Understanding nourishes belonging. A lack of understanding prevents it. Belonging is not a solo act. For belonging to exist there must be some facilitation on the sides of two separate parties. Belonging hinges on how these parties create an understanding of each other. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems reflected the difficulty which she experienced upon attempting to forge a connection with her society.
Her personas in “My Letter to the World” and “I had been hungry all the years” both initially struggle with belonging to their society, and resolve these issues through establishing a sense of understanding; the former with her peers and the latter with herself. Similarly, the titular character in Shaun Tan’s acclaimed picture book, “The Lost Thing” finds itself alienated in a world that is dismissive of things it cannot understand. This lack of understanding stems from the society’s inability to reconcile with that which is different, and the “Lost Thing” ultimately must journey to a sanctuary where it is understood and accepted.
The composers of each text underscore their ideas using powerful imagery, with symbols and metaphors common features of all three. Understanding facilitates the development of belonging, and this cannot occur unless individuals go out of their way to forge connections with the larger world. The persona in Dickinson’s “My Letter to the World” attempts to do this on a massive scale, addressing her “letter” – a metonymy for her entire body of work – to a world that is dismissive of her. The persona makes it clear that she is writing to a society that “never wrote to me”, which suggests feelings of isolation.
These feelings are turned around upon the establishment of a connection with the persona’s countrymen based on the persona’s love of nature, which is personified and described here with a regal and majestic beauty. It is due to this love that she allows herself to ask them to “judge kindly of her”. The persona’s adoration of Nature is expressed clearly through the ardent description of “Her” in the fourth line. The juxtaposition of the words, “tender” and “majesty” is striking, and impresses upon readers a sense of both nature’s gentle beauty and its powerful reign throughout the world.
Nature is a commonality between the persona and the society from which she feels alienated; thus, by penning this letter and reaching out, the persona discovers a way of belonging in her society facilitated by an understanding based on their mutual respect for nature. In another of Dickinson’s poems, she addresses the possibility that by pursuing an understanding of belonging, an individual can come to experience that feeling within their own self. The persona of “I had been hungry” expresses a hunger that has pned years, a hunger symbolising the innate human need for belonging.
Dickinson employs imagery associated with food and eating throughout the poem, in keeping with this extended metaphor. The persona is given the opportunity to “sample the plenty”. The persona’s hesitance and apprehension in doing so are evident, as she “trembling drew the table near”. The persona is bewildered by the “curious wine” and comes to discover that this particular type of belonging isn’t for her. This discovery is emphasised in the metaphor in the second stanza, “Like berry of a mountain bush/Transplanted to the road”.
The juxtaposition of the berry, a thing of nature, and the man-made road signifies the jarring feeling the persona is experiencing. In the end, the persona finds that, “the entering takes away”. By engaging with the possibility of belonging, much like their counterpart in “My Letter to the World”, the persona conversely finds that it isn’t for her, and instead comes to the understanding that she was more comfortable in her own place. Lack of understanding, especially of things that are foreign to us, and how it acts as a barrier to belonging is a theme explored extensively in Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing”.
A boy discovers a creature and takes it on a journey through the industrialised conglomerate that takes no heed of it. The “Lost Thing” is first discovered on a beach; its striking red shade and natural-looking shape instantly convey to the reader how out of place it is in respect to its rather colourless, angular surroundings. The confusion and uncertainty that the people who notice the “Thing” are epitomised in the narrator’s lines “It just sat there, looking out of place. I was baffled. ” In the end, their search for the “Lost Thing’s” place, take them to a bizarre place, where all sorts of lost things have gathered.
Far away from the wider society’s inability to comprehend the “Lost Thing’s” existence, here it can assimilate into a world where its features are far less likely to warrant particular notice. Throughout the book, a recurring visual motif appears in the form of a white, wavy arrow. It initially evades notice – much like the “Lost Thing” in its society – up until it becomes relevant to the story as a marker leading the two main characters to the world that the “Lost Thing” eventually finds a home in.
Much like Dickinson’s persona’s, it is by making the attempt to find a place of belonging that the “Lost Thing” is able to navigate past a society that does not understand it into one that does. Society’s perceived indifference and its associated unwillingness or inability to understand play an integral role in the “My Letter to the World” persona’s perception of belonging. Whether this perception is the reality is not made clear; however, by playing on the insecurities of the persona this perception exacerbates her inability to belong.
The persona makes it clear that she is alienated by the wider world through the line, “Her message is committed/To hands I cannot see”. As she is not privy to the contents of this letter, she is therefore not part of this understanding that is shared by the wider community. The idea that this is passed by hands that she cannot see is also significant; it gives the connotation that there is a barrier between the persona and the rest of the world, and until she bridges this barrier and shares in the understanding, she cannot belong.
Through “My Letter to the World”, Dickinson expresses the idea that understanding is perhaps the key to belonging between individuals and groups. Similarly, in “The Lost Thing”, a lack of understanding gives way to the absence of belonging, and a desire on the part of the wider society to get rid of that which the misunderstanding originates from. The society of Tan’s book is unable to connect and interact with the objects they cannot accept into the drab surroundings of their day to day life.
The society’s misguided attempts to categorise everything in their world is embodied in the “Federal Department of Odds and Ends”. Tan parodies government mottos by inventing one for his invented federal department, “sweepus underum carpetae”. The pseudo Latin suggests that the Department’s purpose is nothing more than to “sweep things under the rug”. An imperative, “Don’t Panic”, follows the question “finding that the order of day-to-day life is unexpectedly interrupted? on the Department’s advertisement, and is indicative of the entire society’s attitude to things that seem out of place. The Lost Thing’s invisibility in its society is highlighted by the small size with which it is depicted against the cityscape. On one of the last pages, Tan poses a series of illustrations in which it appears as though the view is panning out from a tram to a view of several, then of hundreds; this impresses upon readers how easy it is to go unnoticed in the face of society’s lack of care and understanding.
An understanding thus cannot be reached between the Lost Thing and its environment, prompting its search for one where this is possible. An understanding between individuals and groups is imperative to a sense of belonging. Both Dickinson’s poems and Tan’s picture book detail the struggles to belong that can transpire from a lack of understanding and also depict the happy reality that results from newfound understanding.
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