Individuals and Community
“Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.” These are the words of the 19th century writer and poet Oscar Wilde, and they perfectly illustrate the oft-contentious dispute between individualism and conformity to the community. Indeed, this dispute has played out through the pages of history, and it is difficult to objectively state that either of the extremes provides better outcomes or a more correct answer. On the side advocating conformity to community, there are both unforgiving despots who wished to carve men into machines, along the lines of Stalin, and cherished apostles of societal betterment, similar to Mother Teresa. On the other hand, advocating individualism and relative neglect of larger society, we can see both great writers, much like the above-mentioned Oscar Wilde, and cruelly apathetic hedonists, including Nero and many other Roman emperors of the first century.
In reality, though, few people have devoted their lives to advocating either extreme conformity or extreme individualism, as have the above-mentioned individuals. Rather, most people hold views somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, incorporating bits of both theories. When the debate does surface in the modern world, it tends to do so quite tacitly, perhaps through a certain slant or implication about society when discussing current events or perhaps through symbolism and hidden meaning in works of literature that focus on protagonists who are “outsiders.” The short stories “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie are perfect examples of this latter situation. Both of the stories depict an individual from an outside world, so to speak, trying to live in a foreign society. This, however, is where the similarities end. While “The Third and Final Continent” holds that “outsider” individuals can become a part of society and benefit from it without having to lose their tradition and dignity through complete conformity, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” offers a much darker conclusion, stating that conformity in a new community is difficult to achieve, but those who do not achieve it will be chewed up and spit out, with a loss of tradition and dignity resulting either way.
In his many adventures across three continents, the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” always manages to successfully blend himself into a new society, in small and large fashions, all the while hanging on to both his tradition and his dignity. The narrator never forgets to bring a small slice of his “first continent” wherever he goes. For example, in London, before he has arrived in the United States, the narrator speaks of attending the London School of Economics while living “in a house occupied entirely by penniless Bengali bachelors like myself, at least a dozen and sometimes more” (1216). At the same time, he and his roommates sip tea while smoking Rothman’s, a prominent British cigarette; they listen to traditional Indian music on a western-made reel-to-reel tape player.
All in all, this shows that the narrator is keen on retaining his traditions, and the fact that he is able to easily do so is a comment by the author. Entering a new society does not necessarily mean losing every bit of the old society, she seems to say. Indeed, time and time again, it is emphasized that the narrator not only wants to maintain his traditions while factoring in some aspects of his new community, but that he is accepted for doing so. One particularly charming, if understated, instance of this state of affairs is the narrator’s meal regimen after his wife, Mala, arrives. “I… [came] home to an apartment that smelled of steamed rice,” says the Narrator, “The next morning when I came into the kitchen, [Mala] had already poured the cornflakes into my bowl” (1225-1226). This blending of Indian cuisine for dinner and American fare for breakfast suggests the ultimate harmony of cultures in a mundane way. After all, when the narrator says he prefers cereal for breakfast, his wife does not bat an eye, and when he comes home to an Indian dinner, he eats it as a taste of home that he would not (and should not) deny himself. As if this wasn’t enough, there are many more testaments to harmonious blending of old culture with a new community littered throughout the story. Mala, for instance, wears an Indian sari every day, but it is not frowned upon by the community. Indeed, when the narrator takes her to meet Mrs. Croft, he thinks to himself, “I wondered what she would object to. I wondered if she could see the red dye still vivid on Mala’s feet, all but obscured by the bottom edge of her sari. At last Mrs. Croft declared, ‘She is a perfect lady!’” (1227). This delightful response on the part of Mrs. Croft exemplifies what the story hammers into our heads again and again: communities are not at all incompatible with outside individuals and their traditions.
