Loneliness in the Frontier
The frontier has appeared throughout American literature. From the start of American history to the present people have explored different frontiers. In each writing, similar aspects of the frontier appear. Characters must face their conflicts in their settings alone as few people actually understand the struggles the character faces. Eventually these frontiersmen will become distant to the people that stayed behind. Although frontiers vary at different times, the characteristic of loneliness in the frontier affected people’s actions in the frontier. Especially in the 20th century, the aspect of loneliness in the frontier is prevalent. Loneliness in the frontier also appears in the 19th and 17th century. Each time era describes this aspect in different ways.
During the 20th century, American literature described characters facing different frontiers. One aspect of the frontier that occurs often in these writings is the concept of loneliness. Zitkala- Ša’s “The Big Red Apples” and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried both describe the loneliness the characters face. These literatures approach the frontier theme of solitude in slightly different ways. In Zitkala- Ša’s writing “The Big Red Apples,” the narrator heads east to become assimilated to American education and culture. The missionaries take the Naïve American, Zitkala- Ša, from her family. Throughout her narrative, Zitkala- Ša faces isolation and struggles through the rest of her story. During the first moments of entering the school, Zitkala- Ša describes how she pleaded to see her family but the “palefaces could not hear [her]” (89). Instead her “tears were left to dry themselves” because her family was not there with her to experience this new frontier (89). Already, in the story the author is thrown into a new location alone. Zitkala- Ša must abandon her family and friends as she enters the school. Her immediate response to being alone was pleading to return to her family. Later in the story, Zitkala- Ša learns that the school will cut her hair short. In response, she disappeared “when no one noticed” (91). Zitkala- Ša reiterates the fact that she is alone to face the changes that were being forced upon her. While all the other girls accepted their fates, Zitkala- Ša resisted losing her heritage. Even though hiding would ultimately not prevent her from losing her long hair, it was her way to struggle against the change. After her hair was cut, the narrator describes how “not a soul reasoned quietly with [her], as [her] mother used to do” (91). She alone had to face all the suffering of losing her culture. At the same time, other Indians were also going through the same difficulties, but none of them comforted each other. In the final section of the story, Zitkala- Ša returns home only to find her isolation continues. Her mother “was not capable of comforting her daughter who could read and write” (97). The narrator continues by stating that “even nature seemed to have no place for [her]” (97). From her education, she felt out of place in society. She could not associate with her native tribe because she had changed from the schooling but at the same time Zitkala- Ša could not be grouped with the people of America because of her Native American ancestry. Zitkala- Ša nevertheless must face this internal conflict alone as her mother had never experienced the problem before. The stress eventually led her to return to the Eastern school. Overall, the concept of loneliness shaping characters appears throughout Zitkala- Ša’s narrative.
Another literature that exemplifies loneliness in the frontier is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In the novel, O’Brien describes his experiences related to the Vietnam War. In the first chapter, he explains how soldiers had to carry “the emotional baggage” such as “grief, terror, love, [and] longing” (21). He later discusses how soldiers were not allowed to expresses these feelings as it would reveal weakness in their character. Because they feared being labeled a coward, soldiers reserved their feelings to themselves causing mental conflicts during the war. The soldiers therefore are isolated from each other psychologically. O’Brien describes Jimmy Cross’s relationship with Martha after the war in the next chapter. Martha appears distant to Cross and she expresses how she “didn’t understand why men could do those things” (29). After the war, Cross struggles to communicate about the war with a civilian. They both only refer to the war as the “thing.” O’Brien emphasizes how soldiers of the Vietnam War were separated from civilians as they could not relay their feeling. The emotions and the experiences the soldiers faced could not be shared with the general public. Another instance of isolation is when the author was about to be drafted to the war. He describes how he escaped to Canada. Edward Berdahl, the lodge owner, knew about O’Brien’s problems but “[Edward] knew [he] couldn’t talk about it” (50). The struggle of whether or not to face the war was confronted by O’Brien alone. He left his family and friends behind and was alone in Canada. The tension from his thoughts of being exiled by his family forced him to enter the war. O’Brien holds on to his emotions and does not share them to his family until he publishes the book. In the chapter “Ambush,” O’Brien discusses how he was filled with guilt over killing another man’s life. His squad attempted to comfort him but “none of it mattered [as] the words seemed far too complicated” (134). O’Brien’s conflicting feelings were opposite of his platoon. While the soldiers were also killing, O’Brien felt disconnected as they did not kill that specific person. Even while he wrote the novel, he still could not overcome his guilt. Finally, O’Brien describes the Rat Kiley’s struggles to cope with the new environment in the chapter “Night Life.” He discusses how “Rat just sank inside himself, not saying a word” (220) but then started to change negatively. The whole unit could see Rat’s mental condition was declining rapidly but no soldier talked to him. Rat was just “a sad thing to watch” (221). The soldier’s internal conflicts could only be faced by himself. The isolation in the wilderness eventually led to Rat’s insanity. Even within his own platoon, Rat had to manage his problems alone. Throughout the novel, loneliness affected the soldiers’ actions in their lives.
