Society and Traditions in Literary Works

Literary works often reflect on society and its traditions, hoping that the readers realize the lessons and messages that are trying to be portrayed. Critical theories are reflective assessments and critiques of society and culture by applying knowledge, and the messages presented into our lives. Reader Response theory, Deconstruction theory, and Ethical theory are forms to uncover the meanings of a text, each in its own unique way which aids the reader to have an improved understanding of the messages.

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The Reader Response theory confines analysis to the reader’s experience when reading the text. The interpretations of the text depends on the reader, but also the time in which the piece takes place. Reader Response expects the reader to have beforehand knowledge on particular topics to be able to see the bigger meaning of the message in the literary piece. Some works that can be analyzed by the reader using the Reader Response theory include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “Young Goodman Brown,” and Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. Deconstruction theory questions readers to view past the obvious and teaches that not everything is what it seems. Symbols and characters must be thoroughly analyzed in order to fully comprehend the message. Perspective matters as well because this theory revolves mainly around a particular narrative, and if this narrative changes, the theory is not applicable. William Faulkner’s, “A Rose for Emily” and Harper Lee’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” are works that can be examined with the Deconstruction theory. The Ethical theory reaches to the reader through the principles of morality and the well-defined standards of right and wrong that prescribe the human character and conduct. It asks the reader to identify an easy and clear message that is understandable. The ethical theory can overlap with other critical theories and therefore we can analyze literature using more than one theory. Pieces of literature that follow the ethical theory include Shirley Jackson’s, “The Lottery,” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”. These theories approach the breakdown of literature in their own ways, but each eventually helps us interpret ourselves as a part of the tradition of our society. They eventually allow us a way to apply literary themes to real-life situations. These literary works demonstrate that traditions are useful and valuable but as societies change they need to as well because they become harmful/destructive.

“The Great Gatsby” is a literary work that presents the Reader Response theory within it. Gatsby defies the American Dream and its corruption in the story. Gatsby initially dreams of this idea, to claw his way out of poverty, usually through illegal ways in order to gain respect, material wealth, and, most importantly, the love of Daisy. He seems to have become successful, but ultimately his efforts are unsuccessful. In the story, there was the division among the men who came from old money, and those that came from new money. Tom Buchanan is a representation of traditional wealth because all the money he has been passed down rather than being earned through his hard work. This is a traditional view seen throughout history, in which men dominate various aspects of life. Tom is portrayed in a cruel manner suggesting that the author is rejecting traditional themes, including wealth and male domination. Gatsby lost who he was to try to become someone that he wasn’t. He did this to fit into the perspective that society had laid out for him in order to be able to be with Daisy. In the process of trying to become a false version of himself, he still lost what he wanted. Daisy was the American Dream for him which he was never able to achieve because of the tradition that forbids him from being his true self. Another story that lies within the Reader Response theory is “Young Goodman Brown”. When talking with the man leading him into the forest, Young Goodman Brown is forced to reanalyze the traditional moral values that had been the central influence throughout his life. Many of the people that he used to justify his morality and Christian faith were unveiled to have secretly betrayed the morality they advocated. Hawthorne presents this truth when it is stated, “I have been well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans…I helped your grandfather…and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war” (79). The story of Young Goodman Brown how complex good and evil is, as well as the doubts that interlace with traditional standards of morality. Young Goodman Brown is presented as a character that represents traditional devotion, such as being a Christian and a good husband. Without knowing, Goodman’s family had commenced a new tradition of meeting with the devil. This contradicted their whole faith and religion. Young Goodman Brown lost faith in his traditional practicing of religion and being himself. He questioned who he was since he followed certain rules throughout his whole life only to come across the fact that those he most looked up to, broke their faith.

