The Issue of Constructing One's Identity in Charles Dickens’s ‘great Expectations’ and Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in The Sun’

Published: 2021-09-14 16:05:08
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Throughout the passage of human history, society tends to contradict itself. When it comes to identity, society is consistent in proving this to be true. While cultural works of literature and the words of world leaders aim to convince their audience that identity can come through self-determination and that the only limits to one’s realization of self are the ones that are self-imposed, society is still eager to place an individual in distinct groups or levels that incidentally contain them.
In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the impact of society’s defined groups, like the socioeconomic and racial groups, drastically affects the characters’ perception of their identity. However, both pieces of literature attest to a similar sentiment, that true acceptance of one’s identity comes from stripping away these labels and embracing the innate characteristics and traits underneath.The struggle to discount socioeconomic status as a indicator of one’s identity is one that takes the forefront of Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. The main character Pip realizes at an early age, after encountering others of a higher status, exactly how instrumental of a role his middle class demeanor plays in stratifying his identity: “I took the opportunity of being alone in the court-yard, to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now”. Although the difference in classes appears striking to Pip in a sudden instant, the role his low status has played in determining his identity in society has been prevalent since before he could comprehend its effects. The disappointment he feels from the predetermination of his standing in society stems from the confinement his “common boots” place on him, making him unsatisfyingly identify himself as nothing more than a “common labouring boy”, one that pales in comparison to those high up in society he looks up to with awe. It is only after Pip is able grow and mature more and, by chance, experience the lifestyle of those of high socioeconomic status as a gentleman that he can discount how impertinent this standing is to his identity and perception of self. Observing it through his moral friends of Biddy and Joe, who themselves never have taken their class as an indication of their identity, Pip sees in others traits that represent identity more than the label his status gave him in the past: “The delicacy with which Joe dismissed this teme, and the sweet tact and kindness with which Biddy – who with her woman’s wit had found me out too soon … left a deep impression in my mind”. By the end of novel, Pip’s journey across jumping class to class renders him back where he started. After seeing all different roles along the social ladder, Pip comes to reject the idea of a common labouring boy and reject the idea of gentlemen defining him with absoluteness. His acceptance that satisfaction with one’s identity comes from internal characteristics of gentility rather than an amount of knowledge or affluence becomes solidified as he watches those around him, regardless of their status and education, encompass the different facets of the identity that he comes to desire.
In Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, the conflict between race and identity crosses nearly every character. In the character of Walter Younger, the obstacle that blocks him from fulfilling his entrepreneurial dream that defines his ideal identity of a self-made black man comes down to the perception of his race against others: “I pass them cool-quiet-looking restaurants where them white boys are sitting back and talking ‘bout things … sitting there turning deals worth millions of dollars…sometimes I see guys don’t look much older than me”. Walter’s denial of his dream, stemming from the prejudice he experiences as a black man, leaves him to sacrifice his hopes of starting a business to take up a menial job as a chauffeur, a job that he feels that in its service nature undermines his identity of a strong father that provides for his family. The mere fact that Walter is black is enough to alter one’s perception of his identity in other aspects besides his dreams. When the time comes for Walter’s family to get ready to move out of their crowded apartment and into a house in a predominantly white neighborhood, they receive judgement upon their identity in the form of discouragement for them to move from their soon-to-be neighbors; “for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities”. The neighborhood implies that the Younger family does not have a place among them due the fact their identity is inferior according to their skin color. This form of segregation that the neighborhood suggests explicates the extent to which the identity of colored persons is determined by their skin color and not their internal qualities of hardworking and honesty. Although these qualities are not taken into account by those who are outsiders to those like the Younger family, the play ultimately culminates in the Youngers’ self-realisation of how their identity comprised of perseverance and resilience surpasses the societally imposed limitations of race with their final decision to move into the new house and neighborhood.
Through the themes prevalent in Great Expectations and A Raisin in the Sun, one can see how identity is not something that should be categorised. In order to truly understand one’s identity, their traits and internalised characteristics should be interpreted without the ignorance that comes from grouping individuals together to define them. In the battle that takes place within our society of systematically sorting individuals according to a socioeconomic status or race against the romantic sentiment of echoing that everyone can create their own identity, Dickens and Hansberry prove that the latter is the best option. When it comes to understanding identity, they encourage their readers that despite the process of finding one’s true identity to seem unattainable or grueling, achieving it will prove to be worth it in the end.

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