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The epithet “the Land of the Free” is a distinctive phrase commonly associated with America, a country that prides itself for awarding its people with equal opportunity and the freedom to pursue their dreams. Yet, American literature does not seem to echo such patriotic sentiments. In fact, it seems as though there is a discernible conflict among authors regarding the definitions of “freedom” and “liberty.” Across countless texts born into the movement of American literary nationalism—including Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables—comes the suggestion that freedom is perhaps a product of personal willpower. This comparison places the responsibility of attaining liberty upon people, as opposed to legislation or other such socio-political circumstances, reducing the scope of this systemic concept to the abilities of the individual. With this frame in mind, will therefore acts as a double-edged sword, equally capable of unlocking the gates of freedom and acting as a constraint upon the individual.
The schism between freedom earned through individual willpower and that which is state-sanctioned is particularly evident in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Jacobs discusses her own experiences as a slave and witness to slavery. In Chapter 4, titled “The Slave Who Dared to Feel Like a Man,” Jacobs recounts her brother Benjamin’s search for liberation from his enslavement. A peculiar moment within this chapter is how Benjamin successfully evaded capture by having become white-passing in color: “For once his white face did him a kindly service. They had no suspicion that it belonged to a slave; otherwise, the law would have been followed out to the letter, and the thing rendered back to slavery” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 154-155). This passage marks a rarely-noticed aspect of the American slave experience, which differed from the commonplace notion that skin tone dictated status and allowed many light-skinned fugitive slaves to rebuild their lives under false identities. Therefore, a loophole in the legal definition of freedom is found, creating a dichotomy which allowed for freedom and entrapment—in terms of being able to live as one’s most authentic self—to coexist.
Moreover, the same chapter from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl exposes a facet of Benjamin’s logic that differed from Jacobs’ ideologies, that freedom is intrinsically tied to a geographical location, and one would be free so long as one reached that place. For Benjamin, that was New York: ‘“O Phil,” exclaimed Benjamin, “I am here at last.” Then he told him how near he came to dying, almost in sight of free land, and how he prayed that he might live to get one breath of free air. … “If I die now,” he exclaimed, “thank God, I shall die a freeman!”’ (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 156). Benjamin had evidently equated his closeness to freedom with his whereabouts, which blinded him to his mother’s efforts of securing that freedom through legal means and thoroughly convinced him that this was, instead, a form of surrender. Content to live out the rest of his days steeped in risk and peril, Benjamin’s willful rejection of societal systems is a dangerous game of ignorance, inciting Jacobs to assert, “He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 157). Though Benjamin believed he was responsible for his own liberation, through his failure to comply with his mother’s pursuits, he actually entrapped himself even further instead.
Aside from this, Jacobs points out in Chapters 5 and 10, respectively titled “The Trials of Girlhood” and “A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl’s Life,” that absolute willpower often cannot be exercised because of self-imposed restrictions. In the context of slavery in America, Jacobs addresses the silent masses of Northerners, whose refusal to criticize their own kind and participate in the fight for abolitionism is a show of self-willed complicity: “Surely, … you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 159). The “mean and cruel work,” as referenced by Jacobs, is the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which asked that citizens not only assist in the reclamation of runaway slaves, but also expose those in their communities who chose to aid a slave in their attempts to escape (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 391). This critique showcases the complacency of the North, whose willful ignorance makes their liberal beliefs seem shallow. For that reason, the notion of freedom as an awareness and expression of will fails to stand in light of Northerners’ behaviors, both in theory and in practice.
Additionally, Jacobs admits to having been guilty of limiting her own assertion of will as well. Regarding her grandmother’s volatile nature, Jacobs notes that “[she] dreaded the consequences of a violent outbreak [if she were to speak of Dr. Flint’s propositions]; and both pride and fear kept [her] silent” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 160). Similarly, when considering her voluntary involvement with Mr. Sands, Jacobs says, “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 192). What revoked and ascribed her freedom in the aforementioned circumstances were her own decisions, not those of others around her, which certainly complicates the ideas of freedom and self-liberty. Jacobs withheld a chance for catharsis with her grandmother out of personal anxieties but allowed herself a taste of control by choosing to be with Mr. Sands, thus reflecting the same dichotomy as before—the coexistence of freedom and entrapment—on an individualized level.
