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Langston Hughes


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Langston Hughes Essay, Research Paper

Nature and the Human Soul: The Shackles of Freedom

Langston Hughes and Kate Chopin use nature in several dimensions to

demonstrate the powerful struggles and burdens of human life.

Throughout Kate Chopin^s The Awakening and several of Langston Hughes^

poems, the sweeping imagery of the beauty and power of nature

demonstrates the struggles the characters confront, and their eventual

freedom from those struggles. Nature and freedom coexist, and the

characters eventually learn to find freedom from the confines of

society, oneself, and finally freedom within one^s soul. The use of

nature for this purpose brings the characters and speakers in Chopin^s

and Hughes^ works to life, and the reader feels the life and freedom of

those characters. Nature, in the works of Chopin and Hughes serves as

a powerful symbol that represents the struggle of the human soul

towards freedom, the anguish of that struggle, and the joy when that

freedom is finally reached. In The Awakening, the protagonist Edna

Pontellier undergoes a metamorphosis. She lives in Creole society, a

society that restricts sexuality, especially for women of the time.

Edna is bound by the confines of a loveless marriage, unfulfilled,

unhappy, and closed in like a caged bird. During her summer at Grand

Isle she is confronted with herself in her truest nature, and finds

herself swept away by passion and love for someone she cannot have,

Robert Lebrun. The imagery of the ocean at Grand Isle and its

attributes symbolize a force calling her to confront her internal

struggles, and find freedom. Chopin uses the imagery of the ocean to

represent the innate force within her soul that is calling to her.

^The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering,

clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in

abysses of solitude; to lose itself in a maze of inward contemplation.^

(p.14) Through nature and its power, Edna, begins to find freedom in

her ! soul and then returns to a life in the city where reside the

conflicts that surround her. Edna grew up on a Mississippi plantation,

where life was simple, happy, and peaceful. The images of nature,

which serve as a symbol for freedom of the soul, appear when she speaks

of this existence. In the novel, she remembers a simpler life when she

was a child, engulfed in nature and free: ^The hot wind beating in my

face made me think ^ without any connection that I can trace ^ of a

summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to

the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than

her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked,

beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.^ (p.17)

Chopin^s reference to swimming occurs many times in the novel, and

through the ocean and her experiences swimming, she not only confronts

nature, but she challenges and discovers her true self. The use of

nature is especially significant as a memory in her childhood because

it marks a time in her life when she was happy and free. This image of

swimming returns to her when her soul is beginning to reopen, at Grand

Isle. When Edna finally learns to swim, she finds herself frightened,

alone, overwhelmed, and surrounded in a vast expanse of water. Her

experience swimming in the ocean for the first time parallels her

discovery and immersion in the true nature of her soul: ^As she swam

she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose

herself . . . A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second

of time appalled and enfeebled her sense.^ (p.28) She is frightened by

her own self-discovery ^ yet is enraptured by it. It is this

contradiction and this confrontation with nature that is brings about

Edna^s self-discovery and metamorphosis within the novel. It is more

than love for Robert that drives her to be free from the restrictions

of this society. Instead, it is her discovery of her own self that

causes her to shun the confines of society. Edna^s ^self-discovery^

awakens her, and she is able to greet her own soul, a soul filled with

passion and sexuality. However, ev! en though she has found freedom

within her own soul, she cannot be truly free in this urban society.

The symbol of the ocean appears again after Edna has been awakened and

discovered the power of her self. Edna, with an inner sense of

freedom, confronts the realization that the shackles of society that

require her submission are powerful forces which will try to bend and

taint her new sense of freedom. Again, we see the contradiction of the

pure bliss of self^discovery and awakening conflicting directly with

the restrictions of society that do not allow Edna to be free. This

contradiction causes massive internal struggle for Edna, and for her,

there seems to be only one way to resolve this conflict. This

confrontation is brought to light at the end of the novel through the

symbol of the ocean: ^She cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from

