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Humans constantly struggle with the idea of work; is it really necessary? Is it worth it? Will it pay off in the end? Some see it as the devil’s burden and others know that in order to create an outcome, work will have to be put in first.The question is, is work a necessity/necessary evil, or does it provide its own reward? The speakers and writers behind the texts/images “I Stand Here Ironing”, We Can Do It!, “Harvest Song”, and “On Dumpster Diving” all come from contrasting backgrounds and would have differing responses about the nature of work. While all the speakers might understand work is not an easy thing, some may find more peace in it than others who may have worked harder for longer [awkward wording].
“Harvest Song” by Jean Toomer tells the story of a harvester who has toiled in the fields. The harvester explains his state saying, “I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it,” (3) being so worn out from work that his taste buds do not function. The harvester feels cold, blind, deaf and hopeless; obviously work has been an awful experience in his life, causing him to feel disconnected and lonely. The harvester in this poem would view work as a necessary evil meant to bring suffering among the unlucky, but he would also beleive that work could be the key to freedom. Most likely, the speaker symbolizes an African-American worker/farmer in the fields. Similar to many that share his cultural background at the time, the most likely situation is that he is working as a tenant farmer or sharecropper, hoping to make enough money to one day escape to a place that had more tolerance for ethnicity. The speaker may feel as if work is an unavoidable task, a burden put upon him and his people by higher powered individuals, who always cheat them of a fair deal. Even though the speaker feels hopeless and that he may never leave the fields, he continues to work for the chance of one day being able to gain full freedom. He works for his life, and his life is work.
In Lars Eighner’s “On Dumpster Diving”, Eighner reflects on his life as a dumpster diver, surviving through other people’s waste along with his dog Lizbeth. Eighner would most likely believe that work is a necessity that provides its own reward. That belief would be supported with his own life experience; he himself had to work to literally survive and the work would pay off with another day lived. Eighner reflects: “Many times in my travels I have lost everything but the clothes I was wearing and Lizbeth…Now I hardly pick up a thing without envisioning the time I will cast it away. I think this is a healthy state of mind” (78). While dumpster diving may not have been the most enjoyable experience, Eighner appears to have gained a new outlook on work and life in general. He came to a point in his life where he had nothing left and his only chance at survival was to work and scrounge for subsistence or starve. Additionally, for Eighner the reward of his work would not be material items because “some material things are white elephants that eat up the possessor’s substance” (64); instead, the reward of work is something as simple and beautiful as life. Not only did Eighner value his survival, but he also deeply cared for his dog Lizbeth who stuck by his side until she could no longer.
Similar to Eighner who just wanted what was best for his companion, the speaker of “I Stand Here Ironing”, by Tillie Olsen, is a mother who feels hopeless with her daughter, but just wants the best for her. After a string of unfortunate events, the speaker unintentionally ends up neglecting her eldest daughter, resulting in a strained relationship between the two of them. It can even be suggested that due to the mother’s inability to make good choices and work hard, her eldest took the hit. The speaker most likely had many opportunities to make life better for her child, but instead she was selfish and had more children even though she appeared to be incapable of taking care of the children she already had. The speaker would see work as something that provides its own reward, but unable to work hard enough to begin with, there is no reward to reap, only consequences. It is not until the end of the piece that the speaker sees that results can be seen, but only if effort and hard work are put in to begin with.
A strong example of a go-getter, determined, hard working attitude can be found in the visual text/ well known image of Rosie the Riveter, also formally known by the title of We Can Do It!. The image features a 40’s style pin up Rosie the Riveter flexing her arm with a speech bubble saying [add a comma] “We Can Do It!”. While the poster is simple and includes very minimal text, the message behind the poster is very bold and strong. It encouraged many women of the 40’s to make a change in their community, by doing their share to help fight in the war while their husbands were off fighting overseas. It inspired the women’s work movement [add a comma] and Rosie became a figure as well known as Uncle Sam from the army poster. The speaker from this visual would see work as a necessity and not an evil;[add a comma] mainly due to the time period. People were willing to do anything to ensure their families and country were safe from harm. Ultimately, work was not viewed as an evil that may pay off in the end, rather it was seen as something the people could do for the greater good. It would be their opportunity to make a lasting effort in their country’s history by encouraging women to do their share in the workforce while the men were away.
The speakers from “Harvest Song” and “On Dumpster Diving” share the same idea that work is to maintain life and that it is a task that needs to be done in order for survival. Additionally, the speaker from We Can Do It! would also agree that work is needed for survival, but on a broader level because the speakers from the first two texts need to work or they face life or death consequences. Differently, the speaker from the poster is just encouraging others to help out and do their share, [use a semicolon] it is less forced and not as a crucial life or death situation. The speaker from “I Stand Here Ironing” is the most contrasting from the others because she may not see the value in work as much as the others do. She may know that it is something that could benefit her life, but she does not appear to fully understand what it means to work hard, and her work ethic is reflected in her strained relationship with her daughter. Her approach to work and her story may make some readers empathetic for her situation, but at the same time all the details given about her life may make readers question is she really worked that hard. The same empathy can be brought up when readers analyze “Harvest Song” and “On Dumpster Diving”. This is so because many people may feel bad for the worker toiling in the field with little to no hope left, and they may gain a new perspective on life after reading about the man who scavenged for food each day to feed him and his dog whom he loved so dearly. The speaker behind We Can Do It! releases a powerful drive in women wanting to make a change, and the speaker inspires those to work, but it will have a very different effect on the readers compared to the other texts. Similar to the others, We Can Do It! exemplifies the importance of work and its impact on society and personal life.
Work has the ability to become the breaking point between life and death, but it can also be the difference in the success of one’s life. Through the texts/images “I Stand Here Ironing”, “We Can Do It!”, “Harvest Song”, and “On Dumpster Diving” readers can analyze the opinions and outlooks of the speakers and question themselves “is work a necessity/evil, or does it provide its own reward?” Each speaker, coming from a different background and having different intentions feel differently about the value of work and how it has impacted their lives. For some, every ounce of hard work had always been worth it, while others still have to experience hard work to understand the true importance of it for themselves.
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