Evaluate the Following Statement


IV. Evaluate the following statement[1]

By Vered Arnon

Analysis of early American writing has been greatly influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville’s[2] observations. He claims that there is a void between limited clear ideas and general vague conceptions in American writers’ treatment of self and society. This has given rise to the notion that early American writing is characterized by a huge gaping void between two extremes. But de Tocqueville fails to recognize that the tension and interplay between vague society versus limited self and general self versus clear society brings the extremes tightly together, creating a dialectic rather than a void. To illustrate, this essay will examine passages from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, which exemplifies the self as a clear limited idea while society is a vague generalised notion, and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, which exhibits a clear limited view of society with a vague generalised notion of self.

Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is as much socially reliant as self reliant, if not more. There is no huge void between vague Society and a clear Self standing alone. Rather the vague notion and the clear idea are codependent. The self is a very clear idea, but it is defined by its opposition to society, and it is also created by society. Society, in this essay, is a vague notion of whatever is outside of or in opposition to the self.

The close dialectic between self and society can be seen in the sentence structure Emerson employs. “Trust in thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string”[3], he writes. In this sentence, the self is clearly stated right at the beginning. Society is in the second clause, but in the word ‘every’ rather than explicitly stated. The two clauses work together, creating a sentence that emphasises the clear idea of self, while at the same time uses the vague implicit notion of society to support that idea. There is no void between extremes here. The extremes engage dialectically to the point that they may even be too close to have any space between them at all.

Emerson’s vague notion of society supports his clear limited idea of self in the following sentence: “Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connexion of events.”[4] This sentence could be a description of society: the place divinely furnished for the self. As an account of society, this sentence is extremely vague and general, merely referring to something provided by the unclear entity ‘divine Providence’. This sentence could also be a description of the self, an account of the self’s position or role: a place in society, interaction with other people, partaking in connected experiences. As an account of the self, this sentence is much more clear and a lot more limited, but nonetheless dependant on the general notion of society.

At the end of the paragraph that the above quoted sentences were taken from, Emerson concludes, “And we are now men, and… not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”[5] This sentence is clearly about the self. Emerson is defining the self, explaining what it is to be a man, making a list of what attributes do and do not describe a reliant self. However, he starts this sentence with the word ‘we’. Even an explicit description of the self still implicitly contains reference to the structure of society. The list of attributes are all qualifying the self, but in terms of society, in terms of implicit transitive verbs. Guides guide people, redeemers redeem people, and so on. A transitive verb takes a direct object. Emerson’s self takes society as a direct object in all its actions. The self is actualised precisely by its relation to society. The reliant self takes society as its direct object, and the unreliant self, or the nonactualised self, is the direct object of the other selves in society. The two extremes weave together rather than creating a void.

Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” exhibits a clear limited view of society with a vague generalised notion of self. The story takes place in a small, very specified setting. Society is the old established culture of Italy. The following paragraph exemplifies the clear limited view of society supporting the vague, generalised idea of the self.

“He had a weak point – this Fortunato – although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him myself, and bought largely whenever I could.”[6]

Clear details give a distinct picture of the Italian society that these characters are part of. The characters themselves, however, are described in terms of this society. Their attributes are derived from the specific distinctions of Italian society. They’re not even clearly differentiated from each other, underscored by the wording ‘in this respect I did not differ from him myself’. The characters are two dimensional, stereotypes or caricatures.

The plot in whole of “The Cask of Amontillado” also serves to illustrate the vague general notion of self. The narrator is engaging in an act of revenge. When one is avenged one is generally considered to be at peace. That’s the accepted notion of one of the goals of vengeance. But the narrator is obviously not at peace, because the narrator is still hanging on to and preoccupied by this past act of revenge. The narrator eternally recounts the incident in all its horrifying terrible detail. The wording does not carry a sense of triumph and resolution. The narrator describes the act of revenge:

“I struggled with [the last stone’s] weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognising as that of the noble Fortunato.”[7]