her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open

air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the

waves that invited her.^ (p. 108) Edna has discovered something

inside her and she cannot retu! rn to the person she was. Her soul is

free, but the burden of that freedom is too much, it overwhelms and

overtakes her so that she cannot exist in this world. It seems to Edna

that life is not worth living in a prison. As a result, at the end of

the novel, the ocean beckons and she follows. She swims into the

inviting and seductive sea, never to return. In the ocean, she is

free. Similarly, in Langston Hughes^ poetry, nature serves as a strong

symbol for triumphs and defeat of the soul. He uses the imagery of

rivers to demonstrate the speaker^s connection with the earth and

nature in his poem, ^The Negro Speaks of Rivers^. In this poem, the

speaker in the poem has ^known rivers^; he speaks of ^rivers ancient as

the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.^

Rivers symbolize the lifeline of the earth. When the speaker refers to

the rivers, he is reflecting on his connection with the earth. He

feels a part of the earth, and it is almost as if his soul is kindred

to the earth when he says, ^My soul has grown deep like the rivers.^

In this poem, Langston Hughes uses the imagery and symbolism of rivers

as an expression of the oneness between the soul and the earth. The

speaker^s soul is united with nature; he is like a river in that he is

connected with earth, nature, and himself. In the poem ^Sun Song^, by

Langston Hughes, there is a similar expression of the affinity between

man and earth, yet a subtle contrast exists. In this poem, nature is

not viewed as wholly perfect. The speaker sings of ^Sun and softness,^

and ^Sun and the beaten hardness of the earth^. The softness of the

sun and the hardness of the earth demonstrate the dichotomy of man^s

relationship with nature. Man basks in the beauty of nature while at

the same time struggling against its forces. The earth is hard and we

toil under the sun, yet we can appreciate the wonder of ^Sun and the

song of all the sun-stars.^ Hughes^ musical language expresses without

disdain this relationship between man and the earth. Again, in the

poem ^Dream Variations^, Hughes demonstrates how nature helps celebrate

and free the soul. The tone of the poem is celebratory and the speaker

is joyous as he rejoices at the end of a day:

To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

Then rest at cool evening

Beneath a tall tree . . .

The speaker^s soul is free and liberated as he rejoices with nature.

He celebrates in the sun, and rests beneath the comfort of a tree.

Nature not only provides man with a means to express the freedom of his

soul, but it also gives man relief. In contrast, a different side of

nature is depicted in Hughes^ poem, ^Song for a Dark Girl^. The

language in this poem paints a macabre picture of a racist south. In

this poem, nature is harsh, unfair, and cruel. Instead of providing

man with a means to express the freedom of his soul, nature confines

the soul. Nature serves as a symbol for the captivity and death of the

soul. The black man that is lynched in the poem could not be free in

this society, and the girl he leaves behind mourns at the sight of the

tree. For her, the image of this tree brings anguish to the soul:

Way Down South in Dixie

(break the heart of me)

They hung my black young lover

To a cross roads tree.

The tree is the object on which this girl^s lover was hung. Nature

becomes a symbol for the burden of the anguish of the soul. Nature^s

role in this poem not only kills the young lover, but also suffocates

the soul of the young girl. Love is a naked shadow

On a gnarled and naked tree

Nature bears witness to the evils of man, the sufferings of love, the

loss of a loved one to a brutal and inhumane death. Nature serves not

as a symbol of the burden of the freedom of the soul, but as a symbol

for the captivity and death of the soul. Here nature is the picture of

desolation, evil, and raw human pain. Although at first glance, Chopin

and Hughes seem to be two very different authors with different life

experiences and struggles. A closer look at their works reveals a

similarity. In The Awakening, nature^s intensity and power is depicted

in the ocean and water. Chopin contrasts the struggles and freedoms in

life through the imagery of nature; the joy experienced running through

tall grasses in a meadow to a frightening encounter with the unending

abyss of the ocean. Similarly, in Langston Hughes^ poetry, a Negro

speaks of his connection to rivers, deep in the earth, of the softness

of the sun, and yet he also speaks of the gnarled tree from which hangs

the body of a bruised, dead Negro. The imagery in these two works

appear to represent quite different human experiences, but a closer

examination reveals that they both represent the basic human struggle

that plagues the characters/speakers in these works. In these works,

the images of nature serves as a symbol of the fr! eedom of the soul,

yet simultaneously serving as a symbol for the burden of achieving that

freedom, and the anguish of the struggle. Both Chopin and Hughes use

nature in their works in the form of sweeping imagery, poignant

metaphors, and precise, powerful symbolism. The use of nature for this

purpose draws their characters/speakers to life and adds great depth to

their works. Nature not only represents humankind^s greatest bliss,

but also symbolizes our greatest enemy . . . the earth on which we

live.

325

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