he had spent his whole life wiping off his face. None of his so called friends and business partners attended his funeral to see him return to ashes and dust. Fitzgerald's fairly pessimistic novel is a criticism of the American Dream, whose fulfilment is a dishonest, flawed enterprise bound to fall apart.
|To abide by||Respecter la loi|
|Trustworthy||Digne de confiance|
|Stock character||Personnage type|
|Prejudiced||Qui a des préjugés|
|To keep to oneself|| |
|Tale of woe||Triste histoire|
|To fall apart||Se désagréger|
Social self vs. true self
Living in a society often means having two selves: the social self, that behaves as expected in society, and the true self, that is not always what society could accept. Everybody plays a part in society, plays a role, sometimes to be accepted.
"All the world's a stage and we are merely players"
As You Like It
Shakespeare metaphorically underlines that individuals in society perform specific roles, much like comedians in plays or films. In other words, life in society implies acting out to the best of one's capacities. Individuals are constantly wavering between who they should be and who they truly are, deep down. Adjusting one's true self to one's social self may result into inner conflicts, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Set in late nineteenth century Victorian London, Stevenson's novella taps into Darwin's theory of evolution and medical research about schizophrenia. The gruesome tale of a respectable physician and cold-blooded murderer hinges on a duality between day and night, good and evil. A brilliant and hard-working scientist, Dr Jekyll is a paragon of Victorian respectability and usefulness, but his genteel behaviour masks darker, more shameful impulses. In order to balance out social constraints with the less commendable aspects of his personality, he creates a potion that enables him to transform into Mr Hyde and give his repressed basic instincts free rein. Under the cover of his dopplegänger, Jekyll can be as beastly as he wishes or needs to be. The excess of violence he displays parallels the overly repressive society Jekyll lives in. Jekyll's drug-induced schizophrenia is emblematic of how society urges individuals to conform and sacrifice their true self to an ideal. Society is such a strain on the individual that what is repressed is bound to resurface amplified. Indeed, Dr Jekyll soon loses control over Mr Hyde, who has gained ascendancy over him. At this stage, he risks discovery and exposure, which would be socially fatal to him. When Jekyll finds himself unable to transform back into his more civilised self, he commits suicide to avoid scandal. He is found dead in the shape of Hyde, wearing clothes too large for him, which suggests that the social pressure to conform was too big.
Individuals can play a role in society, hoping to conform to what is expected of them, so they can be accepted. Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities explores individuals' more selfish motivations to conform and be accepted by society.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
In this novel, several ambitious self-centred men's destinies suddenly become entangled, as each of them is striving to be better himself. The protagonist, Manhattan-based Sherman McCoy, is a talented banker who strikes very profitable deals to afford the extravagant lifestyle that is the norm in the materialistic high society of 1980s New York. However, Sherman is not satisfied with himself, because he feels he could do much better to impress his socialite friends and supercilious relatives. What he and the other male characters truly want is to be "master[s] of the universe." Things start falling apart when Sherman becomes involved in a hit-and-run with his mistress in the Bronx, and is suspected of having run over a destitute black teenager. The latter's death in hospital precipitates Sherman down hill, offering a frustrated attorney, a corrupt black priest and rabble-rouser and an unscrupulous penniless journalist a unique opportunity to be in the limelight. The reader is made to witness the fall of a respectable and successful individual who had it all, wife, son, mistress, luxury flat and fancy car. Sherman McCoy soon makes the headlines, the police start hunting him down, and he becomes a disgrace to his family and friends, who gradually turn their backs on him. Wolfe's spellbinding tale of masculine narcissism and self-serving ambition leaves no character or community unscathed to debunk conformism, hypocrisy and political correctness. What this story also denounces is the materialistic man's hubris, which leads him to define himself through the group's standards and to measure his success against its other members' achievements. The novel's title is a reference to the bonfire Italian fanatic Savonarole ordered in Florence in 1497 to purge the city and its sinful inhabitants of their arrogant decadence.
