DISCLAIMER: Matt Groening’s work often introduces throwaway jokes with larger implications, some of which will be included herein. Despite cartoon physics and, well, what may be considered to some unimportant details, this is a literary analysis, and we’re gonna try to get into the larger implications of some of these “jokes”, damn it. So, let’s go.
Early American Literature: while undeserving of its current title and regard within scholarly circles, it remains a category of studied literature, and the themes it explores are broad and insidious. Some themes have even crept into today’s literary art, as the exploration of them is as important now as it was when the United States were first being carved into the landscape of North America. Today’s art takes many forms, one of which is the cartoon genre, which can be used to evaluate adult themes that are reflected within Early American literature. Over the last few years, Matt Groening (creator of Futurama, writer for The Simpsons) has created a new work, Disenchantment, that considers some of these themes, such as citizenship, patriarchy, and freedom, but in the fantasy setting of Dreamland, which seems to be inspired by feudal Europe. The rearticulation of these themes, as seen in Disenchantment, is a reflection on how technology allows modern America to share in the exploration of familiar themes seen now in a new light. It explores the theme of personal freedom throughout its consideration of other ideas, and this personal freedom is what drives the narrative forward, not unlike some of the texts touched upon in this course.
Disenchantment depicts a complex relationship between its characters and their claim to citizenship. Princess Tiabeanie, while being a noble, is put in the position of a pawn for the people her father, Zøg, rules. Her actions are forced representations of what Zøg thinks is “best for the kingdom”, making her citizenship status debatable due to her complete lack of personal freedom. During the start of the first season, she escapes an arranged marriage to a neighboring royal, Guysbert, by murdering him and fleeing. Bean’s father sends a search party after her, not to persecute her for her crimes, but to force her into completing the ceremony with Guysbert’s younger brother, Merkimer. This shows the objectification of Bean (using her as a method to secure an alliance rather than trying to understand why she wouldn’t want to go through with the ceremony), rendering her citizenship lesser due to her gender in her society. Bean’s story of being viewed as lesser in society due to her gender is somewhat paralleled in Incidents, where Linda is exposed to more dangers and more objectification based on her gender on top of hardships instilled on her by southerners due to her race.
There are plenty of examples of similar occurrences in Groening’s work, where the relationship between citizenship and servitude is shown through the lens of how personal freedom is affected. Bean’s personal daemon, Luci, for example, is from a servant class in Hell, where they must obey those of a higher social class in order to survive. Their personal freedom is so limited that, when they decided to go against the grain, they were literally stripped of everything aside from their physical form as punishment and banished from their home. Luci’s attempts to gain freedom closely parallel those of Linda, who was also stripped of everything she loved in order to escape tyranny and observe any ounce of personal freedom, unable to return home for fear of prosecution.
Groening also considers the implications of the medieval patriarchy, whose oppression is viewed from the lens of womanhood. Bean’s story focuses on her fight to secure her own freedom, not to be considered as “some woman”, but as a human being with equal rights. Often, the plotline is diverged by the patriarchal institution dictating what Bean “can and cannot do”, seen in her forced marriage, her inability to participate in arts, and her lack of formal education in fighting techniques, despite showing strong interest in the personal freedom to learn and act as she chooses. Often self-advocating, Bean forces her way into the conversation about a woman’s right to choose her future and her current activities. Not only is Bean’s strong-willed desire for freedom often well-represented, but her stepmother, Oona, embodies it as well. Oona’s transformative journey about betrayal and the uselessness of patriarchal leadership comes to a head in the beginning of season two, when she’s found at sea by a pirate ship without a leader. Her ruthless nature and desire for complete freedom serves her well as she aims to sommand the vessel, and she returns to Dreamland to get a divorce in order to live her life on the high seas, moving from the self-internalized and imposed image of a “kept woman” to the leader of what equates to a highly mobile and vicious army. To her, this new life is complete personal freedom; from the patriarchy, from oppression, and from those that held her back for being different.
The themes are all explored through the lens of personal freedom, but freedom itself is the most prevalent theme. In the course of the first two seasons, all three main characters end up sacrificing some vestige of their past lives in order to secure future personal freedoms (Elfo and Luci literally sacrificing their places within their homes, and Bean sacrificing her position of power and her desire for parental affection). Bean perpetually uses escapist techniques to try to gain some semblance of personal freedom, using substances in order to avoid coping with her state of being. During the one moment she gains a foothold on something resembling freedom (during her escape from Dreamland), she asks what “this feeling is [she doesn’t] want to drink away” – the feeling of hope for a future of her choosing. Her escape from oppression and patriarchy are themes also closely observed in Incidents, and touched upon in Eliza’s journey within Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Not including Disenchantment and its many rearticulations of themes from Early American Literature, there are many wonderful ways to study what, thematically, American Literature has to offer. Modern cartoons are but one offering (including such examples as Steven Universe, Rick and Morty, and Bojack Horseman, and many more) to rearticulate the themes observed within the canon – there is also social media, music, and, horribly enough, memes, all of which show the strengths that are the lasting themes of Early American Literature. The format of these contemporary works, from television to meme, being infinitely more accessible to the general public than a piece of writing via the internet, has a vastly greater impact on the public than literature of the past, while still drawing inspiration from its vast pool of thematic resources. If one wants to be able to read an aged text, they would need to acquire it or the rights to it, after learning about its existence in the first place, something often put behind a paywall. But anyone with access to a library computer, free wifi, and the internet can quickly (and free of charge) access the modern literature aformentioned in order to explore the themes rearticulated within at their leisure. This truly is the golden age of “American Literature”.