The Worshiped and the Damned
There are many ways in which one can describe the idea of alienation and the relationship between an individual to a society. Whether or not people believe alienation to be beneficial to a person or group, the fact is that it has become a large part of what makes humanity so diverse. For this reason, alienation tends to be an underlying theme in a great number of novels. The uses and benefits of the alienation theme can vary from author to author, likewise, the portrayal and understanding of what it means to be an individual in a society differs greatly with each. Dependent upon an author, alienation can be considered a form of exclusion, a self-imposed act, or even the basis of a belief.
Within The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes the theme of alienation to characterize Hester Prynne. She is set aside from the strict Puritan society, which is increasingly captious to her every move. Once she is put on the scaffold, Hester loses her identity, and becomes no more than her sin and her letter. The use of the “A” is a tremendous symbol of alienation, which is not often seen rather than implied by an author. This usage of a “visual alienation” is affective in conveying the demeaning nature of alienation. Hawthorne describes the abrupt change in Hester’s identity in stating, “It was whispered, by those who peered after her that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior”(Hawthorne 65). It is evident that the townspeople no longer feel that Hester is worthy of being accepted by society, but she is forced to live as a letter of shame. Although alienation, in this case, is imposed by a society, it can also be conveyed as a self-imposed way of life. Self-alienation is very much an idea that has become associated with Transcendentalist thought.
Henry David Thoreau is a Transcendentalist who strongly believes in the idea of self-alienation. Although he literally removed himself from society, this is not the only form that self-alienation can take on. Through ideas that differ from that of the societal norm and understanding of what it means to be an individual, one has gone past the standards and in turn has been alienated. In writing Walden Thoreau materializes the experiences and ideas of separation and misunderstanding of what it means to be an individual. His explanation of the actual act of leaving society conveys that he is fed up with how society views individuality as a curse rather than a blessing. Here he describes, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond.”(Thoreau 1). His independence and free mind have alienated him from society, but this view does not give alienation a negative connotation. To take alienation another step further, one can say that some societies base all of their beliefs on the alienation of one being.
Although it is quite a drastic statement, Kurt Vonnegut in writing Cat’s Cradle portrays alienation in precisely this way. The basis of Cat’s Cradle is the belief in Bokononism, which is outlawed by society, but practiced by all. It is the type of dramatic irony that gives Vonnegut’s novel a revolutionary take on what it means to be alienated and worshiped at the same time. Bokonon himself, who is the god-like figure, only obtained his infamous role through exile and forced exclusion the society in which he lived. The idea of worshiping the hated individual was in a way rebellion to the conformity of government and society. Because everyone is a clandestine worshiper of Bokonon, the feeling of individuality by each of Vonnegut’s characters is rather counterproductive. The beginning of the worshiped alienation of Bokonon is described by Vonnegut in saying, “He had escaped, had evaporated, had lived to preach another day. Miracle!”(119). The worship is developed by the awe in which alienation holds. It is somewhat intriguing in Vonnegut’s mind to love and idolize a man that has become rejected and alienated from society. Individuality in this sense does not exist because within the novel all believe alienation to be the basis for life lessons and understanding.
Literature has always produced common themes, understandings, and moral issues, but the way in which each is portrayed varies according to the author. Each idea is based upon inner knowledge and life experiences. This understanding of variety within one theme is perfectly evident in the analyzing of alienation in The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Cat’s Cradle. The three authors portray alienation as what they feel it should be or currently is within society. Hawthorne takes a stand in saying what is common to most when describing an individual in a society. His basis is upon exclusion and harshness. Hawthorne’s description is similar to that of Thoreau’s, although in this case the alienation has become meaningless and petty. Thoreau believes that one may only understand society through alienation, which as a result produces the individual. In Vonnegut’s radical view of individualism and alienation, he goes as far to saying that the qualities are to be idealized and worshiped. It is conveyed in his view that one can only reach their maximum potential and exceed others through alienation and severe individuality within a society. Each view, though extraordinarily different, conveys lessons that make alienation important to the structure of a society. Without alienation, the world would not function, for there would be no basis of what living means.