American Identity

American Identity is characterized by a constant search for success, as defined by society in opposition communities, rather than the individual, thus resulting in skewed perceptions and high rates of dissatisfaction.  The recent situation that I would cite as background for this would be a story on This American Life about American living in Paris.  One of the major differences that one of the subjects detailed was the idea that in France, as in much of the world, there isn’t nearly the stigma associated with work that exists in the US.  People are expected to work hard, but are never expected to put in excessively long weeks, overtime, inconvenient hours, and more practices that are considered to be the way to get ahead in the US.  On a larger scale, both The Bell Jar and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven reflect on this idea from a more conflicted, internal perspective.  The irony that defines the images of success in both is characterized by the fact that main characters in both seek escape, even from an internal position, from the images of success that are imposed upon them and which often get modified before the time they reach them.  For Esther in The Bell Jar, success has become such a subjective idea that she is rarely able to identify what her perception of it is.  It is certainly defined for her in certain ways, but the varying expectations for her lead to internal conflict about this, and eventually drive her insane.  She seeks to escape these expectations, and in deviating from the ordinary image of success in this, she is driven in an even worse direction (I’m thinking of Marco).  Similarly, all the characters in Alexie’s set of short stories seek or recognize success as escape from the reservation.  Many characters, such as Adrian, see this path as defined by following along with certain consistent minority images, or simply that which they’re given the opportunity to excel in: basketball.  On the other hand, there are some characters, like Junior in “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show,” who actually follow through with the general American idea of escape: college.  Yet the interesting thing about all of these characters is that they all return home, having, in some capacity or another, failed the different goals of success as characterized by education, integration, or so on.  Esther returns home from New York, the city of opportunity, greatly confused by her recent past and the possibilities for her future, and is driven insane by being driven to this point.  It is apparent that the American expectation for great things of great people has pushed her to a point where, on one hand, she is unable to escape the boundaries she has faced, and on the other hand, is not sure where to go.  The land of opportunity confuses her by offering too much opportunity while not giving her the opportunities she seeks.  Similarly, Junior Polatkin faces a similar situation when he returns to the reservation from college: he has plenty of opportunity, but the variety of these combined with their attribution as uncommon for Native Americans forces him to attempt to disassociate himself with this American identity and attempt to reidentify with his American Indian heritage and the advantages that the community poses for him.  Both characters realize that a core part of being part of American society is following through with your potential, even if it isn’t what you want yourself.  Therefore, failure to be able to do so leads to elements of insanity or retreat (perhaps the former is an internal example of the latter), and disassociation with that part of one’s identity.

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