Martin Scorcese's 1990 film The Goodfellas, is a typical gangster movie set in the same New York as Sherman McCoy's. Powerful Sicilian mafiosi – the eponymous good fellows – have established their own lawless alternative society, a brotherhood of criminals who abide by specific values and codes. As in Wolfe's novels, expensive clothes and fancy cars are part of the successful gangster's paraphernalia.
|Deep down||Au fond de soi|
|To waver||Être balancé|
|A paragon||Un parangon = un archétype|
|To balance out||Trouver un équilibre|
|To give free rein||Donner libre cours|
|Dopplegänger (German word)||Double maléfique|
Accident avec délit de fuite
|Rabble-rouser||Fauteur de trouble|
|To be in the limelight||Être sous les feux des projecteurs|
|To make the headlines||Faire la une des journaux|
|To debunk||Mettre à mal|
|Hubris (Greek word)||Excès d'orgueil|
Society against the individual
Although society needs all its individual members to exist and function efficiently, it might turn against some of them. Groups rely on norms and standards. Anyone questioning or transgressing them becomes a pariah or a threat.
What defines misfits first and foremost is the fact that they are different from other individuals and therefore find it hard to conform and be integrated. In other words, they do not fit, which leaves them no real place or function in society.
Being different can mean many things; being jobless, aimless, lawless, or simply a non-conformist maverick. In literature and art, many writers and artists feel as misfits or speak of misfits. Jack Kerouac, a prominent author of the Beat Generation, turned two such characters into heroes in his iconic novel On the Road.
On the road
The two protagonists, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, two men on the dole with no place to stay or go, are free-thinking individuals who live by their own very personal and changing standards. They don't care about anything society sets store by, which is why there is no place for them anywhere and they keep driving from city to city. Because they don't fit anywhere, they are always on the move. They encounter equally lost outcasts with which they form an erratic small-size community of misfits. Both aimless and heedless, Sal and Dean follow their whims and instincts, as they go. Neither them nor the reader has any idea where this is all going to lead. One can't but feel somehow impressed – and very annoyed – by their determination to sacrifice safety, health, respectability and responsibility to absolute freedom. Most readers regard them as either despicable or fascinating, which makes them stand out even more starkly as unconventional heroes. What they possibly embody is the absence of purpose in post-war American society driven by consumerism, which was to become the new conformism.
Tennessee Williams, an American playwright who considered himself to be a misfit, based his most famous plays on characters regarded by society as abnormal because too different to fit. Whether it's down to a physical handicap or emotional weakness, they never manage to adapt and be accepted. The one characteristic that makes them irremediably different is like a tragic flaw.
A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Streetcar Named Desire, the protagonist, Blanche Dubois, is an anachronism. Single and already too old to be eligible, she finds solace in an idealised past in the South, where she was deemed the most beautiful southern belle. She hasn't been able or willing to adapt to the modern world, embodied by her sister Stella and her brutish and uncouth husband Stanley Kowalski. She rejects their utilitarian values in the name of gentility. Throughout the play, she keeps reverting to the past glory of the South and of her youth. Blanche is an idealist who has protectively lost touch with reality, and is unapologetic about favouring her own fantasy world over reality: "I don't want realism, I want magic," she insists. Her inability and refusal to adapt turn her into an abnormality best kept locked up in a lunatic asylum. Blanche can be considered as a tragic heroine, since it is what defines her as an individual – her idealistic conception of human relationships and aspiration to beauty in everything – that causes her symbolic death at the end of the play. She is the perfect example of the individual who is ostracised and sacrificed by the group.
Yep − that's what I judge to be your principal trouble. A lack of amount of faith in yourself as a person. You don't have the proper amount of faith in yourself. I'm basing that fact on a number of your remarks and also on certain observations I've made. For instance that clumping you thought was so awful in high school. You say that you even dreaded to walk into class. You see what you did? You dropped out of school, you gave up an education because of a clump, which as far as I know was practically non-existent! A little physical defect is what you have. Hardly noticeable even! Magnified thousands of times by imagination! You know what my strong advice to you is? Think of yourself as superior in some way!"
The Glass Menagerie
Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie is also on the outskirts of society. She walks with a limp because of one leg shorter than the other. Described, even by herself, as a peculiar girl, she finds it hard to interact with others and feel like one of them. Her physical handicap denies her the enjoyments and opportunities of young age; no young man will ever take an interest in her, except out of pity for her predicament. Laura somewhat childishly finds comfort in her glass menagerie, a fragile but beautiful dream-like world of her own. Her collection of tiny animals includes a unicorn, a fantastical beast, unlike the others. The figurine is a symbolic representation of Laura herself. Its horn is accidentally broken in perhaps the most moving and symbolic scene of the play, after she has enjoyed a thought-provoking conversation with her brother Tom's high school friend Jim O'Connor, who shows her that her peculiarity is an asset. The broken unicorn may stand for many different things, such as the end of childhood and Laura's subsequent loss of innocence. It may also signify that she feels a little more normal, thanks to Jim O'Connor. Even if he breaks her heart after damaging her treasured figurine, Jim rescued her by showing her what a remarkable woman she could become. Williams's play delivers a more hopeful message than The Streetcar; that it only takes courage and willpower to exist as part of the group, despite being slightly different. It is, after all, up to individual whether they are misfits or not.
