Belonging is dependent on the perspective of the individual Belonging is an inevitable human condition that empowers an individual for better or sometimes for worse. It is a concept that deals with the human need or desire to feel a connection with a person, place, community or thing. Perceptions and ideas of belonging, or of not belonging, vary within each individual and can be shaped by personal experiences and relationships.
There are many ways through which an individual can belong to a relationship, however some find it difficult to establish similarities in identity with others, so must suppress their individuality in order to belong or else completely withdraw. While there are texts that explore many aspects of belonging, there are some that also represent this choice not to belong, or barriers that prevent belonging. Such texts include the film Into the Wild directed by Sean Penn, the poems I Had Been Hungry All the Years and This Is My Letter To the World by Emily Dickinson.
In the film Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless is a young man whose perspective of belonging within society has been altered by the dysfunctional and materialistic relationship of his parents. The fragile nature of his family’s relationship is portrayed in the dinner scene, which is muted and employs an unstable hand held camera that emphasises the tension and separation that is present.
As a direct result of his experiences of dysfunctional relationships, Christopher develops a negative view of society as a whole. ”You know, about getting out of this sick society…I don’t understand why people, why every person is so bad to each other so often. ”’ Christopher’s individual perception of the way society works has been shaped by the relationships and experiences he has witnessed and gone through as a child. For this reason he perceives society as poisonous, and instead of trying hard to belong to this ‘sick society’, he chooses to escape. ‘”No longer to be poisoned by civilisation he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. ’
In the film, Sean Penn depicts this view of an oppressive society that Christopher develops, using dark metaphors of conflict to strengthen this. For example, fence-posts are described as ‘black sword-tips’ and red tiles ‘hardened blood’. Throughout the film Into the Wild, the environment acts as a vehicle for belonging in which Christopher is able to understand the importance of connections between people and happiness. This is portrayed through a number of scenes of him in the environment which are shot in natural light, contrasting to the fluorescent lighting used in the civilized scenes.
This lighting technique reflects Christopher’s own views that the environment is a place where he can truly learn about belonging, something he couldn’t do whilst in his own fractured society. In the film Into the Wild the protagonist shows a preference for knowledge over belonging. ‘”Rather than love…give me truth”’ Christopher McCandless has learnt from previous experiences that love and relationships count for nothing unless there is truth. It is because of this lack of truth in society that he does not feel the need to belong within it.
However, after going on his journey and developing new relationships and experiences along the way, he regrets his decisions towards the end. This is seen through the director’s use of the diary to convey his thoughts. In an extreme close up, he writes ‘lonely’ slowly and deliberately, and underlines it to emphasise the strength of his sense of loneliness. The music is moving and poignant, highlighting his regret over his isolation. In addition, the final scene shows a sequence of rapid flashbacks showing characters with which he created relationships.
The voiceover is in second person ‘”What if I were smiling and running you’re your arms? ”’, stresses his regret at his refusal of connections. This use of voice over in addition to a positive number of images finishing with a still shot of Christopher, implies that our sense of belonging is important to both happiness and a sense of self. Christopher McCandless’s perspective on belonging has been shaped by his individual, negative experiences and dysfunctional relationships. In consequence he rejects the idea of belonging to such a society where these relationships exist.
However, after setting off on a journey where he creates new relationships and experiences in which beauty and truth are evident, he regrets his choice to seclude himself from society and the chance he had to belong. The poem I had been hungry all the years by Emily Dickinson portrays an outsider who yearns to belong. ‘I looked in windows, for the wealth I could not hope to own. ’ This could be read as a metaphor for the persona’s exclusion from society. The implications of the word wealth which she perceives others as having, is a reference to belonging within society.
There is a direct contrast between their wealth and her own condition, as she can’t hope to obtain it. This quotation also suggests that at this point in her experience, she thinks those who obtain such wealth are in a state that is preferable to hers. The speaker’s circumstances change so that she is able to have a ‘taste’ of belonging. However, now that she has experienced it she has learned that this ‘wealth’ is perhaps too great for her to handle. Dickinson compares her feelings about having “plenty” to the situation of a bush that naturally grew on the mountain being planted in the road. ‘Myself felt ill and odd. As berry of a mountain bush ? Transplanted to the road. ’ This would not be a good environment for the bush as it isn’t likely to flourish in the road.
Planting the bush suggests a permanent change, which we could also see as the permanence of the persona’s change from deprivation to plenty. The bush that grows from the berry is also in the wrong environment, or not in its natural place; in other words, the road is foreign or alien to it. This bush image could suggest that plenty is unfamiliar to the persona’s nature and her natural place is actually outside looking in through windows rather than being inside and belonging within society.
The speaker realises that she is no longer hungry, and that she no longer desires what she lacked “all the years,” now that it is available to her. Based on the knowledge acquired from the change in her status, she finally defines “hunger” as: ‘A way Of persons outside windows, The entering takes away. ’ Dickinson is describing that the desire to belong is taken away once a person actually experiences it. This experience of belonging in society has changed her views about what she actually desires and yearns for.
Here, the persona was first an outsider who finally experiences belonging and then realises it is not as good as she imagined. This can be contrasted with Christopher McCandless in the film Into the Wild as he experienced society and all its flaws primarily, and then went to find happiness alone. However Christopher and the persona in I Had Been Hungry All the Years both find, although at different stages and shaped by different experiences, that the cost of belonging in society is perhaps too great. The poem This Is My Letter to the World by Emily Dickinson explores the idea of alienation and not being accepted or belonging in society.
This poem could be read as a person who has waited so long for outside contact that she decides to complete the message for herself. ‘This is my letter to the world That never wrote to me,’ The speaker describes how the world has neglected her and thus she does not belong to society. Instead of waiting for society to recognize and accept her, she writes a message to the world in an attempt to make contact. In this way, the poem could be said to balance a love for seclusion with the desire for outside contact.
The writer is unsure of where her message will end up, or who will read it in the future. Her message is committed To hands I cannot see;’ Although she does not know who will read her letter, it is assumed that it will be read by society in general. The persona hopes that she will not be judged, but accepted for the message she has delivered. ‘For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me! ’ The love she has for nature has compelled her to write this message, and so she hopes that society can accept her love for nature and therefore understand why she had to deliver this message. This acceptance would ultimately lead to her belonging within society.
Belonging is a complex human condition that is perceived differently by every individual as a result of the different experiences we go through and the relationships we form. These experiences can develop the perceptions that individuals have on the concept of belonging. In the case of Christopher McCandless in the film Into the Wild and the persona of Emily Dickinson as shown through her poems I Had Been Hungry All the Years and This Is My Letter To the World, there is evidence of individuals who choose not to belong to society because of the negative outlooks that their experiences have given them.
As a result of this, they both isolate themselves from civilisation. The difference between these two individuals is that Emily Dickinson, after going through her new experience of belonging, comes to the conclusion that she does not need to belong within society. In contrast, Christopher McCandless goes through a journey of isolation and discovers all too late that ‘Happiness is only real if shared’.