Isolation in American Literature

The Grapes of Wrath, the Great Gatsby and the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The history of humanity is the story of human interactions. Each and every man, woman, and child, exists in the context of larger society. A person's actions, beliefs, thoughts, and dreams are shaped by that society; by that "other" that surrounds him or her at every step of the way. Some people interact constantly with their surroundings animate and otherwise. Their lives are filled with deeply meaningful interpersonal relationships - friendships, and marriages, and careers. There are some who spurn this course of action. These individuals seek out their own paths. They try to be different from their fellow human beings. They pursue a uniquely personal destiny; a route that they can proudly call their own. Still other people attempt to combine the two styles of interaction. Perhaps, they yearn for the approbation of their fellows, fighting, at one and the same time, to engage and disengage; to mark out territory uniquely their own, while at the same time carving out a place for themselves in the hearts of those who know them. Yet how many people crave this admirable duality, but never reach it? Is the story of humankind not filled with tales of these failures - they who reached out but were turned away? Does a person sometimes attempt to belong, only to drive others away? Does the inveterate loner ever achieve the friendship and love of the mass of humanity? Many of the greatest works of American Literature deal with just these sorts of individuals. America is paradoxical. The land of freedom and open spaces, of boundless dreams and opportunities, is also the land of "keeping up with the Joneses," and of distances too vast to be bridged by mere mortals. The Great Gatsby, the Grapes of Wrath, and the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock each deals with this theme of isolation. The causes and the results of this isolation are different in each case, but through all these works, it remains a motivating factor - a determinant of an individual's destiny, that must be embraced, fought, or rejected.

The Grapes of Wrath deals with the concept of isolation in its broadest sense - the isolation of one individual, or one group, from the rest of humanity. The Joads, as "Okies," are set apart form the rest of humankind by virtue of their poverty and privation. Not every American is wealthy, but the Oakies are less well-off than most. The Dust Bowl has thrown into still sharper relief the separateness of people like the Joads. Calamity has magnified the scale of their poverty. In so many ways, they do not belong. They are stateless wanderers cast out of their home. They are "ignorant" country dwellers come from one world to another. The struggle for survival breeds violence and despair. The isolation of the Joads, and of the Oakies in general, places them at odds with the rest of society. In order to survive, they must fight. Tom Joad, early on learns that violence comes in many different forms, that fighting doesn't always mean killing in the literal sense. In the same way, the turtle symbolizes both isolation and struggle. A turtle is locked inside its shell, almost oblivious to the rest of the world. Its simple intellect knows only the rudiments of survival, knows only the most basic necessities of life. A human being who is like a turtle would be a very unenlightened individual, indeed... But a very determined one. Here is isolation in its fundamental form - the struggle to belong, or not to belong, to the human race.

At the story's beginning, Tom Joad has already undertaken a journey to the edge and back. The years he served in prison were years he spent apart from his family, and from the community. His release from prison at the height of the Dust Bowl allows him a "second chance." He is given responsibility for his family, and along with that responsibility, the chance to prove himself worthy of remaining a fully-engaged member of the human race. In picking up the turtle, Tom Joad has given concrete, though symbolic, form to his own "reprieve." On its own, the turtle could easily have been hit by a car, and crushed. It might have survived without help, but then again, it might not. Tom Joad must learn that he is a part of a community, and that sometimes, in order to be a member of a community, one must accept the help - or endure the interference - of others. Tom learns from Jim Casy tat if one is going to interact with other people, one must understand the real reason for the interaction. "I'd just get 'em frothin' with the Holy Sperit, an' then I'd take 'em out in the grass," says Jim Casy in describing how he used his "preacher skills."

In recalling such actions, Jim Casy gives Tom Joad, a not-too-subtle, example of the misuse of authority. Normally, one would conceive of a preacher as being a unifying force, but misused as it was Jim Casy, the power of a preacher can be a powerful contributor to isolation.

For people growing up in Oklahoma at that time, California represented a kind of earthly paradise. John Steinbeck knew California well. He had grown up there, and his own family had carved a living out of virgin wilderness.

Such peril and privation, however, are certainly not unique to the Joads. In fact, their plight is shared by an entire social class, as Steinbeck makes clear through his use of the interchapters he called "generals".... background information about general American subjects.... Such information, however, delivered as counterpoint to the tale of an individual family, emphasizes the communal nature of the Joads' odyssey.

Again, this is an image of isolation vs. community. The fact that Jim Casy is a preacher only adds another bit of "common ground" to the Oakie lot. The Joads are not the only Oakies to see in California a real-life vision of the Biblical Eden. The belief that there is a paradise in store for the deserving would be very much a part of the general oakie consciousness, as would the very literal - even "ignorant" - understanding of that Paradise. Perhaps Casy's most important lesson to Tom Joad, is to look beyond the physical, and to understand that fulfillment, true fulfillment, comes from helping others, and not from helping oneself. Back in his preacher days, Jim Casy was a charlatan. Tom Joad, too, will be a charlatan until he discovers his real place in the world - he is not an Oakie, but a man, something that others must realize as well.

The persistence of this "California Dream" is evidence of how powerful a hold the messianic style of religion had on people like the Joads. Though they learn that there is no work to be had in California, they still decide to go there anyway. It is as if the collective consciousness is telling them that it is impossible for their Eden not to exist. In the case of the Joads, and of all their fellow Oakies, and the millions and millions of people like them in the world, it is not God's Creation that is deficient, but Man's. "Sometimes the law can't be foller'd no way," is a poignant statement of the extent to which even these simple people realize that their plight is manmade.

Once more, the isolation of the Joads is curiously enough another example of their bond with a larger humanity. The theme of man's inhumanity to man, and its horrible, isolating effects on certain groups of individuals, is made abundantly clear with the brutal death of Jim Casy. Tom's statement, "I'm bolshevisky," encapsulates the view of the ruling elite vis-a-vis the poor proletariat that is represented by people like the Joads.

The Bolsheviks had been painted as the "Great Satan" of the age. It did not matter that unions, and socialists were working for the greater good of the masses. Anyone who threatened the traditional relationship between employer and employed had to be isolated, but again, this isolation would be accomplished by uniting together all agitators, troublemakers, and complainer under one noxious head. Tom instinctively understood this, and so demonstrating his increasing awareness of the real sources of human strength - togetherness vs. isolation. All men and women belonged to a human community that had its rights and privileges. The exclusionary world in which most of us do live is a human creation. God has no part in it. What is holy is the brotherhood of all humanity.

In contrast to the situation obtaining in the Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald's great work, called appropriately the Great Gatsby, addresses the theme of isolation in a somewhat different way. Here we have the braking apart of humanity on a much more individual level. Neither Gatsby, nor…