|To set store by||Accorder une grande importance à|
|To stand out||Se démarquer/détonner|
|Eligible||Un beau parti|
|A Southern belle||Archétype féminin du Sud des États-Unis|
|Lunatic asylum||Asile de fous|
|On the outskirts||En marge|
|The Beat Generation||Groupe d'écrivains américains contestataires qui se constitue aux États-Unis autour de Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg et William S. Burroughs|
Outcasts are people who do not fit into society, who are rejected. Witches symbolize outcasts. In literature, fallen women have often been outcasts too.
In American history and society, witch hunts refer to actually tracking down witches and to persecuting dissenters or non-conformists, most notably communists during the Cold War, which became known as McCarthyism.
McCarthyism was coined after a Republican Senator named McCarthy who made a career out of accusing people of communism without solid evidence.
Many writers use the figure of the witch to depict outcasts and to denunciate injustices. This is the case with Arthur Miller, most famous for his play The Crucible.
The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller depicts a Puritan community in 17th century New England to draw a parallel with the paranoid postwar US society. The play is based upon the Salem Witch Trials that took place in Massachusetts between 1692 and 1963. In the play, several women are accused of witchcraft, after they were spotted dancing naked around a bonfire, which was believed to one of witches' most common rituals. Even stranger events later occur, heightening fear and suspicion within the community. The members of the community can no longer trust one another. A scapegoat has to be found to account for the bizarre happenings, which results in a series of forceful denunciations as every woman suspected of witchcraft accuses other women of the same crime to right themselves. These alleged witches stand for the community's resentment and frustrations for which they have to pay the price. In his play, Miller minutely describes the group's strategies to preserve social unity in troubled times by using individuals against other individuals. Excluding individuals becomes a way for people to stick together as a group and feel strong. It reinforces the rules and values the community has to comply with, giving every member a good enough reason to abide by them; that of not being ostracised.
Philip Roth's I Married A Communist is set in the 1950s in Cold War America. The novel's heroine, Ira Ringold, a journalist who is soon suspected of being a communist in hiding, commissioned by Russia to spy on wealthy Americans. Roth shows readers how society instils itself into every individual to direct their behaviour.
|The Cold War||Période allant de 1947 à 1989 durant laquelle deux pays et modèles économiques rivaux, les États-Unis capitalistes et l'URSS communiste, ont entretenu un conflit latent.|
|To instil in/into||S'insinuer dans|
The figure of the fallen woman is a stock character in 19th century literature, the exact counter-example of what young women should do.
Frightful stories of fallen women's terrible destinies were meant to perform the cathartic function of scaring inexperienced female readers into remaining virtuous and chaste. Women who are known to have been with men before marriage are banished from society and branded as sinners.
The Scarlet Letter
Like Miller's tragedy, Nathanial Hawthorne's famous novel The Scarlet Letter is set in Puritan New England. It tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman who has become a shame to her very religious family and community. Indeed, she conceived a child without being married, which, according to the Puritans, was the ultimate sin for a woman to commit. When she can no longer conceal her situation, she is cast out of the community and the scarlet letter is A painted on her, to mark her dishonour. Just like a witch burnt at the stake, Hester comes to represent everything society disapproves of. Her sin purges the rest of the community of theirs, by deterring them from transgressing. She will spend the rest of her life after her banishment desperately trying to atone for her misdemeanour. Hester Prynne's story bears witness to how the group maintains its rules and standards at the expense of the individuals who were so bold as to break them. The meaning of the letter A can be interpreted different ways. It may stand for adultery or America, the latter implying that the country itself is sinful.
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell deals with a woman's disgrace after she had a child outside wedlock. The novel very accurately demonstrates how difficult it is for her to live, or survive more likely, in Victorian society. Being an unmarried mother would mean exclusion, shame, and misery for women who became pregnant because of their ignorance of the facts of life.
|To cast out||Exclure|
|Cathartic||Cathartique = qui purifie|
|Branded as||Marqué au fer rouge|
|The facts of life||Les choses de la vie|
The actions or behaviors of some individuals lead them to be seen as enemies to the society because they have different aspirations.