In stark contrast to the successful mixing of cultures in “The Third and Final Continent,” the societal blending in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” is messy and unsuccessful, fraught with tales of lost heritage. The most strikingly obvious testament to this is the homelessness of the main character and, indeed, most of the Native Americans in the story. It clearly indicates that, for one reason or another, the goals and tribulations of the Native Americans were not reconcilable with American culture. This testament, however, is furthered immensely with the description of Jackson, the protagonist: “I grew up in Spokane, moved to Seattle twenty-three years ago for college, flunked out within two semesters, worked various blue- and bluer-collar jobs for many years, married two or three times, fathered two or three kids, and then went crazy” (1246). The downward spiral of Jackson’s life, then, began when he moved away from his Indian family to Spokane, into a new community. Thus the implication here is that entering a new community does indeed mean losing the bearings provided by the old community, and it also means that no new bearings can be gained until very difficult conformity and assimilation are achieved. Jackson’s story is not the only one, however.
There are many more Indians in the story whose lives pay tribute to both the difficulty of conformity and the dangerous results of being unable to conform. “Most of the homeless Indians in Seattle,” Jackson notes, “come from Alaska. One by one, each of them hopped a big working boat… to Seattle… [partied] hard at one of the highly sacred and traditional Indian bars, went broke and broker, and has been trying to find his way back to the boat and the frozen north ever since” (1249). Like Jackson, these Indians left their homes with bright prospects, only to see everything spiral downward as they failed to conform. This passage, however, makes note of something else. There is an intense irony in partying hard at a sacred, traditional Indian bar, and this suggests a true loss of tradition and heritage. All Indians, even those who ended up unable to conform, saw their valued traditions trampled in the process, replaced with the American value of a good party even as they were still unable to conform and fit in. This constitutes a slap on each cheek, and it also gives new meaning to the homelessness of the Native Americans in the story (and the rootlessness of the few with a home). They could not assimilate into the white community, and in the process, they lost everything that makes them Native American, precluding a return to that community. The Native Americans in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” truly are homeless in every sense of the word.
Venturing into his “Third and Final Continent,” the narrator of that story embarks on a true coming-of age journey, for his new community affects him in an undeniably positive way, directly preparing him for the rest of his life. When he first leaves India, the narrator is but a boy. He is unmarried. He has no job. He doesn’t have much of a formal education. While he gains the latter of these three things in England, it is without a doubt that the narrator truly comes of age in his third continent, America, particularly through his interactions with Mrs. Croft. Over the time he spends with Mrs. Croft, the narrator begins to feel a sense of duty toward her. At first, this is apparent simply in the ritual that he performs every night, keeping Mrs. Croft company on the bench and telling her how “splendid” it is that the American flag is now on the moon. After he learns of her age, he is very impressed, and he offers to heat up her soup, though Mrs. Croft’s daughter turns down the offer. The narrator laments, “There was nothing I could do for her beyond these simple gestures” (1224). However, there is a tinge of admiration apparent in his voice when he tells Mala that “for the most part [Mrs. Croft] takes care of herself” (1226), despite her age. This admiration, this desire to care for another person is built up in the narrator by Mrs. Croft. When Mrs. Croft finally meets Mala, she declares, “She is a perfect lady!” (1227). In giving the narrator her seal of approval, the narrator’s care for Mrs. Croft is, in a way, bestowed upon Mala; it is this event that begins to spark the love in their relationship. In this way, it is thanks to the narrator’s new community that he grew into a good, caring husband. It should not be forgotten that the narrator’s new community readily bestowed him with numerous other positive things. He easily obtained a job; he found a home without any trace of discrimination; he grew emotionally mature, living on his own for the first time. Despite these important positive contributions, it was Mrs. Croft whose contribution was greatest, but either way, the third continent and its community were undeniably forces for good in the narrator’s life.
