As our journey of The Scarlet Letter is coming to a close, it’s time for a reflection of sorts: a time to answer a few questions in the area of “community vs. individual”.
We also read a few other essays to get a multiple-perspective view for our questions, so I’m also going to be talking about “Home At Last” by Dinaw Mengestu and “The Family That Stretches (Together)” by Ellen Goodman.
I guess I’ll give you a little background on each piece of literature so the quotes that I use make more sense even if you haven’t read them.
So The Scarlet Letter is basically about this young woman, Hester, who is being punished for having sex with a guy who she isn’t married to. How do they know this? Because she got pregnant and her husband hasn’t been in town for a while. Basically, it turns out that the “mystery guy” was Dimmesdale, the minister, and while Hester’s being ousted by the Puritan people, Dimmesdale beating himself in the privacy of his home. The whole thing’s rather morbid, and then Hester’s husband, Chillingworth comes back as a physician, which he is, and tries to exact revenge on Dimmesdale. Eventually, everything comes out in the open, and Dimmesdale forgives himself, Chillingworth doesn’t get his villainous desires, and Hester’s at peace.
In “Home At Last”, Dinaw Mengestu talks about his family having to leave Ethiopia when he was very young, and in his new home in America, he feels out of place because he isn’t from there, but he isn’t really from Ethiopia either because he has no sentimental connection or memories from it.
Lastly, in “The Family That Stretches (Together)”, Ellen Goodman basically talks about the versatility of families nowadays, especially with the shocking frequency of divorces. She essentially asks the question: Does “once a relative” mean “always a relative”? And I think that’s pretty interesting, so we’re going to talk about that.
My first “essential question” is: Is it fair for individuals to put themselves first? First meaning before the good of the community.
For many political philosophers, the general will of the people comes before individuals. Even if it’s 49% of the people that don’t agree with something, 51% do, and that’s the majority. In my personal opinion, I think it’s a great virtue if people can always think of others before themselves, but this can also be hamartia. Considering others doesn’t mean neglecting yourself, and The Scarlet Letter, I believe, can attest to this. Hester has lived for almost a decade, keeping a cloak over Dimmesdale and Chillingworth’s identities. She finally realizes what she wants, and what would truly make her happy – being with Dimmesdale. And to do this, she needs to break free of Chillingworth’s hold, and tell Dimmesdale who he really is. In the final chapter, Dimmesdale, too, breaks free of the Puritan demands and clears his conscience. And as soon as he does, it feels as if all the weight has been lifted off of him. Almost in a literal sense as well, since his soul is able to rid of the air pressure, and go off into Heaven. In terms of this, I think it’s definitely fair for individuals to put themselves in front of a community. If the community’s mob mentality is unhealthy and morally incorrect, then, by all means, find yourself something better. And I don’t mean this to be some sort of “Agony Aunt” column thing, but I think it’s really important for everyone to know that you matter, too. It’s not just the you as a whole; it’s every little part of you. And this goes for every type of community there is – your family, your friends, your classes – if something feels wrong to you, you shouldn’t have to bear that for the sake of someone else. That isn’t fair and it’s certainly not just. Dimmesdale shows us the way to true contentment, and that is by being true to yourself and not worrying about the opinions of people whose opinions don’t matter anyway.
“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” – Bernard Baruch
credits to @tarahunt on Flickr
Now, onto the second question: Does every individual belong to a community?
In Mengestu’s “Home At Last”, he writes, “I’ve only known a few people, however, that have grown up with the oddly permanent feeling of having lost and abandoned a home that you never, in fact, rally knew, a feeling that has nothing to do with apartments, houses, or miles, but rather the sense that no matter how far you travel, or how you long you stay still, there is not place that you can always return to, no place where you fully belong.” I know that the community he is talking about is a home, a place where you always feel welcome and can think of when things aren’t going the way you want. But you always belong right where you are, and everything happens for a reason. If for any reason, you feel like you don’t belong, it’s because you haven’t found the right people to surround yourself with. And Mengestu quickly realizes this as well, once he starts to familiarize himself with his landlord’s Chinese immigrant father, and the Bangladeshi restaurant owners, and Pakistani chai-walas. He finds that communities aren’t built in homes or neighborhoods, but in people who constantly find themselves together in spirit. “What I had wanted and found in them, what I admired and adored about Kensington, was the assertion that we can rebuild and remake ourselves and our communities over and over again, in no small part because there have always been corners in Brooklyn to do so on.” Mengestu doesn’t even speak the same language as any of these people, but they persist and make him feel welcome, and that he “too was attached to something”.
I want to take this a different direction, as well. Communities aren’t just where you belong, but also where you are. Communities are about that inexplicable connection that you somehow make with anyone. You could just be silently reading in class, and then look up and make eye contact with some random person across the room.
“Eye contact is way more intimate than words will ever be.”
― Faraaz Kazi
credits to @ashleyspirals on Flickr
You could not have anything to do with that person, but you’ve just made a connection and I feel like that is what a community is. I mean, for a lot of people, a community is just people who live in a certain area and have a common way of doing something, but I think it’s more about the connection that people have. And going with that, my family is a community, my friend group, my golf team, and Spanish class, which is all I can think about right now because I have to study for a Spanish test ASAP. But they’re all communities because they’re all places where I can connect with people and find something deeper than just we are nearby each other, for lack of better words. So I feel that everyone is part of a community, whether they know it or not. They always are part of something more.
And now time for the final question: When does an individual become a part of a community?
Alright, so Goodman basically talks about how weird familial relations have become with the high prevalence of divorce, especially the relationships with people who you’re only related to through marriage. Suddenly with divorce, you find yourself wondering whether these people are just cut out of your life because they didn’t work out with someone else. Well, I kind of answered this question in the previous question because I said that I thought communities are just based on connection, whether indefinite or momentary.
With something as huge as marriage, obviously, a community is being formed, but these relationships, and this community doesn’t end with divorce. There’re always memories and feelings and sentiments that bring you right back and make those ties stronger than ever. And as Goodman says, “Our reality is more flexible and our relationships more supportive than our language.”
So, in total, how do communities affect individuals?
Communities have positive and negative effects on individuals, and I kind of started with the negative aspects with how they can force you into a submissive position beneath the “general will”, but they also allow a feeling of greatness, of something more.