Monday, January 26, 2009

Men and Nature: Critical Perspectives on Trascendentalism in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Nature"

Jessica Mason
Dr. Paula Kot
English 215 Major American Writers I - Niagara University

Men and Nature:
Exploring Critical Perspectives of Transcendentalism

Responding to the transcendentalist quest for the soul, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne revealed a negative alternative to the idealized image of men unified with nature. “Nature,” the title of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay was the central concept inspiring the birth of Transcendentalism. The philosophy was the result of meetings where men met with the goal of finding out how human beings are unified. The quest developed and gained many who were also interested in restoring the American identity by uniting under the moral sense of “The Over-Soul,” the title of one of his later essays. In Emerson’s “Nature,” one major idea that helped to form the transcendentalist ideology is, “All science has one aim, namely to find a theory of nature” (1107). The themes conveyed in his essays inspired ideas, writing, and lifestyles. If it hadn’t been for two bold writers, a full depiction of the character of the Transcendentalist period in Concord, Massachusetts wouldn’t be accessible today. Although many people accepted the idea that the motives of scientists and transcendentalists were purely to find truth in nature, some observers perceived the system much differently.

Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott were observant of human history and in tune with close surroundings and events that took place in Concord, their home. “Nature” was a constant theme used to reveal the darkness of human beings in Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark” and Alcott’s “Transcendental Wild Oats.” Reading classic novels and interacting with family and friends in Concord led to the stories, which criticized the transcendentalist ideology and way of life in multiple ways. The stories use literary techniques to reveal a critical depiction of the practices of Transcendentalists. Because of personal situations and feelings that led to the creation of the stories, each author focuses particularly on disconcerting portions. While Alcott is particularly troubled by the hypocritical and male dominated aspects, Hawthorne symbolically depicts the corruption that the desire to control nature causes. Although the stories are constructed differently, they contain many parallel concepts.

The flaw in escaping the flaw

Alcott manipulated the language in order to criticize the system of Transcendentalism. The pointed diction throughout the story revealed two different messages. Not only did the story provide a picture of a Transcendentalist community, it also provided an underlying depiction of stereotypes, hypocrisy, and ulterior (perhaps unconscious) motives. The overall sarcastic tone of the story transforms words and statements into a communicative form of hostility and disdain toward the lifestyles of Transcendentalists. The chapter could have been written as an essay or a review, directly criticizing the system, but instead Alcott subtly criticizes it, making it less injurious and more powerful. She first introduces the families staying at Fruitlands sarcastically, writing, “Thus these modern pilgrims journeyed hopefully out of the old world, to found a new one in the wilderness” (2576). The antithetical structure of the sentence inspired the strident tone of the piece. The word “modern,” meaning progressive, clashes with “pilgrim,” and placed in the context after “these,” the pointed diction of “modern pilgrims” creates a sarcastic tone. The image that is created through the phrase is foolish and satirical because it is difficult to think of a “modern pilgrim” without the picture of a very confused person searching aimlessly. Also, the use of “old world” and “new world” can be linked to the naivety of the pilgrims who in the past had traveled to foreign lands in search of freedom and release from their “old world,” only to find the same problems follow them wherever they go. Creating the image of a quest to prosper in a “new world,” Alcott not only introduces the idea that the Transcendentalists will fail at creating a utopian community, but also suggests that human beings are all the same at the core, whether or not they live in denial of their humanity by trying to reach perfection. So, whether or not the community of transcendentalists gives away all of its money and lives on only what it deems to be natural, it cannot escape the “flawed” aspects of humanity. Alcott’s tone reveals hostility towards her own transcendental experiences, as she describes Fruitlands with exaggerated diction.

Techniques in criticizing Transcendentalism

Both the diction and contrasting images in “Transcendental Wild Oats” reveal the natural hypocrisy and denial that human beings experience when they try to live righteously. In Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden, or Life in the Woods,” one of the main concepts that built up Transcendentalism is “to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” (1814). But in Alcott’s story, the wisdom that guides the characters of Fruitland to eat natural foods, live in a secluded area, and refrain from electricity were decided by only half of human nature- men. The early images of the boy slumbering peacefully and the young girls singing to their dolls reveal a distinct separation between the male and female roles. And although “Consecrated to human freedom, the land awaits the sober culture of devoted men,” the “prospective Eden at present consisted of an old red farm-house, a dilapidated barn, many acres of meadow-land, and a grove” (2576). Two questions come to mind: Why isn’t the land awaiting sober women and why is the most highly rated living space to occupy so dull? The words dilapidated heavily contrasts with the stereotypical myth of Eden, bringing a sense of the contrast between the ideas that the Transcendentalists preached and the inner dialogue that Alcott experienced. The poverty that Alcott and her family lived in is strongly related to the difficulties described in the story.