Similar to the 20th century literature using loneliness as an aspect of the frontier, 19th century literature provides characters that must face certain problems on their own. In James Cooper’s The Deerslayer, Deerslayer embraces the fact that he constantly is alone in nature. The narrator discusses how Deerslayer would “prefer the melody of the woods to the songs of girls” (120). Deerslayer has already become accustomed to living in the wilderness. Loneliness has become a normal part of his life and he prefers it over having a relationship with a woman. Opposite of Zitkala- Ša, Deerslayer was educated in a Delaware tribe even though he is white. Deerslayer however chooses which of his white and Native American traits define him unlike Zitkala- Ša. For example, Deerslayer declines his marriage to Sumach because his “gifts are white so far as women are [concerned]” (386). At the same time, Deerslayer rejects Judith’s love in stating how he is “rude and ignorant” (346) compared to Judith who was educated. Due to his white background and his education with the Delaware, Deerslayer believes he cannot accept Sumach or Judith as his love. Deerslayer is alone in the book as the only man with traits of both the natives and those of the frontiersmen. Unlike the 20th century literature, he accepts the loneliness as a part of the frontier and does not battle against it. In fact, he fights for the tranquility of being alone in the wild. Judith expresses how Deerslayer “loves the woods and the life that [they] pass...in the wilderness away from the dwellings and towns of the whites” (445). The aspect of loneliness in the frontier is personified by the character Deerslayer as he embraces his isolation from the white and native civilizations, happily living in the wilderness.
Another time period that explores isolation as part of the frontier is the 17th century. Mary Rowlandson’s “The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” describes her experience being alone in a hostile environment. After being captured by the Indians, Rowlandson is in a state of despair as “[her] friends and family [were] gone” (2). In her isolation, Rowlandson had to adapt rapidly to the environment. She emphasizes that her feelings in the writing were only experienced by her as she was alone surrounded by Indians. However, Rowlandson expresses that during her isolation she believed that “God was with [her] in a wonderful manner” (3). Religion became a counter to the sense of loneliness. She devotes herself more to religion than she had before her captivity. She reflects in the third remove on the number of “Sabbaths [she] had lost and misspent” (3). Rowlandson attempts to rationalize her isolation from civilization with her lack of commitment to her religion. Thus, she believes she must face the consequences and eventually God would assist her. This leads to Rowlandson’s acceptance of being separated from her civilization. During the twentieth remove, and an Indian offered to help her escape. She was however “not willing to run away” (8). Instead of attempting to leave her current state of living with the Indians, she accepts her fate with the assistance of God. In Rowlandson’s writing, the aspect of isolation appears as well when she faces her captivity with the Indians.
The aspect of loneliness in the frontier appears in several different eras in American literature. The general theme of isolation in the frontier shows how over time different psychological effects from loneliness appears in the people of America. The theme gradually shifted towards the long term consequences of solitude rather than the short term effects as time progressed. The literature of the 20th century presents loneliness as a major factor that shapes the lives of the characters even after the conclusion of their stories. Both Zitkala- Ša’s and O’Brien’s writing illustrate how they themselves had to continue to cope with loneliness because of the lack of people with the same experiences. For the 19th century literature, the aspect of being alone was accepted as a common trait of the frontier. In The Deerslayer for example, the main character accepts the loneliness of the wilderness and does not resist against it. After the climax of the story, Deerslayer returns to the wilderness and the isolation from the white society. During the 17th century literature also conveyed the concept of frontiersmen as being isolated. Rowlandson however also accepts the fate of captivity and relies on God’s will to return home. She avoids the feeling lonely by devoting her energies towards her religion. Throughout American literature, the aspect of loneliness in the frontier shaped the way people acted in the frontier. No matter what frontier America faces, there will always be a separation between those that remain in America and those that enter into the new frontier. This separation will inevitably lead to loneliness for the people of the frontier and make it extremely difficult for frontiersmen to return to their original states, before they experienced the frontier.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: Dover Publications, 2007. Print.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.
Rowlandson, Mary W. A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson;. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1930.Http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/rownarr.html. 19 Aug. 2000. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Zitkala-S̈a. "The Big Red Apples." American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. New York, NY: Penguin, 2003. 83-100. Print.