Element of Literature Theme or Conflict Essay

Pages: 7 (2503 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Sophomore  ·  Topic: Literature

¶ … Conflict

The Theme of Freedom in Three Works

What is freedom and how does it arrive? This challenging question has been answered in various ways through literature as well as philosophy. It remains a stable concern for every new generation of thinkers and for each new situation tackled in literary works. Narratives and poems have suggested alternative arrangements of this theme and have drawn attention to different conflicts involved in its resolution. Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" views freedom as liberation for self-assertion against social bondage that comes through chance outside circumstances. Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" positions freedom as an internal choice one makes every moment that is based on rising fateful encounters. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" takes the slant that freedom emerges in a guided working through of one's prejudices. Each of these works has something important to say by the way it configures speech around the topic of free choice. Through a comparison of these works, this essay intends to analyze how these thematic variations on this dilemma have been posed and solved differently.

Chopin (2003) begins "The Story of an Hour" by pointing out two crucial pieces of information about the main character, Mrs. Mallard: her "heart trouble" and her husband's recent death, of which she has yet to receive news (p. 171). The tension is clear. A report about a fatal accident involving a spouse, no matter how tenderly it is conveyed, could easily stir an excessive and dangerous rhythm in heartbeat. From the first lines, the story forces the reader to wonder what the woman's response will be given her unstable condition.

Her response to hearing of Mr. Mallard's death in a railroad disaster is unexpected because not normative. The narrator says, "She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance" (p. 171). Instead the news elicits a space of brief, wild grieving without pause (p. 171). Her tears have no trouble coming immediately. There is no period of adjustment to the unexpected. This is important for the narrative since it moves the action along rapidly. There is no delay between the news, the expressed grief, and the solitary retreat to an upstairs room for reflection. However, it is a strange enough response to make the reader consider what the relationship between husband and wife is to make her react so quickly. It is almost as though she was waiting for such news.

In the room where she has secluded herself, Mrs. Mallard undergoes a change. The isolation and quiet give her space to absorb almost unconsciously the consequences of her husband's sudden disappearance from her life. Natural and urban sensations sink into her as she sits motionless on the chair, gazing out the window (p. 171). The text characterizes her as repressed (p. 172). This harkens back to her marriage. Perhaps the social pressures of marriage had been too much for her with their worries. Perhaps her husband has contributed to why her heart is weak, although she herself has strength in her eyes. Later the text says that she loved him only sometimes, although she would cry at his funeral (p. 172). At the same time, she is empty, feeling that something "subtle and elusive" is about to reveal itself to her (p. 172). In this waiting, she experiences the emotion of fear. What could be fearful? In openness, one might expect to feel joy, not fear, unless one is unaccustomed to the experience of freedom and openness. Now since the restraint of marriage has vanished, what she faces is something terrifying. Mrs. Mallard battles willfully this "thing that was approaching to possess her." The reader is caught in the grip of the story's crux. What is this conflict she feels?

It is freedom. She whispers: "free, free, free!" (p. 172). Now the reader's suspicions about the stress of marriage are confirmed. Marriage imprisoned her in a social role that lacked freedom. Her husband's death is a terrifying release since she must no longer know how to act. She faces an open void of possibility where all the normal routines and expectations are erased. Quickly her feeling changes away from fear: "The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes" (p. 172). Mrs. Mallard falls into warm relaxation as she realizes and welcomes what has opened before her. It says, "But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely" (p. 172). This contrasts with the closure of her past experience. In her marriage, she had lived for others. She had sacrificed herself to the will and desire of others. But now, this death has freed her to "live for herself" (p. 172). This is the transformation she had shuddered about and hoped for secretly. She thinks, "What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!" (p. 172). She begins excitedly looking ahead at a long life of freedom for herself. "There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory" (p. 173).

Yet how short-lived is her new attitude! The information had been hasty and false. Mr. Mallard shows up at the door. In shock which the medics misinterpret as "joy that kills," she keels over. This reversal at the end -- that he's alive! -- undoes the resolution of conflict that Mrs. Mallard had won in her quiet room. Ironically, it is his appearance, the "news" about his survival rather than about his death, that contributes to her fatal cardiac arrest.

In terms of the theme of self-determination, Chopin's story shows that Mrs. Mallard's choice is made for her. She did not create the accident that (allegedly) killed her husband. Nor had she asserted her free will prior to the event through something such as divorce. Rather, her self-assertion comes afterwards, set up by external happenings that are beyond her control. External forces mediate her transformation into freedom. This is one way the theme of the conflict between freedom to pursue one's own will and determination is organized in a narrative.

Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" (1969) takes a different tack on the theme of self-determination and its conflict with bondage. The dilemma is set up differently. It is phrased in terms of a choice between two possible paths:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth (lines 1-5)

In the first place, a dualism presents itself in these lines. There are only two roads at the fork. In Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," one saw two prongs contrasting marriage and constraint with singleness and self-assertion. Here in Frost's poem are two paths as well, but are the paths opposed in the same way? Is one linked with social determinism while the other is linked with personal freedom? The contention here is that this is a different way of stating the problem. Both roads in the poem imply freedom to travel down them. Neither implies constraint. The poem is pointing to the inherent capacity of an individual to select in freedom which road will be walked. The person facing a fork has control over how they will respond. As in Chopin's story, the possibility of choice is determined externally. The traveler did not create the chance split in the road. But in contrast with Chopin, Frost is showing that either path may be equally valuable and contribute to one's self-assertive freedom.

The second stanza reveals the nature of the paths. Both are "fair" (6) and one has "perhaps the better claim" (7) because "it was grassy and wanted wear" (8). Yet strangely the author indicates that the two roads are worn "about the same" (10) and neither had been stepped on that morning (10-12). This is significant because he seems not to have a judgmental attitude toward one way over the other. While he must make a choice of which way to go, he can understand that both ways are attractive. Neither possesses a special quality that makes it irresistible or inherently forbidden. In Chopin, married life prevented the woman from pursuing self-determination, whereas in Frost the person has self-determination regardless of one's path.

So on what does the traveler base his or her choice then, if both ways are equally fair? In the poem's view, little answer is given. Line 13 simply says, "Oh, I kept the first for another day!" He or she could have said the same about the second path, if the first were selected. The point is that a choice is determinative for what follows and second chances are rare, but choice is taken… [END OF PREVIEW]

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