Some individuals' transgressive actions and decisions lead them to challenge the rules established by their community. This is bound to happen when personal desires conflict with collective expectations, causing individuals to be torn apart between their aspirations and their obligations.
Ae Fond Kiss
Ken Loach's movie Ae Fond Kiss focuses on the dilemma two characters, Casim and Roisin are facing after they fell in love with each other. Indeed, she is a Catholic and he is a Muslim, and both their communities disapprove of their relationships. Casim is engaged to marry his cousin back in Pakistan, whereas Roisin teaches music in a Catholic school. When Casim's friends and family find out about him and Roisin, they are appalled, not least because the news sends shock waves into the community. As for Roisin, she risks losing her job after a Catholic priest refuses to sign her morality certificate because of what he terms an inappropriate relationship. Although they may lose things they hold dear, both Casim and Roisin choose each other against their respective communities, becoming self-made pariahs. Loach's film denounces the bigotry and fanaticism of certain communities which will regard anyone different or disobedient as the enemy within.
|Bigotry||Intolérance face à toute différence|
|The enemy within||L'ennemi en notre sein (expression employée par Margaret Thatcher pour faire référence aux mineurs et syndicats en grève entre 1984 et 1985)|
The triumph of the individual
From Romanticism onwards, many writers and artists have chosen the individual as the central focus of their work, depicting him or her as far superior and more complex than any group of people.
Romanticism focuses on the individual, the importance of his or her perceptions and emotions. In romantic literature, individuals sometimes choose to be out of society and into the wild.
The importance of the individuals' perceptions and emotions
Romantics define the individual, and themselves, as the centre of the world. Their perceptions and emotions are the only things that matter on this earth.
The way Romantic writers and artists conceived of the individual is rooted in the tremendous political changes that took place in Europe in the late 18th century. The revolutions, particularly in France, placed the individual at the centre of the nation, the political processes therein, and nature. According to this self-centred approach, nothing matters more than personal aspirations and intimate feelings, as is reflected by meditative and introspective poems, autobiographies and highly lyrical dramas.
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818
© Wikimedia Commons
English poet William Wordsworth captured the Romantic ethos in many of his poems, like the following, written in the Lake District, where he spent a lot of his time contemplating nature and letting inspiration seep through him.
"I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."
Perhaps his most famous poem, "The Daffodils" describes the poet's absolute delight in being alone ("the bliss of solitude") in nature. His personification of the flowers, which he likens to "a crowd […] fluttering and dancing," suggests that plants and landscapes are better friends or companions than human beings. In Wordsworth's own view, individuals don't need to be part of a group to exist and feel whole, when they have nature and their imagination. Not only can the natural world be a source of pleasure, but it can also be an inspiration, as is suggested by these two lines of the poem: "In vacant or pensive mood,/They flash upon the inward eye." It seems the poet is much happier without society than within. He goes as far as identifying himself with a natural element ("I wandered lonely as a cloud"), suggesting that he feels a stronger sense of belonging and resemblance with nature than with humankind. A radical individualist, Romantic poets or heroes don't need or seek to belong to any society or community, because they consider themselves and their inner worlds far more valuable than family or friends.
Out of society and into the wild
In romantic literature, individuals are attracted to nature. A lot of romantic writers and artists see the wild as an ideal and dream to be out of society and live in nature. Walden by Hendy David Thoreau is one of the most important book about that subject.
Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century American writer and philosopher, drew upon the Romantic view of the individual within society to come up with his own political philosophy. He considered the individual to be superior to society and society, with its laws, rules and expectations, to be a strain on the individual. He is the one who forged the concept of "civil disobedience," a form of peaceful but no less powerful protest, later advocated by mahatma Gandhi. Civil disobedience proclaims that it is the individual's responsibility to disobey whenever they the law runs counter to their beliefs, values and moral principles. Thoreau famously disobeyed when he refused to pay his taxes because he claimed the money wasn't used to good ends, and incited his fellow citizens to follow suit. According to Thoreau, individuals should learn to be self-reliant instead of seeking the enslaving protection of any state, society or community. A loner at heart, Thoreau didn't want to be dependent on other people.
© Wikimedia Commons
The autobiographical essay that made him truly famous is Walden, or Life in the Woods published in 1854. In this book, Thoreau records his 2-years experience in a forest on the outskirts of Boston, where he kept to the bare essentials of life in almost total self-isolation. From this experience, Thoreau derived a political and economic theory, according to which individuals are fooled by society and the states into acquiring and doing things they don't actually need. He even stated that individuals would be much better off on their own than living and sharing their space with others.
