Alienation and Initiation as a Theme
Paul P. Reuben
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A very important theme for many American authors, alienation and initiation recreates an experience that is common to many Americans. From the first arrival to this continent, every immigrant has shared alienation and initiation.
Alienation is a feeling of not belonging. This feeling can be physical, mental, religious, spiritual, psychological, political, social, or economic. At one time or another, each one of us has experienced alienation in one form or another whether in a school, among family members, in religion, in politics, and in society. The most common form of alienation is the physical and cultural kind experiencing "foreignness" or "culture shock." This is also the kind of alienation that is most easily understood; however, when one feels alienated in one's own home, society, religion, or culture, it is more difficult to rationalize or understand that feeling of not belonging.
As used in literature, this theme of alienation assumes a familiar process. Its various stages or steps are easily identified:
1. Alienation - the feeling of not belonging - caused by: a. a person, who does something that creates the feeling of not belonging - examples: conscientious objection to war, disobedience (like Thoreau's refusal to pay the poll-tax), or breaking the law; b. society forces a person to do something against one's wishes: drafted for war; not allowed to wear a beard at a job; job discriminations because of alternate lifestyles, etc.; c. a combination of the above. Note: Once a person is alienated, he/she may remain alienated or do something about it, that is initiate a course of action.
2. Initiation - a examination of oneself and to take steps to change the alienated situation.
3. Journey - generally this change is symbolized, in literature, by a physical journey or movement from one place to another - it could mean moving out of home, changing majors or campuses, leaving or joining church, etc.
4. Suffering - during the journey or movement there is some kind of suffering - physical, mental, psychological, etc. This suffering is important to "cleanse" the past; it also suggests that change is not easy, it has its toll.
5. Reconciliation - after a painful journey (self-examination) there comes a reconciliation or removal of the feeling of not belonging. It takes two forms: a. a return to the former place- classic example of the return of the biblical prodigal son, or b a discovery of a new place or situation that gives the initiate a sense of belonging - a divorce and remarriage, for example.
6. Communication - this is an optional step, because not all initiates wish to talk about or share their experiences; however, many do, like Rip Van Winkle in Washington Irving's famous short story.
This secular theme has its parallels in religious experiences, most commonly seen in the so-called "born-again" Christians, and in spiritual experiences, as in mysticism.
| Top | Selected Bibliography 2000-2010
Bachman, Merle. Recovering 'Yiddishland': Threshold Moments in American Literature. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2008.
Chew Sánchez, Martha I. Corridos in Migrant Memory. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2006.
Codde, Philippe. The Jewish American Novel. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 2007.
Dudley, John. A Man's Game: Masculinity and the Anti-Aesthetics of American Literary Naturalism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004.
Hume, Kathryn. American Dream, American Nightmare: Fictions since 1960. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.
- - -. American Passages: An Anthology of Readings on Our Immigrant Experience. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001.
Katz, Stephen. Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature. Austin: U of Texas P, 2009.
Klapper, Melissa R. Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920. NY: New York UP, 2005.
Ma, Sheng-mei. East-West Montage: Reflections on Asian Bodies in Diaspora. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2007.
Miller, Marc. Representing the Immigrant Experience: Morris Rosenfeld and the Emergence of Yiddish Literature in America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2007.
Rishoi, Christy. From Girl to Woman: American Women's Coming-of-Age Narratives. Albany: State U of New York P, 2003.
Serra, Ilaria. The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographi. NY: Fordham UP, 2007.
Srikanth, Rajini. The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2004.
Viscusi, Robert. Buried Caesars, and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing. Albany: State U of New York P, 2006.
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.
Ziolkowski, Margaret. Alien Visions: The Chechens and the Navajos in Russian and American Literature. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2005.
Selected Bibliography 2011-Present
Dalessio, William R. Are We What We Eat? Food and Identity in Late Twentieth-Century American Ethnic Literature. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2012.
Early, Emmett. The Alienated War Veteran in Film and Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.
Keith, Joseph. Unbecoming Americans: Writing Race and Nation from the Shadows of Citizenship, 1945-1960. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013.
Ma, Sheng-mei. Diaspora Literature and Visual Culture: Asia in Flight. NY: Routledge, 2011.
Muratore, Mary J. Exiles, Outcasts, Strangers: Icons of Marginalization in Post World War II Narrative. NY: Continuum, 2011.
Roach, Tom. Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement. Albany: State U of New York P, 2012.
Watson, Veronica T. The Souls of White Folk: African American Writers Theorize Whiteness. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013.
Weingrad, Michael. American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2011.
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "PAL: Appendix E: Alienation and Initiation as a Theme and the Immigrant Experience." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/axe.html (provide page date or date of your logon).
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