On the other hand, our outsider protagonist in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” is negatively affected by the community, his interactions with the people of Seattle hearkening directly back to interactions between White settlers and Native Americans so long ago. Negotiations with Native Americans from the 17th through the early 20th centuries were marked by lavish gifts of everything from precious metals to food and alcohol to “protected” reservation land in exchange for “just a little bit” of their current, unprotected land. According to the government, they did not even own that land, anyway. Eventually, the tribes began to rely on these gifts, economically and socially, but once the supply of land, the only truly durable resource, had dried up, the flow of gifts was choked off, and they were utterly ruined (Banner 51). They lost both their self-sufficiency and their dignity. Was the little bit of protected land that they held onto truly theirs if it was tossed at them like some sort of gift? Just the same, the whites of Seattle’s community that Jackson befriends are constantly giving him “gifts.” When Jackson is trying to raise money to buy the regalia, the pawnbroker decides to help him a bit: “He opened up his wallet and pulled out a crisp twenty-dollar bill and gave it to me” (1249). Moments after receiving the money, Jackson went over to “7-Eleven and spent it to buy three bottles of imagination” (1249). This symbolizes the manner in which the Indian tribes lost their trades and abilities in the face of gifts provided by European settlers.
The prompt expenditure of the cash on alcohol also portrays something deeper. It represents the downward spiral of alcoholism unleashed upon the Native Americans as they became further dependent on something that only the white man could provide. If this was the only occasion in the story along these lines, though, this symbolism could be written off. On the contrary, it happens time and time again. Jackson later visits a newspaper publisher to buy a large number of newspapers to sell on the street for profit. With only five dollars for initial investment, the company manager says, “I’ll give you fifty papers for free. But don’t tell anybody I did it” (1250). After selling five newspapers, Jackson promptly trashes the other 45 and spends the profit on some food. When Jackson wins $80, he spends it on alcohol. When Officer Williams, a friendly white policeman, gives Jackson $30, he spends it on some more food. All of this occurs in the course of a day, drawing an undeniable parallel between Jackson’s dependence on gifts and alcohol and the dependence of the Native Americans on the settler’s “gifts” and alcohol. In the end, Jackson is given the regalia only as a gift, likely foreshadowing that he will eventually sell it for alcohol or a good time.
The irony in this, though, draws one final parallel between Jackson’s situation and that of the colonized Native Americans. The gift that was ultimately given to them, the regalia in the former case and the “protected” reservation land in the latter, already belonged to them in the first place. The numerous resemblances between the sad state of Native Americans in the 19th century and Jackson’s situation in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” puts it beyond doubt that Alexie intended to declare through his story that an outsider can only be further hurt by a community which has denied him acceptance.
The narrator of “The Third and Final Continent” does not manage to change much about his new community, but considering the story’s overall argument that larger societal conformity is unnecessary, the small, personal way that he does have an effect on his community is more than sufficient. Just as the most prominent mark left on the narrator came from Mrs. Croft, the most prominent change exacted upon the narrator’s new community was concentrated on Mrs. Croft. Mrs. Croft is a person very focused on the past, in no small part due to her age. For example, note her response when her daughter, Helen, speaks with the narrator upstairs: “It is improper for a lady and a gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!” (1222). Though the world Mrs. Croft speaks of is gone, she still holds emotional attachment to it. It was, after all, that world of “chaste conversations in the parlor” in which Mrs. Croft grew up. When Helen asks Mrs. Croft what she would do if she saw a girl in a miniskirt, Mrs. Croft responds dryly, “I’d have her arrested” (1223).
As time progressed, Mrs. Croft slowly became more separate from and bitter toward her community. The narrator actually gives her hope. One day, the narrator hands his rent payment, on time, directly to Mrs. Croft instead of placing it on the piano ledge. This touches her. She says nothing at first, but after the narrator returns that night, many hours later, she still holds the payment in her hands, saying, “It was very kind of you!” (1221). While this is a relatively minor action on the narrator’s part, these small acts of chivalry have come to be all that Mrs. Croft truly desires, as mentioned above. After all, these acts of chivalry hearken back to Mrs. Croft’s time, a time during which a gentleman would rise when a woman left a table or remove his hat in a woman’s presence. Indeed, Helen tells the narrator, “You’re the first boarder she’s ever referred to as a gentleman” (1222). In the final months of her life, the narrator gives Mrs. Croft something to believe in, just as Mrs. Croft gives the narrator something to care for; in this way, he gives back to the community that helped him, having a positive effect on it. In the end, this is a change that the narrator exacts on an individual, not the community, but since the story touts maintenance of individualism in the face of a new community as an admirable, possible goal, there can be nothing more glorious than giving an old woman one last hope.
