‘Belonging’ is a literary trope relevant to all types and genres of publication and film. Perceptions that affect belonging can be determined by oneself: by intrinsic flaws and attributes, by choices made by the individual, by the individual’s physical and emotional potential to belong and by society as a whole. However, these perceptions can be altered by physical and/or emotional barriers placed upon the individual.
Through a comprehensive study of the poetic works of Emily Dickinson, the novel Candide by Voltaire and Gattaca, a film directed by Andrew Niccol, I have come to learn that an individual can belong or not belong as a result of various different factors. Such as belong through interests and the forging of relationships through these, belonging through or with nature as explored by Dickinson and Voltaire in Candide, not belonging as a result of isolation or exclusion and the desire to belong as portrayed by the individual, and it is thus that my personal views on belonging have been altered. An individual can forge relationships and a sense of belonging or not belonging through interests. Emily Dickinson explored this concept through her love and passion for writing, especially in her poems ‘A word dropped careless on a page…’ and ‘This is my letter to the world…’. In ‘A word dropped careless…’ she describes a sense of belonging through her literary works, stating that she may one day be able to belong when people read her works.
She also describes the depression that such works can bring as ‘malaria’, which is a metaphor and shows the reader that some literary expression can alter our feelings in a negative way also. In ‘This is my letter…’ Dickinson describes a world that has ignored her and that through her writing she is able to reach out to the world. Dickinson was never able to belong, and was castigated because she was not able to conform to societal expectations held at that particular point in time.
In Candide, the protagonist and his comrades find a sense of belonging in their garden at their plantation, where they were rewarded by the “fruits that such labour brings” and this gives them a sense of fulfilment that they are not granted outside the garden. The garden alludes to the story of the Garden of Eden where they are able to belong in this piece of paradise. This was an interest that fulfilled the spiritual needs of himself and of his comrades. The protagonist in Gattaca is able to belong through his interest in outer space.
His success is rewarded by his peers, however, in this story the protagonist assumes the identity of another man as he himself does not possess the physical potential to belong in their opinion. Thus it should be noted that on the surface an individual can appear to belong, whilst still having his own personal identity. One may not belong due to barriers that are physically or emotionally put in place which cloud the perceptions of belonging which result in physical or emotional isolation or exclusion.
Through her poetic works, one can conclude that Dickinson is isolated from society, perhaps because of her mental inability to reach out to others. We know this from ‘I died for beauty…’ and from ‘I had been hungry…” In “I died for beauty…” it is implied that she died in search of beauty – and goes on to state “but was scarce…” perhaps suggesting that this subterfuge had resulted in failure. The persona of this poem suggests that she has found companionship with her “company”, but that she can never belong fully because of the “walls”, the physical barriers in place that prevent belonging.
In “I had been hungry…”, Dickinson uses dining as an extended metaphor to represent companionship. She “trembling drew the table near and touched the curious wine…” and this suggests that she was apprehensive and almost scared about indulging in companionship and never completely indulges in this concept, she merely “touch[ed[“ it. In Gattaca, Vincent or Jerome(his alias) chooses to try and overcome these barriers put in place by the totalitarian society of Gattaca. You want to give your child the best possible start” says the geneticist to Vincent’s family when considering having a brother for Vincent. This dramatic and cruel tone was condescending towards the protagonist due to the fact that he was born by natural conception, where the man-made, genetically “superior” reign supreme. It is not natural to be born by natural conception in this society. The story shows the extraordinary lengths the human spirit is prepared to go in order to belong, in fact the publicity tagline for the movie itself states, that “there is no gene for the human spirit”.
Vincent assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow, one whom the audience learn to become Vincent’s best friend, and we later know him as Eugene. Eugene assists the protagonist regular substance tests by providing him with urine and blood sample. This also poses the question: “Vitro” or “Non-Vitro”, man-made or natural born men, for a society obsessed with perfection in every aspect of life, when every person is human, how does anybody belong? They are all in one way or another on a quest to overcome the ridiculous expectations imposed on them in order to belong.
The desire to belong is also an important factor to consider when exploring the concept of belonging. Dickinson demonstrated this through in her poem ‘I gave myself to him…” to articulate to society that she wished not to conform to society’s expectation to get married. She uses financial and trading jargon such as “Cargo” and “Buy” suggesting that a transaction is taking place when depicting the foundations of the sacred union of marriage. She described what may be sexual encounters with as husband as “debt” which connotes a negative feeling towards such undertakings.
This debt was “insolvent every noon” suggesting that it is dissolved every night before dawn. This is also demonstrated in Gattaca where the protagonist goes to extraordinary lengths to belong, even though he promises to give the effort 110% he is told “that’ll[would] only get [him] half way there” suggesting that it would be difficult to attain any sense of belonging. This concept is also explored in Candide where Candide, an impressionable and naive young boy is expelled from the castle of Westphalia for “touching the lips” of Cunegonde.
He changes his beliefs to align them with whichever institution he affiliated himself with at any given point in the story, for instance when he drinks to the health of the Bulgarian king, and to drink to his health “is sufficient”, in the midst of a war between Germany and Bulgaria. He does however choose not to belong when he leaves the paradise of Eldorado because of its Utopian morals. Belonging through or with nature is also explored by Dickinson in ‘What mystery pervades a well…’ where Dickinson uses personification to describe the sedge. This is indicative of the fact that Dickinson felt an affinity for nature.
Also, this concept is engaged with in Candide, when Vardedendeur’s boat sinks indicating the fact that “God punishes the scoundrel – the devil drowned the rest”, showing that Nature or in this case, God is much more powerful and “less careful” than we are as humans, and poses the question: how does any human belong with nature? But Voltaire demonstrates that one can belong in nature, with the example of Candide’s garden, as this provides “an escape from philosophical thinking – it is the only way of rendering life bearable” this shows that enjoying in the ‘Ignorance is bliss’ mantra is fulfilling.
In conclusion, through a comprehensive study of the poetic works of Emily Dickinson, the philosophical novel Candide by Voltaire and the film Gattaca directed by Andrew Niccol, I have come to understand that belonging is influenced by any number of intrinsic or external, physical or emotional barriers that alter perceptions of belonging – for the better or for the worse from the perspective of an individual.