The Imprisonment of Three Great American Novel Characters

by Gayla Nelson

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        The closing line of the American National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” is: “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”  There are three American novels  whose characters represent, to me, the epitome of the message of this song.  Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, George Milton from Of Mice and Men, and Celie from The Color Purple, all establish their own freedom and independence through a personal battle, not only from outside influences, but also from within themselves, through their bravery.  Through their feelings, beliefs, actions, and their responses to others outside of themselves, we are witness to what America really does represent.  They are able to overcome inner turmoil and external repression, to free their souls from the shackles that bind them, however literally or figuratively they are depicted, in these novels. 

         Hester Prynne is imprisoned when we first meet her.  She is hardly free.  Living under Puritanical law, rigid and unforgiving, her sin is considered severe. Americans are a proud people, and Hester’s “A” is beautiful and adorned.  If she must wear this symbol of her sin so prominently, she does so with a style and beauty that infuriates the women of Boston. From the very beginning of the novel, with this image, we know that Hester is of a strong character. Hester will take full blame for an action that quite obviously takes two, and her courage and bravery are illuminated further because of Dimmesdale’s cowardice.  She may have been born and raised in England, but she has the American spirit within her.    Dimmesdale, on the other hand, suffers more severely, at least mentally, because of his cowardice. 

Once Hester is released from prison, she supports herself and Pearl with her needlework.  Her independence and ability to live without benefit of a man, further develops her personal sense of freedom.  Most women during that time would be afraid to make their way in the world alone.  Ostracized from society, yet dependent on others for the work she needs to support Pearl and herself, she does not run from reality, but rather, embraces it. She helps the needy in her community, and her isolation and introspection makes her wise in contrast to the mental anguish of Dimmesdale who has kept his shame secret. Her years in America under these conditions have made her stronger, and when Dimmesdale reveals his part, he too is set free.  Ultimately, Pearl achieves the American dream of wealth and position, because of the bravery and strength of spirit displayed by her mother her entire life.  Hester ultimately wins both internal and external freedom.

We first see George Milton in Of Mice and Men, without personal freedom because of his love of and relationship with Lennie.  The two men share a dream of freedom from the boss and a life on the road, working from farm to farm and place to place.  Lennie offers George the freedom when he threatens to go off and live in a cave somewhere, but George does not necessarily want his freedom at the price of Lennie’s safety.  They work hard as a team and talk of the future.  George, in frustration at one point says, “God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy.  I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble.  No mess at all, and when they end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want…” but in reality, Lennie is a part of his American dream. 

When the time comes that George knows he must kill Lennie himself, to keep others from doing it, it is his love for Lennie, and his bravery, that makes it possible for him to make the ultimate sacrifice. A coward would have left the job for someone else, just as Candy knows he should have been the one to kill his own dog when the time came. The by-product of this act of bravery is George’s own freedom.  Although the novel does not tell us ultimately what happens to George, I believe he was an optimist and that once he went through the grieving process, his ambition and willingness to work hard would have led him to fulfill his dream of having his own place to live with the freedom of independence he had gained and deserved.

Celie, in The Color Purple, is first seen as timid and browbeaten.  Her bravery and independence is won after great trials and tribulations. It is through her relationship with Shug Avery, and the letters from her sister, Nettie, once she finally finds and reads them that she is able to develop the strength and courage to fight back against a tyrannical husband.  Like Hester, Celie endures social injustice on American soil and ultimately wins her opportunity to pursue the American Dream. Like George, Celie must endure the hardship of poverty. Celie seems to have the greatest battle, with the most strikes against her.  She must overcome not only poverty and separation from her family, but also being a woman, and a black woman, she finds herself at the very bottom of the social hierarchy.

            The class system is evident in all three novels, from puritan times through the great depression.  Even in the “Land of the free and the home of the brave” there are those who must fight for their freedom within the confines of their own lives.  Hester, George, and Celie all represent the challenges and hardships that were fought to make America the America it is today.  All three novels depict a time in American history when individuals did not take personal freedom for granted.  It did not take the prison walls that Hester was once confined within to imprison these characters.  This imprisonment was brought on by a society still evolving to the point of freedom that America was to stand for.  All three novels are worthy of the title of  “the great American novel” based on the characters that Hawthorne, Steinbeck, and Walker created and which still hold a fascination for American readers today.

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