Squeeze of Freedom
Have you ever questioned any institutions? If you haven’t, think about it because you might sacrifice some of your inborn rights without realizing all of them. People always obey rules blindly, not recognizing that their society conceals many fundamentally unethical ideas, which influence them to accept flawed practices. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, both authors consider how fundamentally unjust beliefs affect people physically and ruin their thoughts subconsciously. Fortunately, however, if people can isolate themselves from the demanding society, they will see the truth more clearly and realize how society fools them.
Unprincipled institutions squeeze society like tight grips with erroneous beliefs. In The Scarlet Letter, Puritan society demands women to obey strict rules and live an almost ascetic life. While most Puritan women have already adopted this custom, it appears fundamentally wrong in front of Hester, a young and attractive woman who longs for a mutual passionate love. She refuses to live a life without sparks of love and commits adultery with her preacher Dimmesdale. Puritans condemn her by making her wear a scarlet letter ‘A.’ Facing all kinds of public ignominy and living a life full of discredit, Hester becomes “a living sermon against sin” (Hawthorne 54): she loses her self-worth in the public’s eyes and degrades into the personification of sin for others to discriminate against “until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone” (54). Bonding all her life with the mark of sin, society not only makes Hester a target to victimize but also to warn others of the consequence of disobedience. Her “scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, [she seems] absolutely hidden behind it” (88). The exaggeration of her wrongdoings over herself shows how depressed Hester, as well as many other wrongdoers, feels. Society dehumanizes them into a sin that they can never compensate for even if they change. By emphasizing their sin, society minimizes each person’s self-value in order to exert control and establish a more “stable” lifestyle.
Similarly, society in Beloved also belittles some people to promote what it wrongly values. Slavery, now viewed as a blight on Americans’ souls for its belief that one race can unreasonably rule over another, existed as common sense back in Beloved ‘s time. Whites willfully abuse the African Americans and inflict their malevolent treatment on them without any sympathy. They abuse blacks so brutally that “not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief” (Morrison 6). The description of houses filling with or building on dead black people’s bodies vividly shows the harsh condition of African Americans. Whites dehumanize them into possessions, force them to fulfill their wishes, and kill them when they want to. So many blacks die unjustly that their unquenchable anger and grief still occupy the house even after they die. Thus, many blacks believe that “there [is] no bad luck in the world but white people” (122). The white foist slavery on society based on their arrogance and a false presumption that they can represent the whole society. Living under the condition created by selfish whites, no wonder black slaves criticize them as “bad luck” itself.
These fallacious practices produce many flawed ideas held by oppressed people from both books. They even lose the ability to identify the fault of society gradually. In The Scarlet Letter, women occupy two roles: victims and criminals. As victims, they are chained by society for so long that they lose the ability to think independently. Consequently, as criminals modified by society, they treat heresies like Hester especially cruelly and publicly shame them even more. When Hester walks to the scaffold, women in the colony mock her viciously. They “spurn and trample upon [her] heart” (Hawthorne 47) as if Hester converts into a target for them to bombard with all their rage and anger. Women refuse to believe that society and the puritanical rules they adore actually ruin them and limit their development. Fooled, they believe that if they follow Puritan laws rigorously and do whatever society asks for, they can avoid punishments. They forget that society’s wild ambition always expands as they concede more and more. Sadly, women don’t realize that whatever happens to Hester might also happen to themselves. As they treat Hester more and more spitefully, they sink deeper and deeper into the swamp of the unjust society and become less and less likely to realize the truth.
