Posted: August 23rd, 2018
Whitman on Representing the American Society As Chopin Focuses On American Women As They Explore Their Gender In Establishing Consistent Self-Identity
The description of American identity conforms to various components such as tradition, culture, artistic expression, shared experiences, and diversity, which is characterized by the ethnic roots of its people. Religion also compounds this identification with the belief of fighting for one’s opinion being revered as essential for each American. In the former years, American writers depict the main components driving the nation as based on constrictive and radicalized principles. These notions were propagated by political and religious leaders further personified by the society in inculcating various understandings and concepts within the American community.. For instance, since the independence, the country has been associated with the notion of democracy and freedom shaped by the existence and prioritization of civil rights. The discussion of American writings about America’s identity through incorporating works from prominent writers, Walt Whitman and Kate Chopin, is directed by the component of American identity. Whitman presents a united front in representing the American society whereas Chopin focuses on American women as they explore their gender in establishing consistent self-identity hence abolishing notions propagated by the community.
Equality is a componential aspect discussed at great lengths by Whitman and Chopin as they develop the overall perspective of America as a society. According to Whitman, he did not perceive the country as a place solely but a national exemplary comprised of a society fashioned with equality and passion with which people assist each other and demonstrate brotherly love (Shephard 276). This understanding by Whitman is exemplified in his writings such as “Song of Myself” where he exhibits his national pride grounded on its diversity and acceptance of all. According to critics, their understanding of their poem criticizes the intention of the poet in expressing his passion towards America terming it a continued reminder of the common bonds that hold society together (Coviello 89). The primary justification for this explanation is based on the looming war in which the country would be immersed leading to violent bloodshed. Therefore, the presentation of Americans and their identity as passionate was to assure Americans of their past identity before the commencement of the war and encourage them to remain steadfast in upholding the morals and principles, which define and serve as identifiers to their American affiliation.
The idea of freedom, which is portrayed as idealistic by Whitman, is refutable according to Chopin who demonstrated womanhood as a limiting gender role characterized by restrictions permissible in the American patriarchal society. The element of passion and assistance is devoid in her writings as the women play the role of homemaking and a passive group lacking in support to voice their opinion. Their sexual freedom is not openly discussed in comparison to their female counterparts (Abbandonato and Taylor 270). In the Cult of True Womanhood, it is obvious femininity in the American society was compounded by passivity, therefore, forcing women to live frustrated and miserable lives from their childhood to adulthood. The permissibility of expressing their thoughts and opinion were associated with a disastrous result in the form of societal punishment where any liberal women were shunned (Sabbagh and Saghaei 301). This ideology of freedom and equality positively portrayed by Whitman is nullified by inclusivity of freedom for women in America during the same historical setting further depicting the former also perceived the holistic idea of national liberty more important than that of American women.
The process of determining the identity of the American women as per the perspective portrayed by Chopin coincides with that of the nation as depicted by Whitman. In the “Serpent and the Garden,” one of the critical component highlighted by Whitman is the utopia element upon which the American explorers and adventurers aimed to establish and maintain for future generations (Coviello 90). According to the writer, the aspect of spiritual brotherhood coupled with idealistic association would facilitate the development of an American utopia. This is an overall demonstration of Whitman’s understanding of America’s identity as the new Promised Land where men were regenerated and freed from perverse conventions dominant in the era of pre-civilization (Shephard 278). Experienced idealism derived from awareness established in the initiation of a new world is highlighted as another component of Americanism whereby its individuality is fortified by the ability of its people to develop attitudes, which are devoid of impressionable worldly distractions and appearances. Whitman also proposed this identity of the newfound utopia would allow for communion between man and nature with prioritizing self-reliance devoid of disillusionment (Coviello 95). Now, through Whitman’s descriptions, the American identity is developed through a cohesive understanding by the country’s forefathers and is continuously projected holistically without any disagreement in the mindset of its people, therefore, exhibiting a unified front characterized by strong spiritual, social and political understanding.
Chopin challenges this unification in the American individuality development process as women are seen as an exclusive group, which is not considered in the ongoings of the country and their respective communities. The author argues American identity personified by the likes of Whitman serves to hide the intricacies of its culture in subjecting one group to absolute subjugation and submission as per the setting of her writings (Sabbagh and Saghaei 298). Her inclusion of various topics such as marital infidelity elaborates on the extent to which gender equality and unity as dismissible when considering the suffering of the female population in the patriarchal society in that setting. Chopin illuminates on American women developing their identity through narratives such “The Story of an Hour” where the American culture is depicted as being discriminative of women as they are perceived as lesser beings in comparison to their male counterparts (Coviello 98). The character establishes her independence through focusing on self-fulfillment and freeing herself from societal enslavement constituted through marriage, which according to the author limits feminine freedom and restricts self-awareness and realization.
