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The Attitude of Leaving Home in the English Literature Essay

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Updated: Nov 14th, 2021

Home and being away from home have been constant preoccupations in literature over the ages. The old English literary works portrayed warriors and seafarers who were involved in adventurous feats. The old English poem ‘The Wanderer’, written by one of the earliest English Poets Cynwulf embodies the old English spirit for travel and adventure. Medieval literature was characterized by the spirit of romance and chivalry, according to which the Knights set out on quests and engaged in mock encounters. In the Elizabethan and Neoclassical periods, this remained a recurrent theme but with deeper sociological and intellectual associations. The Romantic novelists like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte too engaged this binary: the home as a private space and the society as a public space. Meanwhile, the poets of the period presented this theme from a different paradigm. Quite characteristic of their age, the Victorians too were perplexed by this question. This paper proposes to analyze how the notion of being away from home or moving away from home has been dealt with in different genres over the ages in English literature.

The old English or the Anglo Saxon literature abounds with poems that are written with the theme of travelling or wandering from place to place. The Anglo Saxons were a fierce wandering tribe and their literature also embodies this spirit of adventure. ‘The SeaFarer’ and ‘The Wanderer’ are poems that express this spirit of adventurous travel. The Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf presents the royal palace as a place that offers protection to the subjects. The monster in the poem Beowulf may be an external enemy and Beowulf who embarks on this “monster” is valorized as a national hero. Thus, in Anglo Saxon literature, this movement away from the security of the palace is treated as an adventurous deed. Similar was the medieval chivalric notions. Those warriors who moved out of their palace with altruistic missions were honored with Knighthood and they won the respect and love of people.

During the Elizabethan age, the theme of moving away from home was a topic both in plays and travel writings. In travel writings, the concept of moving away from home sprang from its sociological context while the Elizabethan dramatists engaged this topic from a philosophic and intellectual perspective. The Elizabethan literature could be seen as an offspring of English Renaissance. Travelers, merchants and explorers left their home country in search of greener pastures. Some of these travelers wrote about their voyages and they were read with great enthusiasm and amazement. Richard Haklyut, Samuel Purchas and Walter Raleigh are some among these travelogue writers. Their writings valorized this movement away from home and home country in the light of the colonial aspirations.

The Elizabethan dramatists, however, presented this topic from more of a philosophic and intellectual perspective. The Elizabethan drama was an offspring of both Renaissance and Reformation. Renaissance marked the birth of humanism which resulted in a paradigm shift from a God-centered universe to an anthropocentric universe. This resulted in an explosion of knowledge in secular subjects as different from the medieval times. The society and its religious structures were skeptical of this new learning. The home was a symbol of this old order, which was built on questions of faith and superstitions. The new learning was often associated with universities, especially Wittenberg where the high priest of Reformation Martin Luther had been a professor of Theology. A movement away from home symbolized the movement from this old order to a new order. Shakespeare’s Hamlet could be seen as a representative text that encapsulates this movement away from home. Prince Hamlet walks out of his father’s palace to enter the University of Paris. The palace is a place that represents the old order with its belief in ghosts and spirits. Hamlet has been away from the palace and does not subscribe to their beliefs. He refuses to believe the ghost stories:

“Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn’d
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy interests wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.” (Shakespeare, 25-26, Line: 40-44).

But when in the palace, even Hamlet shares this belief and it is for this reason that he hesitates to kill Claudius while he is at prayer.