Jackson of “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” also falls completely short of changing the larger community around him, but considering the story’s opposing message, this incapacity for change in the community has an entirely different meaning. Recall that “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” holds that the effect of a new community on an outsider is wholly negative, resulting in forced conformity, which usually ends up unsuccessful and, either way, robs the subject of his/her heritage. This is directly in contrast to the positive effect of a new community on an outsider extolled in “The Third and Final Continent.” Thus the former is in need of change and the latter is not, so a lack of change in this story can only be a bad thing. (The aspect of the community in need of change, of course, is its perpetuation of the old, indirectly-cruel treatment of Native Americans.)
Jackson does indeed build close personal relationships with some white characters in the story, not too much different from the narrator’s relationship with Mrs. Croft in “The Third and Final Continent.” In particular, note the interaction of Officer Williams with Jackson. “You bet I’d give you a thousand dollars if I knew you’d straighten up your life,” says Officer Williams. “He meant it,” Jackson reassures us, “He was the second-best cop I’d ever known” (1256). At the end, though, Williams gives Jackson $30, perpetuating the cycle of his dependence on gifts in exchange for dignity. This previously-noted negative relationship between Jackson and his community is further indicated by another passage relating to Officer Jackson: “He’d given me hundreds of candy bars over the years. I wonder if he knew I was diabetic” (1255). A diabetic may crave sugar, but it will only further harm him/her. Just the same, Jackson craves the gifts with which his white friends provide him, but they only makes him more dependent on them, causing him to lose his dignity (and recall that this, itself, parallels the larger situation of Native Americans).
In the end, the reader is left with the impression that, unlike in “The Third and Final Continent,” individual relationships with the conformed members of the community do not matter here; they have no influence on the community or how it eventually treats the outsider. However, the conclusion of “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” does offer one small glint of hope. “I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection,” says Jackson, adorned with his grandmother’s regalia, “Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother” (1260). That the entire city takes pause to focus on a homeless Native American man represents that the community has realized what its destructive behavior has wrought. Perhaps they can realize the sad irony in the happiness of a homeless Native American man, shunned from the land that should have been his, who is thrilled to receive that which belonged to him all along. After all, while Jackson was, on a personal level, unable to change Seattle and its destructive modus operandi in terms of Native Americans, the reader is left with the hope that maybe, just maybe, it can realize the error of its ways and change itself.
All in all, “The Third and Final Continent” and “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” come to entirely different conclusions about outsiders entering a community; according to the former, entering a new community can be an emotionally enriching experience that does not require abandonment of traditions, but according to the latter, an outsider who comes into contact with a new community will forcibly try hard to conform, usually ending up unsuccessful, and always losing his/her heritage and dignity. Throughout the two stories, differences that indicate these conclusions are made obvious. While the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” successfully brings reminders of his first home wherever he goes, the story of Jackson’s life in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” is one of an intense downward spiral after immersion in a new community. While the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” undergoes emotional and mental growth in his “third continent,” coming to admire someone for the first time and learning to love his wife, Jackson’s interactions with his new community are negatively marked by a dignity-draining cycle of dependence on others and addiction to alcohol, mirroring the sad fate of many Native American tribes.
Even though the two stories agree that the only real effect an individual can have on a large community comes about through individual relationships, they draw a different conclusion based on this premise. “The Third and Final Continent” holds that these personal relationships are more than enough, allowing any individual to have a beneficial and admirable effect on a community as he/she chooses. On the other hand, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” paints the picture that, though caring individual relationships are possible, they can do nothing to change the overall negative effect that a community has on an outsider. On the whole, these two diametrically-opposed conclusions that Lahiri and Alexie have produced represent two different outcomes for two different individuals. In conclusion, when we enter any society as outsiders, it may be for the best to take both of the theories in each of our hands.
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