A male-dominated hypocrisy

So, the Transcendentalist ideas are created by men, the community of Fruitlands is run by men, and still the poverty and difficult conditions are brought on by the choices of men. Often the woman in the story is instructed on how to live by the men, but the character of Mrs. Lamb follows her own ideas to find what is best for her children. The men are referred to as Mr. Lion and Mr. Lamb, and Mrs. Lamb is referred to as Sister Hope, giving her a distinct and separate quality that neither Lamb nor Lion possess. This glorified character is depicted as the strength behind the ideas of the men, or the “mother’s lamp” that burned steadily while the men work on building their “heaven” (2580). With images like this one, it is obvious that Alcott felt strongly for the role her mother played in taking care of her family. It is also obvious that she criticized the role her father played in forcing the family into a lifestyle of poverty for the betterment of their souls, which proved false as she revealed in the solemn ending of the story that sent Mr. Lamb looking for comfort in Hope. Sister Hope represented the true wisdom that proved strong when the transcendental philosophers lamented for “Poor Fruitlands,” saying “the name was as great a failure as the rest” (2586). The ending of the story tied all of Alcott’s main points together, strengthening her criticism of transcendentalism. It wasn’t the ideas that she found so hypocritical, it was the dictates that men created around them, sometimes changing the motives all together.

Men and Science

In the same manner that Alcott questioned and criticized the motives of Transcendentalists, Nathaniel Hawthorne revealed his own troubled feelings regarding the corrupt ways of men when given the taste of power. His short story, “The Birth-mark” reveals other aspects ofTtranscendentalism that are severely corrupt when they are under the control of men. The story was set in the late 18th Century, a time when scientific explorations of life were erupting. Hawthorne wrote the story at a similar time in Concord, when men were trying to find meaning in nature and using science to discover the meaning of life. But Aylmer’s failure at trying to control nature is a direct convention of the plot used to criticize the Transcendentalist notion to find the answers. But he didn’t criticize the ideas of Transcendentalism as much as the corruption that occurs when the ideas were manipulated and controlled by men.

Men and Power

In particular, the character of Aylmer represents Transcendentalism, as a “man of science-an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy,” who battles between the passion for his love of science and his love for his wife, Georgiana (1289). Unlike Alcott, Hawthorne’s tone is not always the predominant technique used to convey the message. Instead, the story is told in a fairly sympathetic tone that could be considered a clever device to make the major points unexpectedly as the story unravels. Aylmer’s desire to understand nature is so overpowering, it becomes one with his love for his wife, and eventually leads to their ruin. The storyline itself criticizes the desire for power that men feel when they are overly involved in the quest for knowledge and oneness. Besides conventions of the text and the twists of the plot, the primary tool that Hawthorne used to support his ideas is symbolism.

Science and Power: Deadly

Although Aylmer’s desire to experiment with life ultimately leads to his wife’s death, it is the impulse toward his own perfection that plants the seed of darkness in Aylmer’s psyche. While searching his own soul, Aylmer suddenly finds a great flaw, but instead of facing the anxiety of that discovery, he places the object of his new found obsession on his wife’s cheek. Georgiana’s birth-mark is a symbol of nature. A birth-mark is something you are born with, and yet taking notice of his wife’s natural feature, he becomes fixated on it and is convinced that it is a flaw that must be removed. To Aylmer, who is grappling with the darker aspects of his imperfect self, the birth-mark is “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,” and his need to destroy it represents the irrational behavior that controls men who encounter power while searching for answers (1291). This symbol could be directly related to Hawthorne’s idea that Transcendentalists were corrupted by power while in search of the answers. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Doctor Frankenstein is so wrapped up in his scientific exploration that he is selfishly aroused by the power science brings him and creates a monster he expects to be the perfect being. When the monster is not what he expected, he flees from it, leaving his responsibility to the sadness and rejection of the world. Like the doctor, Aylmer’s selfish desire to perfect nature leads to his own experiment with the “Elixir of life,” when he mettles with nature and destroys it completely (1295). In this, Hawthorne provides a scornful depiction of the unity between man and nature that charmed transcendentalists. Once nature is under the influence of man, it is corrupted.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott were committed to their writing in a number of ways. Both were accustomed to the ideas of transcendentalism in their reading material and in their daily lives, living in Concord. The contrasting elements of their writing styles combined with the themes of hypocrisy and corruption, aid in the criticism of Transcendentalism. A gap between the Transcendentalist dream and the reality of Transcendentalist lifestyles allowed for writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to focus on the ideas. It also allowed writers such as Hawthorne and Alcott to ponder the darker side of humanity in relation to nature. So, even if the aim of science is to find a theory of nature, when man participates other factors affect the quest. Man’s imperfection prevents him from ever fully controlling nature.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. “Transcendental Wild Oats.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed Nina Baym. New York: NY, 2003. 2575-2586.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed Nina Baym. New York: NY, 2003. 1106-1134.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-Mark.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed Nina Baym. New York: NY, 2003. 1289-1300.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden, or Life in the Woods.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed Nina Baym. New York: NY, 2003. 1807-1982.

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