As for Poe’s “Ligeia,” the entirety of the tale is arguably indicative of what willpower is capable of achieving, perhaps emphasized by the supernatural qualities of the story and the seamless blend of realism and surrealism throughout. The narrative begins with an epigraph attributed to Joseph Glanvill, which argues that willpower is undying, and that man’s spirit can only be extinguished if he himself is weak-willed: “And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. … Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” (Poe 2006, 62). This quote returns thrice more in the tale, becoming a motif paralleling Ligeia’s purported resurrection and possession of Lady Rowena. As the narrator describes, in life, Ligeia demonstrated “An intensity in thought, action, or speech, [that] was possibly, in her, a result, or at least an index, of that gigantic volition which, … failed to give other and more immediate evidence of its existence” (Poe 2006, 66). What better representation, then, of Ligeia’s overwhelmingly unshakeable spirit than for her to seemingly overtake the feeble Rowena? Yet, as the narrator admits, this impossible force of will may only have been an “opium-engendered” (Poe 2006, 74) vision, hence ultimately rendering it unattainable.
Falling on a similar note regarding the failure to gain freedom exclusively through wit and personal willpower, “The Pit and the Pendulum” harrowingly portrays the narrator’s imprisonment and torment as a result of the Spanish Inquisition. Though the tale initially coincides with “Ligeia,” that “even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man” (Poe 2006, 213), the narrator soon realizes that he had all but celebrated his little victories in vain. Upon having freed himself from his bonds with use of the vermin around him, the speaker comes to the startling conclusion that he had merely cleared one hurdle among a dozen others: “For the moment, at least, I was free. Free! – and in the grasp of the Inquisition! … Free! – I had but escaped death in one form of agony, to be delivered unto worse than death in some other” (Poe 2006, 224-225). This carries through to the very end of the story, when his efforts bring him to the precipice of death and his moment of surrender is intercepted: “An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss” (Poe 2006, 227). Whether to fight for his survival or succumb to his demise, his decision was thwarted, and the final outcome was determined by forces beyond his control, exhibiting the limitations of sheer will yet again.
Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables illustrates the lives of the Pyncheons and the intricately-woven events of iniquity, fate, and justice that stem from the titular house, as well as the failure of human will to defeat that which was ordained by nature. This is characterized by Alice Pyncheon’s tragic demise—in the chapter of the same name—at the hands of Matthew Maule. Upon being challenged by Maule, Alice’s pride gave her the fortitude to accept. But, despite her strong-willed endeavors, it seemed Alice was no match for Maule after all and was, from then on, controlled by a force she could not topple: “A will, most unlike her own, constrained her to do its grotesque and fantastic bidding [including being made to “laugh,” “be sad,” and “dance” as Maule decreed]. … And, therefore, while Alice Pyncheon lived, she was Maule’s slave, in a bondage more humiliating, a thousand-fold, than that which binds its chain around the body” (Hawthorne 2009, 208-209). This degradation of Alice Pyncheon indicates the horrors of subjugation and submission, when one is rendered a hollow shell made to be taken advantage of. Alice’s damning loss of independence thoroughly alters her as a person, revealing how being unable to exercise one’s willpower can, oftentimes, shatter one’s psyche beyond any hope of repair.
