Another Country

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Selfsame Country: Group and Individual Dynamics

As a mainly character-driven novel, Another Country is positioned so that the dynamics of both the individual and the group can be contrasted and understood vividly. As a black male, Rufus Scott, the tragic figure of the novel who connects the narratives of all other characters, is exemplary of how an individual’s needs and desires that are deviant from ambiguous norms cannot be fulfilled because they render false the desired normative image created and accepted by dominant groups. Rufus’ visible black skin is branded by society to signify an invisible, deviant sexual desire of white women so that the image of a United States free of miscegenation can be rationalized. Even though Rufus would like to love Leona, he cannot because his actions are informed by the fact that he knows they are deviant. Most tragically, Rufus is not only a character who cannot press and test the boundaries of his blackness because of its enforcement by those groups (i.e. passersby and police), but also a character who represents the idea that individual desires can only ricochet off those boundaries and transfigure into the shape of societal expectations. Rufus suggests this is the only way an outcast can possibly interact with society because the reversal of the momentum of his own individual desires to societal expectations discourages him so devastatingly that he feels there is no other recourse but to commit suicide.

As mentioned, one facet of Another Country is the emphasis that is placed on perception of an individual’s role in society at large including how characters want to be, what the characters actually participate in and the roles that are applied to them based on societal norms. The paramount character supporting this claim is Rufus. He is incredibly self-conscious of his surroundings and how he is perceived as a black man. This sub-theme is dominant from the first page and is experienced by Rufus as he is walking in downtown New York. Rufus believes a policeman is giving him a dirty look, and pulls “up the collar of his leather jacket” (Baldwin 3) as if to protect himself from the unvoiced accusation. Baldwin sprinkles scenes like this throughout the novel, conveying how reality is in the eye of the beholder. Rufus sees himself in the eyes of those around him and because of this feels the oppression every time he walks outside. He tries to create his own reality, however, society will not let him outside of the role it has him firmly entrenched him in. This role is not one in which he is comfortable and because of this it ultimately leads to his suicide.

Two other major characters whose reality is skewed due to vantage point are Leona and Vivaldo. Both are white and immersed in the black community yet they do not see the racism that affects those (Rufus, Ida, etc.) around them. While Rufus and Ida detect racism with every breath and every step, Leona and Vivaldo hardly see it at all. These two characters parallel Rufus and represent the other end of the spectrum. Leona tells Rufus how there “ain’t nothing wrong with being colored.” Rufus “looked at her coldly, from a great distance, as though he wondered what on earth she was trying to say,” (Baldwin 52). Even when Leona witnesses blatant hostility towards Rufus, she assumes that hostility is because of something other than his race. These three characters are literary devices implemented by Baldwin to convey how there is racism but each character experiences (or doesn’t) it differently. Leona and Vivaldo represent a middle ground where race doesn’t matter. Ideally both Rufus and Ida would like to meet their loved ones in that middle ground but societal pressure prevents them from being able to actualize that desire. In an ideal society, both Rufus and Ida would be able to meet their loved ones head on but because of that love they are put under more pressure since it is a love that shouldn’t exist under the current norms.

Love, sex and power are intertwined within Another Country. Characters within the novel are trying to find their place in society the best way they know how. They try to find their place even knowing (or maybe because of) the way they are viewed. Everyone in the novel tries to love wherever and whenever and however they can. However, love in Another Country always comes at a price. In order for all of the characters in the book to love they have to fight some force that they do not have control over. Their lack of power in the big picture usually manifests in anger, callousness, or brutality towards the ones they love. What happens more times than not is that the people that the characters love end up being torn apart because of societal pressure, internal demons, insecurities, jealousy or just simply not being able to fully understand. The search for love continues and through love, the characters manifest their own personal power (both positive and negative) even when they don't have power in society at large.

