Themes in Literature

Individual and Society

Individual and Society

Human beings have always tried to come together in groups, not only to live in a way that ensures an escape from pangs of solitude but also to attain a collective strength against a common enemy, be it animals, other humans, or the wrath of nature. Even so, the relationship between the individual and society has always been simultaneously rewarding and conflicting. An endless debate exists over whether an individual—the basic unit of the society—should be able to claim greater attention to his personal rights and privileges, or the society—the alliance of individuals strengthened by their mutual consent— should be empowered to overlook one for many. The tension inherent in such a puzzling relationship becomes apparent from the subtle contradiction in defining each. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (8th edition) defines an individual as a “single human being as distinct from a family or group,” whereas a society is the “sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently” (emphases mine), and this “distinctness” of an individual struggles against the societal stipulation for a merging “interdependence.” The brightest minds have long endeavored to solve this conundrum.

Every age has generated theories with clashing conclusions on this subject. The Greek philosopher Plato argued that an individual, not being self-sufficient, cannot live alone. Aristotle more considerately highlighted not just man’s “need of ” but also his “desire for” society. Nevertheless, for both the society was more important than the individual. The Stoics envisaged a brotherhood of mankind; the Epicureans instead openly avowed an individual’s conscious self-interest, which was strikingly individualistic for its time. The Roman statesman Cicero rejected Epicureanism in favor of the Aristotelean view. The Middle Ages, under the banner of Christianity, revived the idea of a universal brotherhood and emphasized the society’s being a “natural product” since it arises out of an individual’s “natural” sociability. Even during the transition from the medieval to early modern times, society was prioritized over the individual. The early modern era promoted the social contract theory. The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, believing the pre-social man to have been antisocial, averred that mutual fear produced society. For John Locke, who dismissed this theory, man merely executed the laws of nature in a pre-political rather than a pre-social situation. To the French philosopher Montesquieu, societal structure depended on a proper balance between such factors as climate, religion and customs. The 18thcentury philosopher David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau blamed property and social classes for creating inequality among individuals in a society. Immanuel Kant and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, opposing the egotism of contemporary German romanticism, discouraged “pure” individuality. After the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the French philosopher Claude-Henri de Rouvroy Saint-Simon thought that the “industrial society” of the 19th century was “healthier” since it created partners, not subjects. Karl Marx, in contrast, famously prophesied the bourgeoisie’s downfall due to modern industry and the consequent rise of a classless society. Utilitarianism advocated “greater good for a greater number.” Yet individual rights had already started gaining priority over those of a group, and the term individualism was also coined. Moreover, with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declaring the death of God, all binding factors that had kept social obligations alive so far seemed to crumble, and individuals were suddenly left with a dangerous kind of freedom encumbered with a responsibility for every decision taken. With the two devastating world wars of the 20th century, no wonder older traditions lost their worth for the trauma-ridden individual. Such despair of “isolation amid crowds” understandably gave rise to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Albert Camus’s sense of the absurd.

All age-old conflicting theories finally seem to endorse a paradox: An individual is both “the creature and the creator of society” (Hawthorn 27). The individual, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim declared in the latter part of the 19th century, is defined by his social relations. By playing his “social role,” he metamorphoses from an individual into a person (persona is a Latin word for the ancient theatrical mask). Since this “person” is a social being, his every act is invariably a social (because human) act. So is his literary venture. He writes in a language which, the 20th-century British sociologist Anthony Giddens would argue, he did not even create. Even in satirizing society, he may distance himself from the society he criticizes, but that again underscores the inseverable link between himself and his society. An individual can never be completely divorced from society. The society allocates roles for each individual and prescribes rules for each role.

The violation of “formal” rules is punished by judiciary and police; that of the “informal” ones by shame and ostracism. Meursault, in Camus’s The Stranger, is condemned when he refuses to conform to the unwritten norm of showing grief at his mother’s death; his society is unwilling to condone a murder committed due to the glare of the sun. For his former offense, he reaps societal suspicion and dislike; for his latter crime, he gets capital punishment. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s punishment for murder is more personal than judicial. The judiciary comes to know of it only when he confesses of his own accord, and that very confession is the outcome of a thorough internalization of his society’s morality. Conditioned by social expectations, Beowulf (Anonymous), as the hero of his people, must show extraordinary courage. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for all her radical thoughts of emancipation, may still be redeemed by her ultimately not flouting the social dictates of feminine tenderness, faithful love, and Christian kindness.

