It has been said that everyone is a product of their environment. Modern psychology agrees with this statement to a certain extent. People are born with a certain set of genetic tendencies and personality traits, but their social learning and environment decide how these innate traits manifest. This essay will support the thesis that environment and culture play a role in character development using Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and the film Bottle Rocket by Wes Anderson. To begin with, “Everyday Use” is set in the 1960s or early 1970s during a time when the social status of African Americans was changing rapidly. After nearly a century of being considered subordinate and “less than” whites, they were struggling to redefine themselves as people. Consequently, this redefinition occurred both among the African American people as a whole, and in individuals. The redefinition of African American culture depended on the ability of the individuals within it to redefine themselves, as they are part of the whole. Although the main transformation that was taking place was that they wanted to be viewed as a visible, unified group, but there were many different ideas on how to achieve this singular goal.
In this case, Mama represents the traditional African American roles. Her behavior patterns are shaped by the old place of African Americans in America. She is poor, uneducated, and did not have the opportunities afforded modern African Americans. Maggie is Mama’s daughter, burned in a house fire in her early years, she is self-confident and timid. Despite this, she is a good heart, undoubtedly due to living with Mama as an example. Next is Dee, who is the older daughter and fully embraces her African Heritage. She is educated and claims that Mama and Maggie do not truly see their place as African American women. This sets up conflict between Dee and Mama. While Mama represents the values of the old ideals about African American culture, Dee represents the changes in society that have taken place. Hence, Maggie is stuck between the two cultures as represented by Dee and Mama.
Secondly, “A Rose for Emily” is about a time of environmental change in a small town. Emily is the representation of material culture and the grandeur of days gone by. As Emily’s world falls apart, she feels the need to hold onto the wealth and security of a time that is now passed. Emily’s sense of self is based on her identification with the old Southern code and lifestyle of the south. As Emily sees this lifestyle slipping away, she uses her mansion and the trapping of the old lifestyle as a shield against the changes that are taking place on the outside. For instance, she refuses to allow house numbers to be attached to her house by the new postal service. Another example is when she refused to hand over the body of her deceased for three days. Emily’s descent into sociopathic behavior is a result of not wanting to recognize or accept societal changes that are taking place around her. Her reclusiveness is an attempt to control her environment so that she can hold onto the past.
Finally, Bottle Rocket is a crime comedy about an elaborate plan to pull off a simple robbery. It is set in modern times, sometime around the 1980s. Bottle Rocket is about a pair of guys who want to be famous for committing a robbery. The main character, Anthony, has just been released from a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown. Digman is his friend and partner in crime. While both of the characters appear to be insane, Digman is far more so than Anthony. Digman comes up with a plan to make them famous. The entire plot revolves around a scheme to become famous social deviants. Without getting into argument about nature versus nurture in the field of psychiatric illness, it is apparent that neither of the characters had a social environment that precluded them to “average” culturally accepted behaviors. Although, it is possible that Anthony was at one time somewhat sane and normal, something happened in his environment that caused him to experience a psychotic break, as suggested by the fact that he had a nervous breakdown. While in the environment of the mental hospital, he was not likely exposed to sane behaviors. In order to fit into the environment, he more than likely took on the behaviors of those around him. Digman appears to have always been a little on the crazy side. It is likely that both of them were born with tendencies that precluded them to act in ways that were outside of the cultural norms of their society.
Clearly, these three characters support the thesis that environment and culture play a role in the development of the personality of the characters in these three literary examples. In this way, the characters in the novels reflect real life personalities and how everyone is a reflection of their cultural upbringing and the events of their life thus far. Change is constant, and how humans react and adapt to these changes is what makes up their personality. The characters examined in the three examples are representative of how the characters have adapted to the changes.
In conclusion, one must consider that the character and the reader have different perspectives on the events of the story. In the case where the story is a different place and time from the reader, the character and reader will have been affected by different environments and social norms. The character’s reaction to his or her circumstances is culturally relevant to the norms of their society. The reader is not an “insider” to the world of the character. They view the circumstances from a modern view. The task of the writer is to bring these two worlds together. The actions of the characters might seem shocking to the reader, as they represent a different social environment. These three examples demonstrate the power of the environment in the shaping of literary characters.