In poetry, Spenser’s Faerie Queen embodies this spirit of adventure. The Red Cross Knight in the poem is a Renaissance spirit inspired by the new learning and the promise of a new world it offers. Here, the world is symbolized by home and the movement is from this world to another philosophic world from where he is unwilling to return:

“adowne he looked to the ground,
To haue returned but dazed were his eyene,
Through passing brightness, which did quite confound
His feeble sense and too exceeding shyne,

So darke are earthly things compared to divine..” (Headlam Wells, 39). In the Greek poem, “The Odyssey”, Homer tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus. Odysseus is a young king who is called away from his island kingdom, Ithaca, to the war between the Greeks and Trojans. The war with Troy draws on for ten long years and ends with the victory of the Greeks. However, as they leave Troy, the Greek break the boundaries of right moral action and vandalize the temples of the gods. As a punishment the Greek heroes are fated to find horror at home or spend a long-lasting and dreadful journey from their homes. “The Odyssey” is the story of the additional ten long years of journey on the seas that Odysseus makes. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” is Tennyson’s view of what happens to Odysseus after the close of “Odyssey”. Tennyson’s poem selects the peaceful close of Odysseus’s life, with Tennyson thinking this powerful man could no more sit still for his final years of his life than he could decide not to fight for twenty years to return home. Ulysses find bored and disappointed with his life. As he and his wife Penelope were old he finds no joy out of administering justice to the people of his kingdom who he calls ‘Savages’. Ulysses remembers his life as it was before he settled into kingship. He had enjoyed his life by travelling far and wide and now he wants to continue experiencing life in just this way.

“I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed.” (Thomson, 67). Ulysses wants to experience life to its fullest, to drink it to the bottom. Ulysses does not think that breathing alone makes life. For him, resting is the same as getting rusted. In fact, life piled on life is not enough for him.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and to yield” (Tennyson, Line.70)

Ulysses is hungry for travel on and on, even beyond the sunset, for the sake of knowledge.

In Christopher Marlow’s “Dr. Faustus” one can see that the main character Dr. Faustus is a professor in theology at Wittenberg. As he was dissatisfied with his limited knowledge, he exchanged his soul to the devil, thereby attaining unlimited knowledge and power which any other human being can attain. After that, he along with the devil servant Mephistopheles travelled whole over the world by leaving his own native place. They both travelled all over the world, and by his supernatural power he makes some tricks over the poor people and even towards the pope. He undertakes a journey in the air by travelling on the back of a dragon to gain knowledge about the geographical lines of the earth. “And, Faustus, all jointly move upon one axletree whose termine is termed the world’s wide pole.” (Marlowe, 26). Faustus is a voyager who finds no limits to human enterprise. He is of the opinion that human beings can do anything they wish, and for gaining more and more knowledge he makes this long lasting journey. Here one can see that Faustus, for his thirst for knowledge, left his home land and travels throughout the whole world. And by his misdeeds, at the end he lost his life. But he enjoys his life by travelling the whole world by doing every mischievous activities.

In Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “The Twelfth Night”, there is also a portrayal of the trend of leaving home. In this drama, the main characters, especially the two egged twins Viola and Sebastian leave the home by giving up all the luxuries and later they faced a lot of problems which even results in their separation from one another by the ship wreck. The situation again and again becomes very complex as the two of them find their own way to survive in the land they reached. Viola disguises herself as a page boy and serves the Duke Orsino while Sebastian wanders around the land he reached. Both of them faced a lot of problems in their life while living in Illyria as Viola happens to be a messenger of love and Sebastian had to live in pretension. Even after the twins united together they continue to live in the land they reached and find that they were not interested to return their home. Both of them were happy and satisfied with their new life and did not want to return their home. Thus the drama presents the characters that rarely stay in home and leave their home in an early age forced by some reasons.

Mark Twain’s “The Adventure Of Tom Sawyer” is another work which represents the main character leaving the home in order to live independently. The hero Tom and his brother were forced to live in their Aunt’s house soon after the death of their parents in their childhood itself. Even though Tom’s aunty loved him very much, she was very strict and always restricted him from everything which made him feel distress to her. He was not interested in going to school and also he wanted liberty from all obstacles which blocked his way. As Tom and his friend feared by seeing dreadful incident in the grave yard they decided to move from that place and as they wanted freedom from all impediments, he left the home with his friends and they reached in other island. “He convinces Joe and Huck that they should become pirates, and they steal a skiff and sail to Jackson’s Island, down-river from St. Petersburg.” (Twain). Even though they faced many problems they were happy and enthusiastic. Though Tom enjoyed a lot at first, later he was fed up with it and thought of his happy life he had in his home and this made Tom to return back.

In Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, there can be seen that the poet is frustrated by world-weariness and returns to natures lap. Wordsworth considered the nature as mother, God and everything. The poet roamed in many places and during the journey he visited the Way valley and also the river Tintern Abbey and it influenced him greatly. After twenty three years he returns with his sister to the valley to lie on the lap of nature. Both of them feel immense relief from all burdens while experiencing the sublime divinity of nature. Wordsworth realizes the fact that though he lost enormous time along with innocence but had an opportunity to turn back and receive the consolation in the bed of nature. And this notion can be seen through these lines,

“Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!.” (Wordsworth, line: 156-159)Thus in his poem there can be seen a renewal of passionate emotions and affections to the nature.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of Ancient Mariner’, there can also be seen the character who undertook a journey at an early age to know more about the world. The mariner in the poem sails out from his native land to the South Pole influenced by great adventure when he was a teenager. The voyage was highly enthusiastic and adventurous as he wished. Unfortunately, the mariner happened to kill an albatross and thereby faced a lot of disasters. From the very action he learned much and the rest of his life was in great regret and he wandered from land to land to find a person to tell his tale. The wanderings of the mariner indicate that he did not spend much time in his home. Thus the character in the poem was a wanderer who lived in his home only a short time and spent most of his life outside home. The mariner, through his cruel deed and the after-effects, learned the very lesson that all are equal in the world and it reveals through his words.

“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.” (Taylor Coleridge, 20).

Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest” is another example of literature which describes the tendency to leave the home mainly influenced by some motives. Jack often conducts a journey to London leaving his native country with the pretension of a brother named Earnest but the real motive is to get the love of a beautiful lady in that country, namely Gwendolen. The case of Algernon is the same as Jack as he too makes up a brother and set out from home frequently only to gain the love of Cecily, the niece of Jack. Both the main characters leave home influenced by their own motivations in “Importance of Being Earnest”. Thus the two heroes rarely stay at home but often set out home in order to get free from social obligations.

In every literary work, the character being away from home can be seen enormously. Even in the early ages, it can be seen in literary work, and even in medieval literature and romantic literature one can see this. A good example which one can point out is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. In this, the protagonist leaves his home country in order to attain more knowledge. This itself is the theme of Marlowe’s drama; for power and more knowledge he travels the whole world. Every writer of different ages takes this as a major theme and they discuss it differently in their work. In the medieval work, one can see that the characters moved away from their home land and engaged in adventurous journeys. Even the theme “Being away from home” has been there in every writer’s work in every period. However, their depiction which the writers pictured in their work is different. But when one look towards the seventeenth and eighteenth century they can say that the writers of that period illustrate the theme “being away from home” as an adventurous one. They portrayed this theme in their work and the characters in their work make an adventurous journey. A best example which one can point out is in “Ulysses”. In this the hero Ulysses moves away from his kingdom and spends ten years at Troy and ten years coming back to his home. While reaching Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ the attitude changes as the poet returns home for sublimity. Thus the whole analysis indicates that the attitude of leaving home changes during the passage of period and it can be seen in the literature of that time very clearly.

Works Cited

  1. Headlam Wells, Robin. . Taylor & Francis. 1983. Web.
  2. Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus. Scene VI. Courier Diver Publication. 1994. 26.
  3. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Roma Gill (ed.). 2nd edition. Act1 Scene 4. Line 40-44. Oxford University Press. 2002.
  4. Taylor Coleridge, Samuel. . New York: D. Appleton & co. 1857. Web.
  5. Tennyson, Alfred. Ulysses. Line 70.
  6. Thomson, Alastair W. . Taylor & Francis. 1986. Web.
  7. Twain, Mark. . Book Rags. 2009. Web.
  8. Wordsworth, Jonathan. . The Two Part Prelude. Cambridge University Press. 1985. Web.
  9. Wordsworth, William. Tintern Abbey. line: 156-159
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