His essay would have a lasting impact on people rejecting society and consumerism, and was a reference for Christopher McCandless, the real-life hero of Into the Wild by Joe Krakauer, adapted into a film by Sean Penn in 2007 under the same title.
Into the wild
After graduating from college, Christopher McCandless left his home and comfortable life in a posh American suburb to embark on a journey on foot across America, without money or an ID. He wanted to severe all his ties with society and live off the grid, relying on himself and nature only. Christopher even invented a new identity for himself, renaming himself Alexander Supertramp. His new name was meant to erase the identity given to him by birth and social status and to reflect who he really wants to be – a tramp, i.e. a free human being, in his own view. As he journeys across the United States towards his final destination, Alaska, Alexander/Christopher reconnects with nature and his true self, thereby proving himself and others that one can survive without society.
Thoreau's and Christopher's experiences of individual survival outside society reminds one of Rousseau's idyllic portrayal of the good savage, that is to say man before society, which was also a role model for the Romantics.
|A loner||Un solitaire|
|The bare essentials||Le minimum vital|
|To severe one's ties with||Couper les ponts avec|
|To live off the grid||Vivre en marge|
|A tramp||Un chemineau/un sans-logis|
The solitude and the stream of consciousness
The solitude of individuals is a subject often dealt with in literature. Even a society, one is always alone. In literature, the stream of consciousness was used by mane famous writers, such as Virginia Woolf and Joyce, to try and apprehend the individuality of one's thoughts.
The solitude of human beings
Interacting and engaging with other people is paramount to create a sense of belonging among individuals of the same family, community or nation. However, people's experience of life in society often tends to be one of isolation and loneliness. Human beings experiment solitude: it is always there.
Edward Hopper depicts the solitude of people in his paintings. The American artist owes his fame to his wistful representations of New York City and its inhabitants. His paintings express an unsettling contradiction; city-dwellers are unable to socialise in spaces such as cinemas, bars or restaurants, which are suitable places for individuals to meet and interact. The motionless figures are unable to relate to the people around them and the urban world they inhabit. Hopper's loners in the crowd are emblematic of the paradox experienced by most city-dwellers. Despite belonging to a place as populated as the Big Apple – thus referred to because everyone is welcome to a piece of it –, one can be totally non-existent and alone there.
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927
© Wikimedia Commons
Hopper's anonymous men and women look withdrawn, aloof and unfathomable. His paintings even seem to suggest that each individual is a world of its own, like an island. The viewer sees them, but is denied access to their thoughts and emotions, as he or she would be in real life. Observing Hopper's paintings is therefore both an aesthetic and social experience.
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
© Wikimedia Commons
|To socialise||Nouer des liens|
|Withdrawn||Replié sur soi|
Individual streams of consciousness
What Hopper didn't show, modernist writers would tell, thanks to a narrative technique novelists like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf experimented with in the early 20th century. It enables the reader to have access to the thoughts and consciousness of the characters.
Defined by philosopher William James as "the stream of [...] subjective life," the stream of consciousness gives readers limitless access to the characters' innermost desires, opinions, emotions and feelings.
"As she lurched (for she rolled like a ship at sea) and leered (for her eyes fell on nothing directly, but with a sidelong glance that deprecated the scorn and anger of the world — she was witless, she knew it), as she clutched the banisters and hauled herself upstairs and rolled from room to room, she sang. Rubbing the glass of the long looking-glass and leering sideways at her swinging figure a sound issued from her lips — something that had been gay twenty years before on the stage perhaps, had been hummed and danced to, but now, coming from the toothless, bonneted, care-taking woman, was robbed of meaning, was like the voice of witlessness, humour, persistency itself, trodden down but springing up again, so that as she lurched, dusting, wiping, she seemed to say how it was one long sorrow and trouble, how it was getting up and going to bed again, and bringing things out and putting them away again. It was not easy or snug this world she had known for close on seventy years."