Regardless, it must not be left unsaid that Maule’s persuasive methods were accredited to some supernatural, sinister ability, rather than being a product of his self-born charisma or forceful personality. This can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about using one’s willpower against someone else’s, as this reductive act violates others’ freedom and dehumanizes them. When Maule successfully places Alice under his spell, he proclaims “She is mine! … Mine, by the right of the strongest spirit!” (Hawthorne 2009, 206) in a grotesque celebration of her possession. Maule proceeds to toy with Alice in the remainder of the chapter, pushing her limits time and time again, not comprehending the severity of his actions until after she dies: “He meant to humble Alice, not to kill her;—but he had taken a woman’s delicate soul into his rude gripe, to play with;—and she was dead!” (Hawthorne 2009, 210). While personal willpower, in relation to the fulfillment of one’s own desires, may be perceived as boundless and brimming with potential, it becomes a recipe for total disaster when used to combat another person’s will. Freedom, in this case, exists within our individual spheres to be used independently; to follow in Maule’s footsteps of constraining others would thereby be a gross conflict of interest and infringement of others’ rights.
In the chapter of “Governor Pyncheon,” Judge Pyncheon—or rather, Judge Pyncheon’s lifeless corpse—sits at the mercy of the narrator, who proceeds to question and ridicule him for his inaction. As the day wears on, leaving the judge’s plans unfulfilled, the omniscient speaker notes how the absolution of Time is slowly leeching its way into what remains of the judge’s livelihood: “The gloom has not entered from without; it has brooded here all day, and now, taking its own inevitable time, will possess itself of everything” (Hawthorne 2009, 276). Though a long-drawn-out process, it is clear that Judge Pyncheon has fallen victim to the will of Time by dying, whereas, in life, he exerted his control over time through man-made means. This is highlighted by the narrator’s observation: “Ah! The watch has at last ceased to tick; … —and it has run down, for the first time in five years. But the great world-clock of Time still keeps its beat” (Hawthorne 2009, 281-282). Whereas Judge Pyncheon’s strict business of timekeeping kept him frequently occupied, the embrace of death has completely overturned that strictly-monitored passage of time, and the arduous progression of Time can now reprise its rightful role. Consequently, Hawthorne presents the expression of individual will as no match for the unforgiving sands of Time, which dictate all in spite of personal commitments.
This sentiment is furthered in the latter half of this chapter, when the house itself seems to come alive in spite of its tenant’s stillness and a tiny fly destroys the narrator’s remaining shreds of hope for Pyncheon. Here, we see the will of nature overpowering man’s ambition. The same Judge Pyncheon—who was “virtually governor of the glorious old State! Governor Pyncheon of Massachusetts!” (Hawthorne 2009, 274), whose authority and influence were about to reach their peak—now paled in comparison to restlessness of his house, which “[made] a vociferous, but somewhat unintelligible bellowing in its sooty throat … in tough defiance” (Hawthorne 2009, 277). In the same way, Pyncheon’s inactivity and inability to brush away a small fly astounds the narrator, inciting a frustration so strong that this nameless speaker denounces Pyncheon with a “Nay, then, we give thee up!” (Hawthorne 2009, 283). The conviction of their tone cannot go unnoticed, especially as this narrator serves as the reader’s source of information. By forsaking their subject within the narrative, Hawthorne draws a compelling conclusion regarding the loss of willpower and how its underwhelming state is capable of transcending both literary form and convention.
To conclude, American literary nationalism has very much struggled to grapple with the ideas of “freedom” and “willpower”—on an individual and nationwide level—whether it liberates or restricts, and where the true control lies. From Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, willpower has influenced the characters’ actions to varying degrees; at times, emphasizing the nuanced relationship between liberty and entrapment, and, at times, exemplifying what occurs when an additional external force throws this balance off kilter and disrupts the precarious equilibrium. Progressing through these texts in order, the focus shifts from the clash of individual and state-sanctioned freedom, to the limitations of personal willpower, to the unstoppable force of the will of nature, thus taking on an increasingly spiritualized, intangible form, even to the point of calling death into question. Therefore, as it is affected and shaped by numerous socio-political constraints, freedom cannot simply be defined as a product of personal willpower, but an unending battle for dominance instead.
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