Essay On Giving Into One’s Passions: Self-Realization And Liberation In “A Respectable Women.” The Poet” And “This Side Of Paradise”
At first glance, the Young Man in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet,” Mrs. Baroda” of Kate Chopin’s “A Respectable Woman,” and Amory Blaine of Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” seem to have very little in common. After all, what do a budding artist, a housewife and a laze-a-bout collegiate share in terms of lifestyle, education, and day-to day activity? But, on closer examination, it becomes clear that what each of them have in common are the desires set in the deep recesses of their mind that are shaping who they will become. Each character begins at a place where they rely on the wisdom of others, hoping to become the person they most want to be. They accept what is thought to be “true,” “wise” and “respectable” rather than listening to their own mind and knowing their own nature. Through the course of each work, the three characters must let go of what “wisdom” they once thought to be absolutely true, and look instead to their own understanding as a means of finding freedom. Ultimately, they are each on a journey of self-realization that will lead them to a form of liberation, a place where they have accepted who they are and what they most desire, and embraced the freedom that self-awareness offers.
The essay “The Poet”, by Ralph Waldo Emerson is first and foremost an essay on the development of the creative self, through the eyes of one young poet. Early in the poem he is described as incomplete, spending as much time revering the genius of other men as he does considering his own merit. Emerson describes him as “only half himself, the other half is his expression.” It is important to note that at this point the man’s expression is not a part of himself, because his self-actualization has not aligned who he is with what he wants to say. At this stage he is still expressing himself in ways that he sees as conforming to the expectation of others.
As the essay progresses, however, and the author truly grasps his power, he becomes not half a man, but a person of power, or a “man without impediment.” He reaches this height of liberation by embracing his “self.” Emerson notes that he is “resigned to his mood,” he allows his expression to be “organic,” and driven by nature.
It is the poet’s self-realization, as a writer, that liberates him, leaving him not only free of a certain set of limitations but, according to Emerson, entirely without impediment, and “sovereign,” a “liberating God.” Ultimately, the poet is not only “free throughout the world,” but allows others to become so.
Kate Chopin allows Mrs. Baroda to explore her natural self, and to eventually find liberation through much the same process that Emerson describes in “the Poet,” through reading rather than writing poetry. Specifically, Mrs. Baroda seems to first actualize her desire as the direct result of hearing the writings of the great poet Walt Whitman.
Early in the short story we see Mrs. Baroda conforming fully to what other great men think she should do, she wants to be “respectable” and to be thought of as a good wife. She is at this point, only half a woman, expressing herself the way she believes others consider appropriate for her, rather than embracing her true self and her desires.
Instead of giving in, or admitting, her attraction, she verbally berates the man, Gouvernail, for being dull. She is offended by his presence, and consistently belittles him in order to ignore her attraction.
As that attraction grows stronger, she thinks to herself “She had never known her thoughts or her intentions to be so confused. She could gather nothing from them but the feeling of a distinct necessity to quit her home in the morning.” She is running from the self-realization that is on the horizon, because she knows to remain in Gouvernail’s presence means to admit something about herself that does not conform to the “respectability” she so desires.
It is not until Gouvernail quotes from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that she begins to realize, and give in to, her own desires on a purely internal level. Chopin describes the silence as “melted,” softening Mrs. Baroda to her “self”, and her desire. It is immediately after the quotation of Whitman, who provides her a path to self-actualization, which she fully acknowledges her own desire to “draw close to him.” More specifically:
Her physical being was for the moment predominant. She was not thinking of his words, only drinking in the tones of his voice. She wanted to reach out her hand in the darkness and touch him with the sensitive tips of her fingers upon the face or the lips. She wanted to draw close to him and whisper against his cheek—she did not care what—as she might have done if she had not been a respectable woman.
Though her desire is strong, and physically all consuming, she ultimately resists. She is not yet ready to embrace the self, rather choosing to continue adhering to social norms. But, she does, at this point, admit that there is an internal struggle, which she will have to face. This is also, however, the beginning of her own self-reliance. She considers sharing her struggle with her husband, but acknowledges she cannot because there are “some battles in life which a human being must fight alone.” This is also the first time in the story that she acknowledges herself in a gender-neutral way as a “human being” rather than as a “respectable woman” placing distance between her “self” and her social role.
It is not until she succumbs to her desire to see Gouvernail again that she is truly liberated. When her husband comments on her change of mind she says “I have overcome everything! You will see. This time I shall be very nice to him.” This line both speaks of her liberation, having “overcome everything,” and embracing freedom, and leads the reader to conclude that she has every intention of giving in to her baser desires upon their second meeting. She has resolved her desires as a human being, and let go of her respectability in order to liberate her true self, and all that that entails.
Finally, we see a more extended version of the struggle between self-actualization and the effect of other’s expectations, and eventual liberation, in Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.” He seems to be seeking for wisdom in other men early in the book, just like our previous two characters, but before the novel even begins, Fitzgerald seems to offer both Amory and the reader a warning. He offers a quote from Rupert Brooks as a pre-text to the book, noting that there is “little comfort in the wise.”
Despite this warning, in his early education, Amory seems to idealize and model his behavior after a group of peers he calls “the slickers. He describes them as “a little wiser and shrewder than his contemporaries (33).” By the end of his junior year, however, he has discovered that they are really no different from the rest, and his hero worship of their kind is abandoned. He goes through multiple similar pages of respecting the wisdom of others, namely writers, for much of the novel, until, in total disillusionment, he proclaims:
There were no more wise men; there were no more heroes; Burne Holiday was sunk from sight as though he had never lived; Monsignor was dead. Amory had grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing (248).
His conscious is savaged by the fact that he cannot firmly know anything or place his trust in the wisdom of others, but he also cannot yet accept his own wisdom as truth. Though he has finally cast off his expectation to find wisdom in other men, he is far from self-actualized enough to trust in his own knowledge.
Just before this realization, however, Amory does appear to begin the journey he must take into himself. He says “I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again (243).” He realizes it is in his self-acceptance and letting go of his “innocence” or the prescription others have placed on his life that will ultimately lead him toward freedom.
He acknowledges that self-realization is hard, much like Mrs. Baroda’s acknowledgement that it was a battle, Amory acknowledges his struggle, saying “His problem is harder. It is not
life that’s complicated, it’s the struggle to guide and control life (257).” He includes the “struggle against tradition,” “the regret for lost youth,” and the inevitable “disillusionment” that comes with self-discovery (262-5).
In the end, he concludes that the “struggle is worthwhile” even if he has not discovered wisdom. He acknowledges that “I know myself but that is all,” and it is in that reality he throws his hands toward the sky and finally finds liberation (265).
In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes “Shall I postpone my acceptance and realization and scream at my eyes” (16). This is exactly what we see each character, The Poet, Mrs. Baroda, and Amory attempt to do, they close their eyes against their personal truth, accepting instead the wisdom of others, and pushing away self-realization. As they become disillusioned however, they have no choice but to open their eyes and engage in the struggle that will lead them toward self-actualization. Though each is driven by a unique internal struggle, they ultimately all arrive at the same place, a place where they can accept their natural self, embrace their desires, and take the freedom that that self-realization offers, choosing not to postpone their acceptance any longer, but instead fully realize their own power.
Chopin, Kate. "A Respectable Woman, Kate Chopin, Characters, Setting." KateChopin.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2015. <http://www.katechopin.org/a-respectable-woman/#online>.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet." The Poet. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2015. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/poet.htm>.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1948. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Saint Martin, 2013. Print.