To the Lighthouse
Among Virginia Woolf's path-breaking novels is To the Lighthouse, in which she revisits personal childhood memories of her summers in Cornwall. Set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, the novel portrays the Ramsay family and their friends who are holidaying together. Instead of narrating their daily actions and interactions, the narrator examines and describes their train of thought, thereby making the reader privy to what is taking place in each character's mind. The reader can explore their wide inner worlds, which turn out to be more complex than material reality. This highlights that there is a whole secret world within each and every individual, which hardly anyone can picture or access, let alone understand. Perversely, although the members of the Ramsay set live and interact with one another, they will know but very little about their friends' and relatives' opinions, dreams, feelings and emotions. The only things they get to know about one another is what each is willing or able to tell about him – or herself. Reading Virginia Woolf's novel makes one aware of the fact that one can only catch glimpses of the people around one. The title Woolf chose for her novel, which indicates movement towards a destination or a goal with the preposition "to," says it all. The lighthouse, which is never reached, may be interpreted as a metaphor for the impossibility for individuals within the same group to really know one another. The lighthouse stands for knowledge and is located on a hostile wind-swept island; a symbol for individual isolation or solipsism. Knowing individuals for what they truly are is impossible, because each of them is an island. The realism of Woolf's To the Lighthouse relies on the author's real-life experiences within her own circle.
James Joyce's novels and short stories offer similar insights into the human psyche. Among these is his famous Ulysses, a novel which records Leopold Bloom's and Stephen Dedalus' concurrent journeys through Dublin. The protagonists' and the reader's experiences of the Irish capital city are entirely filtered through their streaming thoughts and perceptions.
|Innermost||Le plus intime|
|Train of thought||Le fil de la pensée|
|Privy to||Dans la confidence|
|To catch a glimpse of||Avoir un aperçu de|
|Solipsism||Solipsisme (= conception de l'individu comme une entité isolée, tout indépendant et impénétrable par ses semblables)|
Writing: an act of resistance
Writing is an act of resistance in society: it enables the individual to express himself/herself. Writers share their thoughts, their beliefs, they tell the stories of individuals. Writing is an act of independence and freedom.
Stories of individual resistance against antagonistic groups of people that seek to subjugate and stifle them often feature characters actively involved in writing diaries or journals. Couching their daily thoughts on paper allows them to express themselves and retrieve a vital sense of self.
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and its sequel The Testaments describe the act of writing as active, albeit silent, resistance. The heroine narrator of the Tale, called Offred, lives in Gilead a theocracy that oppresses and enslaves women. Her role as a handmaid is to bear the children of the social class wielding totalitarian power over Gilead. Offred's function is therefore merely biological, since she is only useful to society in so far as she is fruitful and can reproduce. She is just a womb, symbolically dressed in red, and is entitled to no opinion, aspiration, desire or personality of her own. Both the strict dress code and the absence of proper names for the handmaids who are called after the man who owns them – as in Offred, i.e. belonging to Fred – serve to deprive these women of their individuality. However, Offred won't let Gilead get the better of her. The only way she can find to resist tyranny is to record herself telling her story to testify and oppose an alternative, more truthful, version to the official story Gilead will be writing. The reason why she favours her own voice over pen and paper is not just avoiding detection, but also making herself heard as a dissenter. Her tale is her story and testimony, but what we read is actually a transcription of what she recorded on tapes. So, is the handmaid's tale really her own, after all, or was it appropriated and possibly altered? Margaret Atwood draws attention to the legitimacy of women's narratives, which seem to be best written than simply told. In the 2019 sequel to the Handmaid's Tale, Atwood has three individual women write interwoven narratives and testimonies, which will ultimately serve to bring the regime down. The most significant of them are Aunt Lydia's own journals, in which she explains her carefully elaborated plan to destroy Gilead. Her writings are a deliberate and elating act of treason, since the content of her journals lay bare all the corrupt mechanisms and machinations of the regime. A powerful member of the Gilead ruling elite, Aunt Lydia will be the one single individual responsible for the fall of a whole society.
In conclusion, one may say that the act of writing is quintessentially individual in so far as it allows writers to share their very personal views and opinions on the world around them, thus enlightening other individuals. This is particularly true of writers such as George Orwell, Philip Roth or Jonathan Coe, whose novels are very accurate descriptions and appraisals of the societies of their time. Their fictions act as eye-openers which get readers to question their society or nation, as well as themselves and their social behaviours.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth tells the story of a teenager who destabilises a whole community and country when she becomes a terrorist. Her militant individual action reveals the illusion of peaceful and congenial coexistence. Roth debunks the myth of a benevolent, violence-free American society, which only serves to mask anger and conflict.
Jonathan Coe's latest novel, Middle England, published in 2019, is a very realistic portrayal of pre- and post-Brexit Britain. This multi-generational sociological study in the guise of a novel presents readers with a very divided society. The protagonists could be any man or woman in real life, which makes it easy for readers to identify with them and think about their own individual situations.