Analogous to the women’s situation in The Scarlet Letter, slaves in Beloved also change subconsciously after the brutal treatment they received. They have been abused for hundreds of years that they lose the capability to love and to free themselves. Many female slaves are asked to mate with other slaves in order to keep producing more offsprings as laborers. Many male slaves have to watch their loved being humiliated by whites and can’t do anything. They have no control over their own lives. This insecurity distorts their ability to love, and consequently, they deem “the best thing [is] to love just a little bit… so when they [break] its back, or [shove] it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one” (Morrison 54). They can’t protect their “best parts,” so they have to minimize their feelings for everything in order to keep themselves strong and not totally break down when the white take their loved ones away. The unstable life and shaky security also affect their views of freedom. Being labeled as possessions for too long, black people no longer harbor independent thoughts. Even though they long for escaping slavery, once they accomplish the goal, they don’t know what to do next. Thus, “Freeing yourself [is] one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self [is] another” (112). Slavery roots deep in black people’s hearts and hinders them from letting go of the past and becoming human again.
People can still get rid of the haunting past and unescapable present by removing themselves from their demanding society to a more isolated place. Forests appear to have this magical effect in both books. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester meets Dimmesdale in a forest where she finds her old determination: her adultery with Dimmesdale “[has] a consecration of its own. [They] felt it so” (Hawthorne 161). By saying her adultery has its own “consecration,” she implies that her adultery is not a rash decision due to lust. She and Dimmesdale believe that what they do is not a sin but rather a manifestation of their sincere and mutual love. Hester deifies her “sin” and releases herself out from mundane beliefs: she regains her previous insistence that people who fall in love with each other cannot simply be deemed as “sinners.” Isolating herself from society and living in a forest, Hester utilizes “the scarlet letter [as] her passport into regions where other women [dare] not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These [have] been her teachers, – stern and wild ones,- and they [have] made her strong, but [teach] her much amiss” (165). Standing out from society, Hester becomes neutral and unbounded by mundane worries, which helps her to think more freely about all the difficulties women go through. She thinks positively that if people feel content and meaningful about their actions, they shouldn’t worry about others’ attitudes. This broader vision helps her to resist the confining society and even develop the ability to help others. In her later years, “women, more especially,—in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passions,- or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,—came to Hester’s cottage” (215). More and more women find out the oppressing characteristic of Puritan rules and came to Hester for help. By consulting them in her little cabin in the forest, Hester protects them by also isolating them from society, and hopefully, these women can become stronger and more independent just like Hester does.
Similar to Hester who obtains her understanding while living exclusively, Sethe also faces her redemption in an isolated forest, “a ridge of pine near the Ohio River”(Morrison 38), where she meets Amy Denver, an unbiased white girl. Amy sees Sethe struggling in the forest and decides to save her without any hesitation. In the insular forest removed from society, Amy and Sethe seem to lose their knowledge of different ranks of races and consider each other as an important and equitable companion on their way to a new life. Amy never looks down on Sethe and always encourages her. Her “voice full of velvet and Boston and good things to eat that [urge Sethe] along and [make] her think that maybe she wasn’t, after all, just a crawling graveyard” (42). Saved by Amy, Sethe has a different view of herself. She regains her independence and potency and decides to confront her frightful past. Before that, she avoids to look at the past, but avoidance can’t solve the thorn sticking in her heart. “Even though it’s all over–over and done with–it’s going to always be there waiting for you” (44). History never goes away. People have to accept it, acknowledging their mistreatments and faults and plan their future according to the lessons they learn. By talking to Beloved, who represents not only a ghostly girl but also the history of blacks, Sethe confronts her past bravely and “lay [her] sword and shield down”(101). She no longer holds the “sword” to fight against anyone tries to peek at her past, and she no longer uses the “shield” to block others’ amity. She regains her humanity.
Unethical practices, with their deep-rooted influences on beliefs and actions, strangle people tightly. The conviction that people have to follow strict rules shows how society demands devotion to manners for everybody. However, “[what] demon possessed me that I behaved so well” (Thoreau 13)? In fact, people can have live varied lives according to their own definition of “well”. To find out our desirable life and what we have lost by living in society’s constraints, why don’t we start by removing ourselves from the disturbing present?
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, et al. The Scarlet Letter. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved . Vintage, 2010.
Thoreau, Henry David, and Jonathan Levin. Walden and, Civil Disobedience. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.