The concept of belonging shapes meaning within a text by portraying the relationship between the individual’s identity and the pressures that arise from a collection of individuals. In my understanding, it is the decision to belong which is problematic in that it can destroy the self and the identity. This notion resonates with my understanding of belonging as it is explored in Emily Dickinson’s evocative poetry and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.
Through a central persona Dickinson explores the way in which the decision to remain an outsider is beneficial to the self whereas Williams uses a variety of central characters to portray a problematic standstill caused by their own decisions. Both authors are somewhat reflected within their own work through their personal context, which are then deflected onto the reader. The first stage of my argument is that Emily Dickinson deliberately shapes her personas to reject their world in order to retain their sense of identity conveyed through the issue of the outsider.
After years of pressing hunger, “noon” has come to “dine” for our persona in I Had Been Hungry All the Years representing a shift in approach and a new uncertainty that comes with the protagonist’s moment of belonging. Dickinson reiterates the plight of the individual with recurrent use of the first person pronoun and uses juxtaposition in the lines “As berry of a mountain bush/ Transplanted to the road” to act as a simile of displacement. The self and the identity has been so completely defined by its starvation that the ‘plenty hurt’ in that belonging threatens to destroy it.
At the moment of consummation and satisfaction, Dickinson dwells on the lexical chain of pain and illness, of strangeness and out-of-placeness (“hurt”, “ill”, “odd”, “transplanted”). It is interesting to note that the poem was written in 1862, before her own seclusion had hardened into an unalterable mannerism, so perhaps the concerns facing the “person outside windows” arise from an autobiographical concern. Thus, the persona, or perhaps Dickinson’s, position as an outsider in society is an unchangeable part of her identity that “the entering takes away” and the decision not to belong saves the self and the identity.
Similarly, This is my Letter to the World depicts the paradoxical struggle between alienation and unity and that in order to delve a connection with the collective humanity; the artist must withdraw from her “sweet countrymen” to retain her identity. The first line of the poem is a public declaration and yet it uses the privacy of the first-person pronoun, contrasting the unity evoked by communication with the world and the alienation depicted by the line “never wrote to me”; alluding to the dissatisfaction of the relationship between the individual and the world.
As stated by Thomas Johnson in “Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography” the poet is “blessed by isolated, performing the role of an interpreter of nature for the benefit of the world from which she is alienated”. For Dickinson, the poem shows her respect for the written word in that the act of letter writing and of composing poetry were virtually interchangeable. However, although she wished to form a connection with the world, she did not want to sacrifice her integrity doing so and thus, secluded herself.
This decision to remain isolated from the community resonates as problematic in some way, as it is the plight of the artist to restrict themselves from natural human behaviour such as love and relationships in order to delve a connection with the collective humanity. On the other hand, in my related text, Streetcar, Williams depicts that the decisions made to belong can destroy parts of the self and the identity. There are two key decisions within the play: Blanche’s decision to hide her identity and Stella’s decision to ostracise Blanche.
Blanche puts on an air of false propriety and snobbery (“Oh I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume”) when around the “Polack”, Stanley, in order to make a class distinction between the polar opposites. Blanche is in a state of eternal in-between, she is a representative of the old South, from which she no longer belongs, and Stanley is a representative of the heterogeneous new South to which Blanche does not wish to belong, however this alludes to the naturalistic struggle for cultural hegemony.
Stanley and Stella’s relationship is namely a sense of physical belonging as we see with the motif of the meat-he claims his ownership of her. The play is actually a representation of Blanche’s psychological demise and her inner reality and thus, Stella’s choice to join the new culture with Stanley is her final destroyer and also, in a way is Stella’s destroyer as it destroys the life she had for a life she is no longer sure if she wants.