Themes in Literature

Literary Freedom


Close observers can see that, rather than standing still, the Statue of Liberty steps forward over broken shackles, representing how freedom progresses, its very definition changing over time. In the medieval worldview, freedom meant acting according to reason, and it focused on the discussion of free will. However, the modern definition of freedom primarily focuses on political and civil freedoms, having little to do with reason. This differentiation between medieval and modern conceptions of freedom follows the English philosopher John Locke’s 17thcentury divide between liberty and license. In his Second Treatise of Government (1690), Locke writes, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent .╯.╯. there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another” (4). Liberty, then, may be defined as actions that conform to reason, whereas license allows for acts of passion, which may subordinate or harm others or the self.

The assumptions Locke makes concerning why humans should conform to reason adhere to the medieval notion of the universe—namely, that it has a Creator who endowed humans with reason. Locke writes that all humans are “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker.” (4) Created by an omniscient, omnipotent being, humans struggle to understand how they also may maintain freedom. The tension between free will and predestination dominates the concerns of medieval writers from Saint Augustine to John Milton. In the middle of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Dante the Pilgrim discusses the relationship between the freedom of human beings and the plans of the omnipotent creator.

His dialoguing partner, Marco the Lombard, says that while “the heavens set your appetites in motion .╯.╯.╯, on greater power and a better nature you, who are free, depend; that Force engenders the mind in you, outside the heaven’s sway” (2.16.73, 79–81). In other words, God creates humans and provides them with reason, but he does not control them. As the “joyful Maker,” God gives the human soul motion, so “it turns willingly to things that bring delight” (2.16.89, 90). The will turns naturally to good objects. While the will should know the good objects by reason, the human souls, catering to their physical over their spiritual nature, often falter and choose earthly over heavenly goods. Thus, Dante the Pilgrim, representing “everyman,” has used his freedom for earthly delights and must learn instead to align his will with God’s. Describing the beginning of humanity’s fall from God’s will, John Milton writes about the first human beings in Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve, whom God labels as “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (3.99), succumb to Satan’s temptation to eat of the tree of knowledge.

Before Eve commits the sin, Adam reminds her that “God left free the will, for what obeys Reason is free, and reason he made right” (9.350–351), echoing Milton’s notion that freedom depends on reason. Despite Adam’s warning, Eve subordinates her reason to her desire; Adam then follows. In this act, they both lose their freedom. In his essay “Freedom and Necessity in Paradise Lost,” J. B. Savage writes that Adam “by becoming absorbed in the things of the world, he becomes governed and determined by them .╯.╯.╯; by neglecting the motive of moral obligation, by which alone he is free, he must unavoidably surrender his freedom” (305). The example of Adam can be illustrated in an analogy: If a man freely walks off a cliff, he gives up his freedom and surrenders to the law of gravity. In the same way that physical actions must comply with the scientific laws of reality, so must moral actions observe the laws of reason. This definition of freedom reiterates the Lockean idea of liberty, while the actions of Satan and the first human beings illustrate license.

Though Satan argues that it is “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” (1.263), he does not realize that since God’s will dictates the laws of the universe, only slavery and determinism are possible when acting against God’s will. Locke refers to these laws as natural laws engrained in every human person, laws that respond to reason and protect the equal and independent nature of human beings. His Second Treatise is written to the government, so his main objective is to convince civil authorities of these innate human freedoms. While this definition of freedom is invoked in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it took almost two centuries to be properly enacted for all races, classes, and genders. African-American and feminist literature responds to this earlier oppression of the liberties of human beings, recognizing the need for what the 20th-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin categorizes as the two types of freedom—negative and positive freedom. While negative freedom is a freedom from oppression, coercion, or tyranny, positive freedom is a freedom for opportunity, ability, or privilege. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the author tells his own story of his search for freedom from slavery and for education.

Slavery is, first, an impingement on Frederick Douglass’s personal freedom and, second, a restriction on the positive freedom for education. Since freedom must correspond with reason, those restricted from education have greater susceptibility to slavery. As the English philosopher Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” Thus, the contrary also proves true: Ignorance is slavery. The two work with each other and against Douglass: His slavery keeps him from learning, and his ignorance keeps him a slave. When his mistress, Mrs. Auld, attempts to teach him to read, Mr. Auld forbids it, saying, “↜‘Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of [Douglass]) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave’↜” (Douglass 41). Mr. Auld realizes that learning frees human beings. Overhearing this dialogue, Douglass, too, understands that knowledge is the “path from slavery to freedom” (41). Thus, through education, he overcomes the subordination he has suffered. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, her protagonist. Mrs. Edna Pontellier, overcomes her subordination as a woman through education as well, though of a different kind, education of experience. Similar to Douglass’s transformation, Edna begins by desiring negative freedom—freedom from the dominance of her husband. In a moment of selfawareness, she perceives “that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant” when her husband Léonce demanded that she come to bed. She wonders whether “her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had .╯.╯. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she did then” (37).

Edna then begins to seek positive freedom for individual autonomy—to use her time as she desires, painting, swimming, and taking a lover. However, these choices do not accord with reason but with desire, and thus they are not free. By the end of the novel, Edna has lost the respect of society, left her husband and her children, and has been abandoned by her lover. Realizing her solitude, she commits suicide, though this ending remains ambiguous as to its triumph. The modern interpretation of freedom, which could be categorized as license, exalts actions such as Edna’s. In the 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declares that modern society has murdered God. Without a conception of God, all freedom is dictated by the autonomous individual. As the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “Man is freedom.” Each person must determine his or her own freedom by acting as he or she chooses, apart from the constrictions of family, religion, time, or even reason. In his article “Existentialism and Human Freedom,” John Killinger writes, “Man’s nature is not ‘fixed’ as a stone’s or a tree’s is; he is a creature with the ability to choose, and decides what he shall become” (304). Humans have no created essence, but they must create their existence by free actions. Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly foresaw the problem with this philosophy, namely that every action then becomes permissible. In Dostoyevsky’s masterful novel Crime and Punishment, the main character Raskolnikov believes that extraordinary human beings may act not only above the laws of morality or reason, but also above civil laws. His examples of extraordinary human beings include Isaac Newton and Napoleon Bonaparte—men who felt free to remove any persons who obstructed their noble purposes. Considering himself such an extraordinary person, Raskolnikov murders the local pawnshop owner because she belongs to the lower, ordinary kind of people. To comfort himself against the encroaching guilt that follows this act, he exclaims, “it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!” (274). The woman is no more than an object to him.

This subordination and harm imposed on others is exactly what Locke thinks stems from not subjecting freedom to reason, what African Americans and women overcame in the 20th century, and what still must be fought against in contemporary societies around the world.

See also Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood; Chestnutt, Charles W.: “Goophered Grapevine, The”; Equiano, Olaudah: Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary; Gilman, Charlotte Perkins: Yellow Wallpaper, The; Hughes, Langston: poems; James, Henry: Daisy Miller; Portrait of a Lady, The; Kafka, Franz: Metamorphosis, The; Kerouac, Jack: On theRoad; London, Jack: Call of the Wild, The; Morrison, Toni: Beloved; Mukherjee, Bharati: Middleman and Other Stories, The; Paine, Thomas: “Common Sense”; Steinbeck, John: Of Mice and Men.

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