Categories: Themes in Literature

Literary Themes Community

Community

Community is an oft-invoked, seemingly simple term that has widely varying historical and current meanings dependent on sociocultural and discipline-specific contexts. As such, its meanings differ between everyday discourse and the specialized terrain of scientific, technological, and sociological discourse. Today, the fundamental notions of community are undergoing a sea change because of the emergence of new communication technologies, access to the Internet, and the formation of different kinds of Web-based communities that have paradoxically both expanded as well as made more intimate the connections between people.

Blogospheres, chat rooms, Web sites such as YouTube and MySpace, and other such new avenues of expression in cyberspace have democratized and made the world more intimate in ways never imagined before. Local communities have been revived even as cyber-technology has been accused of destroying traditional bonds of community life. In its most commonly understood sense, community implies networks of solidarity and connection that attest to a primary instinctual need of humans beings as social animals. Community is thus an important source of meaning and validation in human lives and is predicated on a set of commonly held beliefs, values, interests, knowledge and information, and interpretive frameworks deemed as good by those who belong to the community. A sense of belonging to a collective is an integral aspect of community, and this sense of belonging may be located in a series of things, whether it be a common cultural heritage, religion, language, rituals, race, ethnicity, nation, or geographical territory. Indeed, a nation is merely a larger political form of community.

In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Stephen Dedalus inscribes his name in his geography book followed by a series of addresses that locate him in a chain of increasingly wider personal and community networks: “Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, the World, the Universe” (24). Here the widening circle of belonging extending from his class, college, county, country, and continent to the very universe itself traces Stephen’s expanding notion of self entrenched in a chain of being that ties the individual to the community. In 1887, German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, in his book Community and Civil Society, developed the distinction between community—which he said is informal and ethically oriented, with mutual bonds of a traditional communal life—and civil society, which is impersonal, formal, and relatively more amoral, with merely administrative ties. The chief distinction in Tonnies’s view is that while the onus of pursuing the community’s goals of common well-being is on its members, in a civil society, the group itself becomes instrumental for its members’ individual goals and aims.

Community may be exemplified by a family or neighborhood, while a modern state or industrial corporation arising out of an urban capitalist setting is an example of society. The former is romanticized as embodying more enduring, personal relationships while in the latter relationships are more impersonal, superficial, and motivated by professional and monetary connections. Tonnies’s theorization between the organic mutually sustaining holistic natures of a community as opposed to the individual-centered society has become central to debates on the sociological, moral, and political implications of community. The chief distinction between the two modes of organization or belonging can be seen as that between holistic communitarianism versus individual liberalism, and this has implications for citizenship, political participation, and notions of common good. However, communities, although they imply a largely positive social network based on collaborative ties and shared goals, can also be oppressive forces if they assume an identity that is oriented on exclusionary or supremacist principles in the guise of universal or community values. Nazi Germany under Hitler’s rule, guided by principles of Aryan supremacy, or Fascist Italy under Mussolini are examples of pathological community formations that pervert the generally benign and organic roots of community.

The relation between individual and community has to be one that is oriented toward the common good but still gives the individual space to exercise his or her own free will. The conflict between individual and the community is a common theme in literature and focuses on opposing forces, society, history, and the community at odds with individual subjectivity, desire, and will. In classical Greek drama, the community appears in the guise of the chorus of townspeople articulating the voice of common sense and reason. Whether it is the group of elders in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King who preach temperance and moderation to the hotheaded and arrogant Oedipus or the chorus of women in Euripides’ Medea who call upon her maternal instincts to subdue her desire for revenge against Jason, they both advocate the central principle of the golden mean which was such a cornerstone of Greek civilization. Literary theorists such as Northrop Frye have argued that tragedy as a form usually ends with the expulsion or death of the overweening tragic protagonist who threatens social norms and community well-being through his larger-than-life desires or hubris, while comedies end with community values being restored through communal celebrations, such as a wedding where the hero and heroine are finally united after a series of obstacles.

These community values are affirmed in such works as William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing. Twentieth-century literature has been marked by a critique of a postindustrial society that values efficiency and productivity over the more personal communal bonds. The themes of alienation and isolation amid the impersonality of the modern metropolis are recurrent in modernist literature and especially resonant in the poetry of T. S. Eliot in the figure of a much-misunderstood Alfred J. Prufrock, who yearns to communicate his spiritual insights but is spurned by the superficiality of society ladies who talk of Michelangelo (see “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The”). Similarly, W. H. Auden, in his poem “The Unknown Citizen,” bemoans the impersonal efficiency of the modern welfare state that is technologically advanced and has statistics on all its citizens but does not really know whether its individuals are free or happy. The poem implies that for the modern state, even the question of freedom and happiness would be a quantifiable category, if it had thought of these as important variables on which statistics should be kept. While modernist literature’s innovations in narrative techniques, such as stream of consciousness, testify to the influence of Sigmund Freud and William James in shedding new light on human psychology and consciousness and hence the intense focus on subjectivity, they also function as a testament to the decline of a shared communal framework of values that underlines the decline of community. One could argue that the prevalence of the third-person narrative in the 18th- and 19thcentury novel that features an all-knowing, often judgmental narrator, who takes the reader by the hand and guides him or her through the world of the novel, underscores the existence of community with its assumption of shared moral values.

As the world has become more fragmented, the narrative voice has also become more partial, personal, and prone to error. For instance, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a miserly misanthrope to one who shares in the spirit of Christmas cheer and sharing is an assertion of the power of community over the individual. In more contemporary times, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” traces the transformation of an insecure man, jealous of his wife’s blind friend who has come to visit them, from an alienated, somewhat misanthropic character to one who has an epiphany about the importance of human contact and shared community values shown in the building of ancient cathedrals. While overweening individualism threatening the stable social order and community well-being is a common theme, the obverse is equally true as well. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian community of Gilead, a totalitarian pseudo-Christian theocracy that subjugates women in the service of the state, is clearly an example of a community that can only exist by annihilating individual free will and agency, especially that of women. Community is thus a complex concept possessing varying ethical, political, social, psychological, and epistemological dimensions, which finds recurrent expression as a literary theme.

See also Anonymous: Beowulf; Austen, Jane: Emm a; Baldwin, James: Go Tell It on the Mountain; Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks; Bradford, William: Of Plymouth Plantation; Coetzee, J. M.: Waiting for the Barbarians; Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness; Crane, Stephen: Open Boat, The; Forster, E. M.: Passage to India, A; Gaines, Ernest J.: Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The, and Lesson Before Dying, A; García Márquez, Gabriel: One Hundred Years of Solitude; Hardy, Thomas: Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Harte, Bret: “Luck of Roaring Camp, The”; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: House of the Seven Gables, The; McCullers, Carson: Member of the Wedding, The; Miller, Arthur: Crucible, The; Mistry, Rohinton: Fine Balance, A; Naylor, Gloria: Women of Brewster Place, The; Orwell, George: Animal Farm; Paine, Thomas: “Age of Reason, The,” and Common Sense; Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night; Silko, Leslie Marmon: Almanac of the Dead; Steinbeck, John: Pearl, The; Synge, John Millington: Playboy of the Western World, The; Twain, Mark: Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The; Wharton, Edith: Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome.

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