As per the thoughts expressed by Chopin, American women would get more freedom through building their personalities and fulfilling their identities by relinquishing their bitterness and disappointment reinforced by societal mental enslavement (Abbandonato and Taylor 270). She portrays her disapproval of female character for the American women as stemming from their husbands given the uptake of their surnames. For instance Mrs. Milliard, the name signified her dependence on her husband, which constituted the identity of the American women in the setting at the time. Therefore, with this in mind, the ascertainment of freedom and individuality is reliant on the sole devotion of the women folk in establishing their personalities and characters without restrictions of the American culture. This identity contradicts that of Whitman, which is more on the national unification from individual efforts to Chopin admonition of sole individuality in ascertaining feminine freedom, identity, and liberation. Some women in the American society have decided to break away and live independently of men some of the women have decided to avoid marriage for many reasons, for instance career (Rennemo 35)
According to both Whitman and Chopin, identity is synonymous with various aspects unique to the subject in question. For instance, American dream is demonstrated as being compatible with the identification of America as a nation. Whitman explains the unifying spirit of America as being the driving force in facilitating its identity as part of the global community. This is supported with the manner in which he applies his personal and subjective view of the world. In one of his works “Leaves of Grass,” he uses technology, places, and peoples as well as their experiences in the country to indicate that these elements influence its identity. From this angle, it is evident that with the perception of cities such as New York, which are considered global magnet (Coviello 99), Whitman perceives American identity as being a recreation of the world given its acceptance of diversity, technology, culture, and people from other continents.
Relating to Chopin, the first aspect defining the identity of the woman in old America was their husband’s name. This association elaborates on dependency and overreliance of a man by his wife from whom she derives her meaning. As previously mentioned, this connotation is highlighted by the name of Mrs. Millard in “The Story of an Hour” (Abbandonato and Taylor 270). The use of the term Millard whose female form is often characterized as submissive and drab also seem to portray the identity of American women at the time while their partners were colorful and fun loving. From this depiction, the female character is first recognized in the role of a subdued wife within the confines of a male-female relationship in matrimony (Wan 56). The double sided identification of a mallard bird relating to naturalness signifies the identity of American women or any woman for that matter should be compounded by a strong sense of freedom and self-awareness as components in their individuality.
Whitman and Chopin significantly address the role of death in formulating or manifesting identity in their works. For Chopin, whose subject is the feminism for the American women, she portrays it as a severe extreme denoting the importance of women in having the freedom to identify themselves without the pressures of the society and its norms (Wan 59). When Mrs. Mallard’s husband dies, her reaction of looking out the window as the news is brought to her signifies and marks the beginning of self-exploration and identity without hiding the blanket of matrimony (Sabbagh and Saghaei 296). Her realization of the self-annihilative and dependency brought about by love serve to cripple a woman’s identity transforming her overall mindset. Therefore, with death, the characters learn to live for herself by developing a strong identity as a woman in her own right as she learns to exercise more self-assertion overpowering the societal claims on womanhood.
In Whitman’s perspective of death and American identity, he concentrates on the severity of the Civil war, which was characterized by constant marching, endless battles and mass death toll as the country struggled to regain its independence. According to this poet, through these experiences, the identity of America was strengthened given the focal point the war played in unifying Americans. One of the works supporting this view is “A March in the Ranks Hard Press and the Road Unknown.” In this writing, unity as a componential element in America’s identity is exemplified when the soldiers morn their fallen brothers in collaboration with nurses, other patients, and doctors. The poet profoundly depicts the American heritage as war presents a destructive and harmful nature, which fails to divide America despite the injustices inflicted on the dead soldiers and civilians who were stripped of their identities.
Following a thorough review of Whitman and Chopin’s writings, several correlations are drawn focusing on American identity. Firstly, Chopin provides a clear portrait of the culture and tradition in America, components of its identity, and its impact in shaping the overall perception of women in the society. On the other side, Whitman provides a broader understanding of America as a whole and the events, occurrences, and aspects, which have contributed or shaped the country’s identity in the global map. Secondly, it is important to point out that Chopin focuses on complex issues such as dependency, subjugation, and submission in marriage and the passiveness of the women being detrimental in their identity as women in America, a country where freedom is synonymous with its individuality. However, Whitman focuses on general issues such as the impact of the civil war, characterized by death, the American dream and the country’s greatness in defining its identity. Both writers are exceptional in their literal prowess in capturing the development of the American identity.
Abbandonato, Linda, and Helen Taylor. “Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 44, no. 4, Oct. 1990, p. 270.
Coviello, P. “Intimate Nationality: Anonymity and Attachment in Whitman.” American Literature, vol. 73, no. 1, Mar. 2001, pp. 85-119.
Rennemo, Louise. Exploring the female self in the works of Kate Chopin: a study in nineteenth century literature, science and ideology. MS thesis. NTNU, 2015.
Sabbagh, Mahmoud R., and Mehri G. Saghaei. “Conjured-Up Reality Shattered: Examining the “Uncertain” Ideology Underlying Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 158, 2014, pp. 296-303.
Shephard, E. “The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman.” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3, 1955, pp. 275-278.
Wan, Xuemei. “Kate Chopin’s View on Death and Freedom in The Story of an Hour.” English Language Teaching, vol. 2, no. 4, 2009.
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