The Presence of Ignorance in American Literature The dictionary definition of ignorance is a lack of knowledge or information, but a more relatable defining of the word is to disregard what is obvious to one’s own or another’s detriment. Ignorance was such a common trait among people during the time period from 1865 to the early 1900s, that it popped up not only in the literature, but also in historical events.
A majority of individuals from history did not see their follies until the consequences of their naivety was upon them; such as, those moving out west failed to realize the lack of trees for lumber ould negatively affect their ability to build homes and towns. Many living through the Civil War in the South were unaware of the fact that if they lost, they would lose their fortunes and slaves.
The ignorance present in historical events is what influenced authors to include ignorance, which would lead to either death or a miserable life, as a focal point in their literature. Ignorance is bliss” is a common saying meant to assure people that by ignoring what is obvious, the problems will no longer matter. The problem with this thought is that the problems never truly cease to exist, instead they intensify. In Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study”, character Daisy Miller chose to ignore the advice given to her on how to conduct herself with men around town. Instead of heeding Mrs. Walker’s advice of “walk[ing] with [her] mother”, Daisy Miller chose to parade herself around town with a man she was not officially involved with (James 446).
Daisy Miller believed that if she just continued on with her actions, those in the high society would eventually cease to care. Her refusal to accept her place as a person from new money was to her own detriment because her and her family’s reputation was tarnished. Daisy Miller is a prime example of why ignorance is not bliss because her own life was ruined due to her believing any problems would dissolve without her having to attend to them.
In Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”, Mr. Pontellier faked his obliviousness to what Edna moving out really meant. He chose to focus on “what people would say” as opposed to the fact that his wife was leaving him, and that she was obviously unhappy (Chopin 634). His ignorance was to his detriment because he failed to see his wife’s dissatisfaction with her life, and he failed to understand what he could have done for her. These two instances, and many more within volume C, prove that ignorance is not bliss, and that issues within one’s life will not dissipate just because they are ignored.
Many more stories contained within Volume C of the Norton Anthology: American Literature prove that ignorance is, more often than not, to one’s disadvantage. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper”, the unfamiliarity with the true illness of the woman, is the reason behind the ill-fitting treatment, and consequently the reason behind woman’s decent into madness. The prescribed use of “phosphates.. and onics, and journeys, and air, and exercise”, and lack of work, were all meant to cure what physicians believed ailed the woman (Gilman 792).
The useless cures only drove the woman to an implied suicide. The author was highlighting the ignorance of doctors during that time period, as most of the doctors did not see what was wrong with new mothers for what it really was – postpartum depression. The lack of knowledge on postpartum depression and the best ways to cure it caused many women suffering from the mental illness to have psychotic breaks or commit suicide. In another death resulting instance of gnorance, Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” showcases how one’s own ill-informed actions can lead to disastrous results.
The man admits that he is “a newcomer in the land”, implying that he does not know everything necessary to keep himself alive (London 1048). His lack of knowledge is what gets the man into dangerous situations. The man also ignored advice given that “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner” (London 1055). The man’s mistakes lead to his inability to build a fire that would save his life. Had he heeded the warning and traveled with a partner, there is a possibility of the fire getting built.
He instead chose to ignore all signs and was oblivious to his own short comings. The man should have realized the full dangers of his trip and if he had, he most likely would have survived. In these instances, the ignorant actions of characters led to the deaths of others or even themselves. While certain cases of ignorance can cause extremes such as death, some can simply cause misery in life. In Zitkala Sa’s “The School Days of an Indian Girl”, Zitkala herself was ill-informed to the intentions of the white people.
She ignored her mother’s wishes for her not to go to the assimilation school, and because of that, when she eturned home her mother could see her “suffering” with being back in her Indian culture (Sa 1099). Zitkala’s newfound unfamiliarity with both her Native American and white culture caused her to be unhappy in either culture. Another case of ignorance leading to discontent was in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”. Joe Dagget spent “fourteen out of… fifteen years” of their engagement “in Australia, where he had gone to make his fortune” (Freeman 656).
Dagget was selfish in his thinking that Louisa would be patiently waiting for him at home, still as in love with him as she was before. In fact, Louisa felt “consternation” when she first saw the man she was to marry (Freeman 657). The misinformation given in this case, led to the misery of two people, no longer in love, but who both felt they owed it to the other to continue on with the marriage. In all these cases, ignorance of the truth was the root of each character’s displeasure in their lives.
In one of the strongest cases presented, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” truly shows how ignorance can lead to a worsening of the present situation. In the story, the Swede comes into Nebraska convinced he is walking into a dime novel come to life. His obliviousness toward the fact that there was no danger causes him to overreact and yell about how he “[does not] want to fight” (Crane 930). He convinces himself that he is “going to be killed before [he] can leave the house”, an assumption completely based on what he had read from dime novels (Crane 931).
The Swede’s misconceptions about his surroundings caused an unnecessary tension in the men he was staying with. The whole house was put on edge because the Swede truly believes that where he is, is straight out of an over exaggerated western novel. Furthering tensions within the house, the Swede hen accuses the boy Johnnie of “cheatin”, an accusation that wholly violates the unwritten honor code (Crane 936). The Swede, being oblivious to the honor code, did not know that his allegation only means more trouble for the house.
Had the Swede been more observant, perhaps he would have seen that his situation was in no way dangerous, and that cheating was not an accusation men made light of. Thus far, the Swede’s ignorance of his environment only caused it to actually turn into what he believes it should be. Really solidifying his inexperience, the Swede then goes looking for a fight at a bar. His lack of knowledge on the other patrons of the bar cause him to overlook the danger of “the gambler”, who is compared to a “wolf” (Crane 944).
His own ignorance of those in his surroundings lead him to think himself invincible, and promotes the Swede to antagonize everyone in the bar, looking for a fight and ultimately leading to his death. In the end, had the Swede not been ignorant of what he was walking into, he would have not gotten into fights or been killed. He was so convinced that he was in danger, that he actually created a dangerous situation which proved fatal to himself.
It was his own lack of experience that caused his death, a fact important because it shows people the importance of being aware of the culture and happenings occurring in the environment. The reoccurring theme of ignorance is important because everyone has had an ignorant moment or choice in life. Lessons given through the stories are to realize the truth of one’s situation and to know one’s limitations. In all examples given, had the characters or real people accepted the truth, and had they all quit lying to themselves, then any of the situations would have had a different outcome.