As you may have gathered, I have become a devoté of the writer Barbara Kingsolver. It’s my friend Dana Yost’s fault: he got me started and now I want to read everything she wrote. She writes beautifully and has a great deal to say that is important and worth serious thought. That’s what I do: I find an author I like and I read everything they wrote. Kingsolver belongs among the first rank of American writers in my view and the novel I finished reading not long ago raises a most interesting question. It has to do with what it means to achieve true individuality while at the same time belonging to a group.

In the novel, Pigs In Heaven, we follow a young woman introduced in Kingsolver’s previous novel as she struggles to deal with the fact that a young Indian girl she has adopted illegally and she has grown to love is now claimed by the Cherokee tribe to which they insist she rightfully belongs. As it happens, the woman is herself part Cherokee, but that fact remains in the background as the tale unfolds. During the telling of that tale, the young woman’s mother, Alice, goes to the Cherokee Nation to visit with a cousin and intervene on behalf of her daughter; while there she gradually reclaims her own sense of belonging to a people that, while poor, are held together by age-old traditions, painful memories, and, most importantly, love and respect for one another.

The question that this novel raises is whether it is possible for a person to become true to themselves while at the same time pledging loyalty to a group that may make moral demands on them. In a word, can one remain free while at the same time doing what others demand of them? The Nation has traditions and ways of doing things that Alice and her daughter are unfamiliar with — being raised in Mississippi and Kentucky, far away from the Nation itself. Kingsolver paints a beautiful picture of how Alice gradually finds herself drawn into this strange group of people while attending a “stomp dance” in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere (where alcohol is not permitted, as it happens). As the night  gradually turns to dawn and she finds herself dancing along with the entire nation, “For the first time she can remember, Alice feels completely included.” And yet she remains the same person she was before.

Is it possible for someone to feel (and, indeed be) included in a group and at the same time achieve true individuality? Kingsolver suggests that belonging to something greater than oneself is the ONLY way to achieve true individuality. It is possible to love others and oneself at the same time: one finds oneself by losing oneself. Our culture’s view of the issue seems quite different. We seem to think that true individuality can only be achieved by rejecting the group we are born into and swearing allegiance to none other than ourselves. Think of the turbulent 60s when the “establishment” was rejected out of hand and love was reduced to free sex: it was all about “doing your own thing.” As the young Cherokee attorney who is pursuing the little girl in order to return her to her people says to a white man early in the novel:

“Your culture is one long advertisement for how to treat yourself to the life you think you really deserve. Whether you actually deserve it or not.”

What we have here is a profound difference between the sense of belonging that Huxley, for example, depicts in Brave New World, in which individuals lose their sense of self by becoming drawn into a group that captures not only their wills but also their minds. This does not happen in the Cherokee Nation, according to Kingsolver. Alice, and to a lesser extent her daughter, is drawn back to her Cherokee roots. It is a beautiful idea and Kingsolver is able to make a convincing case. The glue that holds the group together is nothing more, nor less, than then love and respect they have for one another. Alice, for the first time she can remember, “feels completely included.” But she is also the same woman who lately joined the group, though now she has a deeper sense of who she is and where she belongs. In achieving true individuality and a sense of freedom she has never before known she has the assurance that she is loved and accepted for who she is.

These people seem to have it right: one achieves true selfhood and true freedom not by rejecting others and seeking to stand apart, but by accepting and willingly belonging to something larger than oneself– subordinating one’s self willingly in order to discover one’s self. In a way it’s not unlike a good marriage.


NOTE: In an interview with Stephen L. Fisher of Emory & Henry College in 2011 Ms Kingsolver confirmed some of the ideas I have expounded here:

“. . .the most remarkable feature of human culture is its capacity to reach beyond the self to encompass the collective good; yet, here in the United States we are blazing a bold downhill path from the high ground of ‘human collective’ toward the tight little den of ‘self.'”

Well put, but as is the case with so many fine novelists, her books make the point more forcefully.


3 thoughts on “Individuality

  1. Hugh, very thoughtful post. It reminds of the Greek word David Brooks defined in his book “The Social Animal,” called “thumos.” It means that quest your protagonist is on to find “recognition and belonging.” Brooks noted the example of high school, where those who belonged to a group, tended to find their path. It was OK to have individual recognition, but that sense of belonging is essential. I need to check this author out. Thanks for the recommendation. Keith

      • Agreed. In sports, it usually helps, provided you don’t hobble the star. Bill Russell used his talents to support the team and won 11 NBA, 2 college and an Olympic championship. It took Michael Jordan several years to realize he needed to pass more to his teammates enough to give himself more room to win. Once he did, he led his team to six championships in the pros.

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