The narrator is describing an episode that was terrifying and horrible, not an episode of triumph and overcoming and obstacle. The narrator seems to be as much, if not more, of a victim than Fortunato. The narrator is struggling and scared and having difficulty. Fortunato meanwhile is described as laughing, then speaking in a sad voice. Fortunato is referred to as “noble Fortunato”. The episode does not sounds like righteous revenge. And the notion of self is still vague here, with the narrator having trouble recognising Fortunato’s voice. There are only two characters in the story, so if it wasn’t Fortunato’s voice, then it must have been the narrator’s voice. Here one could embark on an analysis of the text that would completely equate the two characters as one individual self. A bifurcated self that is not in harmony with all its parts, or not even aware of all its parts, is certainly vague and must necessarily be generalised in order to function as a coherent conduit of a story. The final sentence of the story is “in pace resquiescat” which means “may he rest in peace”. The narrator’s victim takes on the final triumph in the end that ought to belong to the narrator solely. Fortunato is supposed to be suffering punishment, but instead the narrator seems to be suffering more. The dissonance and turnabout here dramatically emphasises the vague, general, generalisable sense of self in the way that the two apparently distinct individuals lose, or confuse, their distinction. If one goes back to the suggestion that there is in fact no distinction between the narrator and Fortunato, then the ending is very interesting. The story ends, “For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed [the bones]. In pace requiescat!”[8] Who is the “may he rest in peace” addressed to? One would assume that it is addressed to Fortunato. But since the narrator is recounting the incident, in a way the narrator is disturbing those bones and re-entering (or at least speaking from within) the dungeon, and if no mortal has disturbed those bones for half a century, then the narrator could very well be the dead (immortal spirit?) of Fortunado. In the final closing of the story questions are raised and any distinct notions of self whatsoever dissolve into uncertainty.

While the above textual analysis would seem to focus solely on Poe’s treatment of the self, it also further demonstrates the dialectical synthesis between this generalised notion of self and specific limited view of society. The notion of revenge and its implications is a clear specific construct of society and this clear idea of the construct is Poe’s tool to convey the generality and vagueness of the notion of self. The one builds off the other, the two positions are indeed opposing extremes, but just like in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, they work together as a dialectic, creating both tension and synthesis. In this tension and synthesis is the ‘middle ground’ that de Tocqueville fails to recognise.

If de Tocqueville’s observations were accurate, and there were a gaping void between the two extremes, then writers would fail to have the dialectic interplay that enables either extreme to even take its form. Between the generalised vague notions and clear limited ideas is the middle ground in which they are inextricably woven together. This middle ground is the mesh that holds the written pieces together, it’s the underlying foundation that the extremes build off of. Ultimately there’s a dialectic process and synthesis going on between the extremes and the middle ground as well[9], because the extremes help to build the middle ground, not just vice versa. But that is beyond the scope of this paper — this paper is merely looking at the dynamic of the extremes creating the middle ground.


[1] Midterm exam question: IV. Evaluate the following statement by considering illustrative passages from TWO works you have read so far for English 25: “Each citizen of a democracy generally spends his time considering the interests of a very insignificant person, namely, himself. If he ever does raise his eyes higher, he sees nothing but the huge apparition of Society or the even larger form of The Human Race. He has nothing between very limited and clear ideas and very general and very vague conceptions; the space between is void.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, “Why American Writers and Speakers are Often Bombastic”

[2] Literary analysts tend to have followed in de Tocqueville’s footsteps, and this misconception is very widespread, forming the foundation of the general approach taken to early American writers and writing. This essay won’t consider statements made by people other than de Tocqueville, but it is worthy to note the significance of this issue. Often academic departments cling to positions that already have popular support, seemingly preferring to perpetuate what could be a misconception merely because it already has adherents, rather than taking the risk of confronting disagreement and conflicting opinions. Literary analysis is a field where opinions aspire to the status of facts, so one interpretation is often taken as ‘fact’ without considering the possibility of a completely opposite interpretation.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance,” in Lauter, P., General Editor, THE HEATH ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, 2nd ed. (Lexington-Toronto: Heath, 1994), pp. 1542-1558
[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Cask of Amontillado,” in Beaty, J., ed., THE NORTON INTRODUCTION TO FICTION, 3rd ed. (New York-London: Norton, 1985), pp. 19-24
[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. (Italics are from the Norton edition.)

[9] All dialectic and synthesis processes are infinitely regressive in a way, because nothing is independent. Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death demonstrates how two-place relations lead to derivative two-place relations because the relation itself then relates back to the components of the synthesis. The two extremes discussed in this paper relate to each other and their relation is the middle ground, but then the middle ground relates back to the extremes… etc.

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