The Deconstruction theory can be represented by “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. ”A Rose for Emily” is concerned in a great way with Southern tradition as the author uses symbols to clarify how the South was unwillingly trying to part from its old traditions. Emily and her home are symbols that represent the past and Southern traditions decaying. Emily is the character most affected by tradition and progress. She is the biggest victim by her society’s cultural paralysis. She retains her titled manner even after descending into poverty. Emily denies her father’s death, as though incapable of psychologically surviving the financial and social change his death entails for her. Faulkner shows this when it is stated that, “The day after his death all the ladies prepared to all at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom. Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (626). Just as a future of spinsterhood seems imminent, Miss Emily almost miraculously adapts to the times by becoming romantically involved with Homer, a man not only from a lower social class than she but a Northerner. Financial necessity no doubt influences her change in standard and manner, but also a genuine human need for companionship. It is her society’s inability to commit wholly to progress, to adaptation, that in part compels the already mentally unstable Miss Emily to create with poison and dusty secrecy a private world safely frozen in the past, unchanging. “To Kill a Mockingbird” follows as well the Deconstruction theory. “To Kill A Mockingbird” allows its readers to question and consider the Southern beliefs. Maycomb represents a typical old southern town. Few people move into Maycomb and few people who live there journey beyond its boundaries. As a result, the opinions held by many of the citizens of Maycomb are left to grow and foster in the same families for many generations. The circumstances in Maycomb are less than ideal for generating change and more prone to sustaining traditionally accepted codes. Two codes embedded within southern social beliefs are class and race. Southern prejudice is shown in the story when Tom Robinson, a black man is accused of raping a white woman. In the story, the town believes he is guilty but they are biased because of his skin color. Atticus is a fairly prominent lawyer who ends up defending Tom Robinson. Despite all his efforts, the all-white jury convicts him of the crime. The town is racist and can’t get past their racism to see the obvious. Everyone automatically believes the woman who accused Tom of rape because she is white and they convict him although there was proof that he was innocent. The story contradicts accepted truths because the phrase “All men are created equal” is disproven when the white people believed that the African American were all inferior with low morals. It demonstrated racial discrimination and how the Southern tradition was to view this race so poorly despite the evidence in front of them that their race was worse, the only difference they saw was the skin color. In both stories, Southern traditions are challenged to be seen by the reader as causing a change in the characters because society has caused this tradition to continue regardless of how wrong it is.

A representation of the Ethical theory is Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. Human society is based on traditions and relationships, which are oftentimes irrational and destructive. In their stories, Shirley Jackson and Kate Chopin focus on darker aspects of human nature, which reveal in the process of social communication. “Story of an Hour” deals with limitations that marriage imposes on a woman, which leads to her total annihilation as a personality. The characters of the two stories share the same idea irrationality and limitations of freedom but the authors raise different themes and choose different settings. Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” focuses on one hour in the life of Mrs. Mallard who suddenly receives notification about her husband’s death in a train accident. To much of her shock, she realizes that she is not that unhappy about being a widow, on the contrary, she feels relieved. Her marriage was oppressing for years, so she feels like in prison in the house of her loving husband. Despite her mixed feelings and guilt, she cannot help feeling progressively glad and happy when thinking about what she can do with her freedom. She is not going to be confined to the household and her role as a wife; the whole world will be at her disposal. She has about an hour to indulge in her dreams but then her happiness is suddenly broken when her husband comes back, safe, and sound. Since Mrs. Mallard has heart disease, she cannot cope with her emotions and dies, so everyone believes that this is caused by sudden news. In the same way, “Lottery” ends up with a tragedy, when Tess Hutchinson dies stoned by the townspeople. Yet, the reasons that lead to the characters’ death are different and so are the themes raised by the authors. While Kate Chopin focuses on the institution of marriage and gender roles, Shirley Jackson has a broader social context, which includes family, tradition, generations, the social, and the primitive as part of human nature. “The Story of an Hour” explores the life of an individual heroine, while “Lottery” is a story about the rules of social groups’ functioning at all levels. Its plot describes a peculiar lottery, which takes place in a small village of three hundred people, which ends with a ritual stoning of the lottery’s “winner”, which is a totally random person. The ritual is used by the local citizens to pick a sacrificial victim as a means of ensuring a successful harvest. Although the tradition is absolutely outrageous, people continue to follow it every year for possible reasons of being afraid to lose the tradition that their ancestors have struggled to keep for so long Moreover, neighboring towns do the same, which turns the case from an individual to the social one. Apparently, Mrs. Mallard’s marriage is not an individual example too because it signifies the role of women in a marriage and their desperate situation. Yet, it still focuses on one side of the conflict, while “Lottery” deals with the whole network of relationships and bonds.

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