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Exploring the Themes of Identity and Alienation in Modern Literature

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1. Introduction to Identity and Alienation in Literature

That people use “I” and “me” to indeed that their ‘selves’ may be objects of interest or concern is obvious. What is far from obvious is how they come to construe and experience themselves as inviolable points of reference, and how situations emerge which cast doubt upon the very existences which people unequivocally presuppose. These problematic issues have been central to the thinking of Western philosophy for quite some time. They have also been central to poets, dramatists, and novelists who, in their own special ways, examine the basic question, “Who am I?” Not only do people ask themselves who and what they are, but they often experience doubts. These doubts may be fleeting, trivial, and restricted to the private realm. Or they can be profound personal and social concerns which, at particular times and in particular societies, assume monumental importance.

Alienation and identity are defining themes in many of the creative works produced by writers of the modern era. The poets, novelists, and playwrights who have been discussed in the preceding chapters represent several different cultures and wrote in more than one of the various languages of modern literature. Their work is remarkably diverse in many respects – form, style, and subject matter. However, these disparate writers are alike in their have cast their penetrating gaze at the compelling theme of self. They write of an identity problem which agonizes both their characters and their societies at large, and which engages many of their readers. Although these authors do not view this theme in any way which can be reduced to an easily simple statement, given the complexity of the question, a brief introduction follows.

2. The Evolution of Identity and Alienation in Modern Literature

Man’s newly created lack of faith and his deep sense of loss are the hallmark of contemporary literature. Contemporary man attacks God for his absence, as he does life for its fickleness and the general inadequacy of this world and of personality. Together, attacks both argue his values and means of compensation: denying the world’s futility, affirming its value in the absence of faith, through the affirmation and rejection, through destruction, thus testifying act, which is not an authentic theft but is rather to deny some values, namely those values that stand, of an acute consciousness of the Deity’s absence both God and individual his reason for living. The first set of values has widely characterized literary criticism of the period. More recent trends, in contrast, expose the deterioration which total faith-handling and the unlimited freedom of the individual, have undergone, and the resulting disillusionment and fear. In our creative literature, the two trends of man’s attack on the Diat and his new emphasis on the condemned individual who searches for value have merged.

It is important to recognize, for example, the superior position that contemporary society affords to the personality, to the “ego” (the term used by Capote), as opposed to a certain cruelty and indifference to oneself and others apparent in the writings of the first half of the 20th century. Mention must also be made of the phenomenon of “alienation,” which modern man acutely experiences and expresses, and which forms the raison d’etre of most of the literature that we shall be discussing from the forties, fifties, and sixties. Literature of the first part of the century has also, of course, been around alienation. But mankind of that earlier time questioned the universe with the security of faith, while the modern alienated man questions his surroundings, his universe, and himself, and doubts everything, including himself, for lack of faith, the trauma great or small of living in a century tormented by war and holocaust, by “deathtime” as Malamud calls it.

3. Key Literary Works and Authors Addressing Identity and Alienation

F. Scott Fitzgerald belongs to the same group of writers, the Lost Generation. He dealt with the issues of his time and expressed the feelings of many who had been hurt by the disillusioning First World War. The issues of identity, love, alienation, and the lack of values are some of the dominant themes in many of his novels. Whenever possible, he tried to address what was happening in the real world and relate it to the problems of his characters. His last novel, Tender Is The Night, describes the age of lost illusions with exceptional mastery. John Steinbeck was another representative writer of the Lost Generation. His famous novels are addressed to the alienated people who were betrayed by the American reality following the terrible crisis of 1929. Steinbeck gained a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, a novel which describes the hard destiny of simple people, the Joads, who left their farm because of being affected by the lack of values. Therefore, it is tempting to suggest that Steinbeck’s rotative reward was an expected prize for those other Americans who were not defeated by the crisis due to the lack of ethics and social commitment.

Considering the nature of the topic, it is logical to find references to it in most of the contemporary novels, but there are some novels and authors who stand out as they directly address it. The writers of the Lost Generation, the writers who were alienated between World Wars I and II, belong to a special group of authors who deal with the issue of identity and alienation. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and many others expressed their dilemmas by creating heroes with the same problems as themselves. Hemingway is probably the most representative Lost Generation writer who analyzed the problems of his contemporaries. Hemingway left his position as a newspaper journalist in Kansas City to take up the pen. He wrote about America in the throes of prohibition and began to establish his reputation as the author capable of dealing with his generation’s loss of faith in conventional values. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature and became an enduring standard in modern fiction. His writing style is characterized by the economy of words, the frequent use of oxymorons, and the prevalence of dialogue over straight narrative.

4. Psychological and Societal Implications of Identity and Alienation in Literature

Identity and alienation are important themes in literature. They both bring about a number of psychological and societal implications. Identity concepts give rise to the development of particularly human values. The self-reflection concept has formed a basis in which the entire scientific structure begins to develop. During our social lives, we encounter people who seem happy, though, who are very unhappy inside. By uncovering somebody’s internal values, which are formed by the people and especially by life, we come to understand how successful and happy this person is. However, knowing ourselves is not as random and as easy as knowing others. At certain society circles, some personal and professional reflections along with the images determine people. It is also thought that while attitude and action results are being evaluated, there is an external structure which prevents knowledge, perception and understanding in reaching the moment and enables the creation of the external structure. In dealing with the subject of “man,” the psychological aspects are not ignored. In connection with the society he/she lives, the environments he/she is in, the life and the psychological condition of an individual only could be understood.

This paper was presented at a conference on “Exploring the Themes of Identity and Alienation in Modern Literature,” University of Ankara, Tömer Institute, organized by the British Council, April 1958.

5. Conclusion: The Relevance of Identity and Alienation in Contemporary Society

Modern writers, by their multifaceted interpretation of issues concerning the individual, have played a significant role in the development of this trend. While the era has seen much literature concentrating on the quest for identity, at the same time the kind of literature that gives the reader an opportunity to think about his self has become a rarity. Concern about the singularity of the self is expressed more in Indian writing in English, as well as in Hindi. It is ironic, and is in sharp contrast to the gloom and dissatisfaction of characters, that our literature is making a genuine contribution to the preservation of psychic identity under threat from the uncontrolled force of emerging of social identity, and the dispositions created by consumer culture.

The issue of identity and its development is the subject of much contemporary deliberation. This primarily owes to the new importance that the post-modern premise places on the search for one’s own identity. Unlike the modern man, who did not hesitate in declaring his identity on the basis of the norms laid down by society, the youth of today selects from the range of issues presented in today’s dynamic world. Today, social identity is not necessarily the first or only rank choice. Thus, the question of social identity is still important, but it has been replaced by the question of psychic identity. Any individual is now required to put to his or her own criteria of choice, to direct his or her own life project, to make his or her character more original. The individual seeks to realize his psychic identity through his body and sexuality, though the reference to this dries up more quickly. Social roles give way to day-to-day relationships, pleasure, consumption and to work that “suits” him or her.

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