Individualism Only Works within Societal Rules

           When one practices individualism he or she may be seen as going against what is considered normal in society. While it is acceptable to do what we want in order to make ourselves happy, it is important to take others into consideration and to also abide by the rules of that society. In Walden, Thoreau left his town for two years because he was tired of society. Although this was considered uncommon, he broke no laws. Individualism in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative was reflected in his resistance to slavery. Although this was considered unlawful by many in the south, northerners praised his bravery. In both of those cases the individuals succeeded. However, Herman Melville’s Bartleby’s individualism led to his downfall because of his non-compliance to society’s expectations. In light of this, my main claim is that although individualism is accepted by some societies, being an individual works best when one adheres to the rules of those societies or if those rules are changed.

        Thoreau was an individual because he enjoyed being alone. He did not like being a part of a society that relied on material possessions and compared people who worked long hours, in order to afford luxuries, to machines (Thoreau 5). Thoreau felt he did not have much in common with the people who referred to his mode of life as “impertinent” (1). In order to avoid certain societal conventions he left town. Thoreau not only embraced individualism, he encouraged it as well. He said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” (317). Thoreau’s individualism worked because he was not part of society and therefore did not have to adhere to its norms, unlike Bartleby who wanted to be left alone while residing within society.

        Bartleby’s individualism came from his reluctance to conform to a society that expected him to act a certain way. Bartleby was a scrivener and he was one of those “machines” Thoreau referred to. He was happy copying other people’s works in solitude. The narrator said, “… he had been cheerfully industrious” (Melville (1108). However that all changed when Bartleby was asked to examine a paper with the lawyer. He told his employer that he would “prefer not to” (1108). This of course bothered the narrator because he expected “instant compliance” (1108). Here we saw what was expected of an individual and the reaction one received from society while resisting conformity. The narrator said he was “stunned” by Bartleby’s response (1109). Bartleby went through several stages of individualism. The first stage involved him doing an “extraordinary quantity of work” (1108). He seemed to work nonstop. Then he went from one extreme to the next by refusing to work at all. And of course since Bartleby did not follow the example of the rest of society he was forced out of it, sent to prison and took his non-compliance even further by preferring not to eat (1126). In trying to achieve individualism, Bartleby died of hunger. This is similar to Douglass, who also put his life at risk to achieve his individualism.

        Douglass was considered a problem slave because his master, Thomas Auld, thought he was useless due to his education. His intelligence ruined him for “every good purpose” (Douglass 65). Auld sent Douglass to Mr. Covey so he could be broken. What set Douglass apart from most slaves was his willingness to risk his life in order to gain respect and freedom. Douglass’ individualism was emphasized when he resolved to fight Covey. His resistance to Covey’s abuse was so unexpected “that Covey seemed taken all aback” (77). Douglass, like Bartleby, broke the mold, so Covey’s reaction to his resistance was similar to that of Bartleby’s employer. Most slaves would have taken that beating, but he stood up for himself and it changed the way he was treated by Covey from that moment on and it gave him new hope which led to his freedom.

        Being an individual and taking a risk in order to achieve a goal is encouraged as long as one does it without going against the norms in a society. Individualism is only acceptable when one achieves it without breaking moral codes. Another thing about individualism is that it becomes more acceptable when a group of individuals have the same goals. Douglass became one of many slaves who escaped and they were all part of a movement that pushed for the abolishment of slavery. Homosexuality is becoming more common because so many people have come out, but decades ago when someone came out as gay they were scrutinized. The legalization of gay marriage is proof that many people no longer view homosexuality as uncommon. Gays are no longer considered individualistic, because they are now part of the American dream of getting married and having a family like everyone else. This goes to show that – unlike Thoreau and Bartleby – some individuals just want to be part of a community where they are allowed the same privileges as everyone else. In Douglass’s case it was necessary for him to be an individual in order to be free like the majority of America.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Ed. Jeffery S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New

        York: Random House, 2000. Print

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” (1953) Course Packet.


4 thoughts on “Individualism Only Works within Societal Rules

  1. This is an interesting take on individualism. However, I disagree with you about Thoreau. Thoreau was still very much apart of a society. He traded goods with local merchants and was staying on his friend’s land. In his everyday life, Thoreau was apart of a subculture that included several other intellectuals. He did not live or wish to live his entire life in the woods. I’m also not sure if the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state of California makes anyone less of an individual.

  2. I think that Thoreau represented as aspirational form of individualism. In truth, he relied on neighbors and traders to support himself and probably wouldn’t have even come up with the support for his project had it not been for Emerson. Thoreau did grow his one food and build his own cabin, but much of that expertise was borrowed from others, not learned through the hard process of trial and error. After all, no man is an island. I don’t know if this undercuts Thoreau’s ideas or makes them illegitimate, but one does have to wonder about the quality of the experience he had and whether his words really bear out what actually happened at Walden.

  3. I think your notion that individualism is encouraged as long as it abides by society’s standards is a fascinating one because it can call into question the definition of individualism. For example: can something be considered individualism if it is necessary to be in conjunction with society? I think it’s also an interesting topic because some people, like Douglass, who disregard many social norms and expectations are later praised for their ability and conviction to do so. Again, this relates to what you were saying about Bartleby, who was in a way obedient to a fault.

  4. I think your examination of the concept of individualism is very much like Wallace’s “This is Water” speech that we listened to in class. In your analysis of these three texts, you essentially come to the conclusion that to truly be considered an individual is to subsist outside of, or rather despite conformity–to understand the water you are swimming in, to put it in Wallace’s terms.

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