But in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the title character’s violation of norms in the form of an extramarital affair cannot be exonerated by her conservative society. Her husband forgives her, yet she must still die in the end to maintain the societal status quo. A society inevitably dooms an individual to a divided self. Various social positions and phases demand various social roles to be played. To do so, the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued, I (the real self) must give in to Me (the social self)—willingly or otherwise. The uncoordinated instincts of the id (the dark, unconscious part of human psyche), to use Freudian terms, must be reined in by the rationality of the ego (the polished part modified by external influences) and the moralizing function of the superego (the critical conscientious part). A fantastical allegorical representation of this dichotomy of self is seen in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Dr. Jekyll is the “social” face of the named individual and Mr. Hyde is the “real,” untailored part of him that defies social conventions and performs deadly acts contrary to a doctor’s healing duties. The healer by day horrifyingly transforms into the killer by night, symbolizing the hideous image of an individual when uncontrolled by society’s leashes. “Without a social environment no self can arise” (Aubert 58) because self-analysis is possible only by considering others’ perception of it. Hence, extended isolation may “threaten to disturb or destroy the perceptions of the self ” (58). Though Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is portrayed as the sole shipwreck survivor, rebuilding his world on a remote island with the morals and customs of his civilization indelibly etched in his nature, William Golding takes a more skeptical approach. His Lord of the Flies instead subverts Defoe’s world to illustrate how something goes very wrong with human “culture” when segregated from the civilizing influences of society by showing a swift degradation of morals in a band of boys left stranded on a deserted island. Not just total isolation but confrontation with other cultures may also challenge the stability of one’s own cultural values. In the absence of the restraining measures of his compatriots, Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “goes native.” Chinua Achebe, on the other hand, depicts the doomed struggle of an individual, Okonkwo, to hold together his dilapidating traditional society against the superior power of the white man in Things Fall Apart.

Nonetheless, society is not an unmixed blessing. Pip, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, loses his essential innocence and goodness in the urge to rise in an ambitious and mercenary society; while A Tale of Two Cities shows a Sidney Carton distraught with disappointments, although his innate capacity to love cannot be killed even amid the bloodthirsty fury of Paris in the grip of the French Revolution. George Eliot’s Silas Marner suffers wrongly in the hands of his fellow beings and becomes an embittered recluse but is later rescued from the unenviable fate of a misanthrope by the love of a castaway child. That man cannot live alone is depicted, consciously or unconsciously, even in texts where this theme is least expected. It is an utter lack of communication with his family and society who have forsaken him, terrified at his vermin form, that eventually kills Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Estragon and Vladimir, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, decide not to even playfully attempt suicide to pass their time because if one dies accidentally, the other will be left alone. So, even amid existentialist angst and in an absurdist limbo, an individual’s minimal necessity for company cannot be disregarded. A society is a “natural” product, and an individual, in turn, is a “social” one.

See also Anderson, Sherwood: Winesburg, Ohio; Bradbury, Ray: Fahrenheit 451; Bunyan, John: Pilgrim’s Progress, The; Byron, George Gordon Byron, Lord: Don Juan; Dickens, Charles: Christmas Carol, A; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “American Scholar, The”; “Self-Reliance”; Faulkner, William: Light in August; Gay, John: Begg ar’s Opera, The; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: Scarlet Letter, The; “Young Goodman Brown”; Hesse, Herman: Siddhartha; Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World; Irving, Washington: Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, The; Jackson, Shirley: “Lottery, The”; Kerouac, Jack: On the Road; Kipling, Rudyard: Kim; Kozinski, Jerzy: Painted Bird, The; Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street; Melville, Herman: Bill y Budd, Sailor; Molière: Misanthrope, The; Naipaul, V. S.: House for Mr. Biswas, A; Orwell, George: Nineteen Eighty-Four; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Murders in the Rue Morgue, The”; Rand, Ayn: Anthem; Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet; Taming of the Shrew, The; Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Sophocles: Antigone; Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver’s Travels; Thoreau, Henry David: “Resistance to Civil Government”; Walden; Vonnegut, Kurt: Cat’s Cradle; Wharton, Edith: Ethan Frome; House of Mirth; Winterson, Jeanette: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

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