October 2, 2013
Society: How It Makes and Breaks Us
Both Thomas Lynch's "Liberty" and John Ciardi's " Suburban" focus on how the norms and expectations of society leave us as individuals feeling unsatisfied while Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" more focus on someone who is in acting in a socially unacceptable way but still finding happiness. Another theme delved into in these works is how each character finds freedom and a sense of content within these strict confines of society. In "Liberty" by Thomas Lynch the speaker takes to urinating outside to express his "freedom" and his clear distaste for the formal expectations he is supposed to follow in his community. John Ciardi's "Suburban" addresses a similar environment to the one described in Lynch's poem but one where the speaker directly shows his annoyance towards the people around him, particularly his holier-than-thou neighbor. Lastly, Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is set in an environment where the speaker despises the other character in the poem and has no problem putting these feelings to action in a very gruesome and shocking way.
The poem "Liberty" is narrated by a speaker who essentially has no respect for the rules set up by society. When he urinates on his front lawn in a crowded suburb he seems to be literally "urinating" on the norms in his life that he feels are holding him back. However, the majority of the poem we do not hear much about the area he lives but rather about the area his ancestors once lived in. In lines 16-17 the speaker states " Still, there is nothing, here in the suburbs, as dense as the darkness in West Clare" (Lynch, 538). It seems that the speaker yearns for the simplicity and more natural environment of Ireland, where his family members originally came from. Living in the suburbs leaves little room for one to have privacy, in fact it essentially pushes people together often to a point where they have to be somewhat in each others business even if they do not want to be. It makes sense that if the speaker is so in-touch with his family and background he would be disappointed he is living in such an dull environment. This poem alludes that more people than just the speaker feel this same type of dislike to the norms they are subjected to, as seen when the speaker says " For years now men have slipped out the back door during wakes or wedding feasts or nights of song to pay their homage to the holy trees" (Lynch, 538)
John Ciardi's "Suburban" has many similarities to "Liberty" in its criticism of the typical white picket fence suburban community that most people usually see as being a sort of epitome of the American Dream. The difference in Ciardi's poem is that the speaker uses clear humor and sarcasm to deal with his distaste with his environment, unlike the speaker in Lynch's poem who displays his opinion in a more blunt way. This poem is directly about Ciardi's own life and experience with a very passive-aggressive neighbor. When she finds dog excrement on her prized petunias not only does she jump to the immediate conclusion that it was his dog even when his dog is not home, she then cannot seem to to lower herself to clean it. We can see this attitude when his neighbor, Mrs. Friar says "I always have loved dogs-but really!" and continues later in the poem saying "Not really-But really!" when asked if the incident had upset her (Ciardi 511-512). As I read this poem I found myself getting annoyed with Mrs. Friar and could relate her back to a few people I have met or dealt with in my own area. In handling this situation with humor and a light heart Ciardi is effectively keeping up appearances, something I am sure he does not want to do but is something that will be helpful in the future. Ciardi is telling the story of someone who has become so used to the stereotypes and routines of a typical suburban life that they have to use humor to get by and feel some type of freedom.
Poe's short story also focuses on social norms though he was more concerned with behavior than with environment. The story centers around a speaker who is extremely disgruntled with a snide insult an acquaintance has said to him. The main character says " I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face" a quote I found particularly important considering that type of behavior though frowned upon in society, does happen often (Poe, 1062). However, as the sentence continues and the speaker talks about Fortunato's "immolation" we can tell that he is going far beyond a normal behavior and does not care about the possible ramifications of his actions (Poe, 1062). The speaker in this story believes if he does not defend himself and seek revenge he is letting Fortunato win, which tells the reader that he has a very big ego that ultimately gets the best of him. He ends up killing Fortunato by bricking him in to the walls of a catacomb and leaving him there to die, a very brutal and very unnecessary action considering the small scale of Fortunato's crime. Despite how disturbing this action is, it brings him great happiness and essentially lifts a weight off his shoulders so he feels he can go on with his life . This story was a extreme example of how people that store certain values too close or with too high of an esteem can end up letting these values control their life.
Last week I attended the Commitment to Social Justice lecture by Father Brian Linnane. The lecture was extremely stimulating and addressed the role of the humanities in education and the demand for Jesuits and people in the Jesuit community to support and immerse themselves in social justice. Father Linnane made various comments about general society and how we should act as people, especially people in a Jesuit community. He quoted Cicero in saying "We are not born for us alone" and continued to emphasis that we should be women and men others. This connects especially well with Ciardi's work, where he puts the benefits of everyone in mind before what he wants and keeps the neighborhood at a good balance. He also explored more into our society and posed the question of what does it say about a particular society if people act in a sinful way. This can be related to Poe's story where the main character is a very disturbed man blinded by his need to preserve his own image and lets this go so far that it controls him and he ends up hurting someone else. It makes you wonder what people around him believe in terms of confrontation and how he was taught to act when he felt disrespected or if he lives in an environment where violence is acceptable and the norm.
Father Linnane's lecture along with the three other works highlight the important role society has on us as people. All three works showed how society and the environment around us can end up controlling our actions and even defining our personalities. Most importantly, the works and the lecture can teach us that our environment can be detrimental if we let it get the best of us.