Many forms of love exist between characters in Another Country that haunt, comfort, and enrage its captives. These various relationships are inextricably entangled with the identities assigned to the characters by society. However, it is within these struggles as individuals that social norms are challenged and brought to light. The seed of hope for a different society rests in the possibility of loves that transcend the boundaries of race and gender. At one point, Vivaldo thinks to himself, "Love was a country he knew nothing about" (250). In this sense, love is the gateway to a deeper understanding.

Sex embodies the racial and sexual expectations as well as power dynamics with which the characters must grapple. Hence, the depictions of sexual acts tend to be rife with conflict and tension as in this scene between Vivaldo and Ida, “She opened up before him, yet fell back before him, too; he felt that he was traveling up a savage river, looking for the source which remained hidden just beyond the black, dangerous, dripping folliage” (152). In the bedroom, each person struggles with the identity bestowed upon them by their race, gender, and sexual orientation. These acts of love are battlegrounds where groups within society meet head on. In some cases, as in the case of Rufus and Leona, the individuals fail to find redemption in their love. This relationship between a black man and a white woman is the most suspect and despicable in the eyes of society. Rufus cannot be regarded in a relationship with Leona except as a predator. When considering the possibility that Leona might live with him, Rufus reflects, "The price was high: trouble with the landlord, with the neighbors, with all the adolescents in the Village and all those who descended during the week ends. And his family would have a fit" (29). Rufus is judged by everybody. As a result, Rufus feels immense anger and hatred toward himself for loving Leona and toward Leona for loving him. Theirs is a tragic existence which has no place in society, inevitably causing their love to be painful and abusive, and ultimately leading to their demise.

The relationship between Vivaldo and Ida is highly contentious at times, but not rejected by society with the same violence as that of Rufus and Leona. As a woman, Ida is not seen as a black predator but instead often assumed to be a whore. While this is far from flattering, it is not as likely that the white community will feel the need to step in on Vivaldo's account as they did for Leona. Similarly, Vivaldo may be looked down upon, but as the man in the relationship, it is much less likely that anyone will directly try to tell him what he can and cannot do. In this way, Vivaldo and Ida are judged, but not persued with the aggression that always threatened Rufus and Leona. With this space afforded their relationship, Vivaldo intentionally turns a blind eye to the racial realities which are impossible for Ida, as a black person, to dismiss. She unsuccessfully tries to awaken him. He is too much embedded in the society which he would like to shun. While this is a disparaging reality on the one hand, it also begins to suggest that perhaps in a world of full awareness of oneself and one’s identity, love between individuals may triumph over the society’s oppressive dictations.

Eric serves as the most hopeful character for a different future. He has come closest to discovering another country. Though Eric is a white man, his homosexuality prevents him from adopting a complacent role in society as Richard and Vivaldo have. His lust for men is highly forbidden in the society from which he emerges in Alabama. Thus, he does not perceive social boundaries in the same way as those around him because all his actions are forbidden. When young and still living in Alabama, he says to his black lover, "you're not a nigger, not for me, you're LeRoy, You're my friend, and I love you" (174). His view of LeRoy is not tainted in the way that is typical of white men. However, as LeRoy points out to him, Eric's way of life is a threat to white supremecy. In this sense, like Rufus, Eric has no society in which he can prosper. However, unlike Rufus, Eric is able to leave and attempts to discover his own world in which he has the freedom to define rules of love for himself. He is not allowed the degree of comfort afforded other characters in the book who have their identities rooted in social norms that protect them from scrutiny. As a result, Eric is fearful of love and his relationships with other men have a delicate quality, even when abusive. However, his delicate relationship with Yves is the romance that conveys the strongest interpersonal connection between two lovers. The various types of love all have a commonality in the fact that they go against some norm that society tries to place on it. The characters try to fight against these norms which results in power struggles which ultimately manifest in the relationships that they fought so hard to obtain.

Power in ‘’Another Country’’ is in short supply with the characters. For instance, here is a typical scene involving Vivaldo, Eric, and Ida outside a jazz club. It is the first time Eric and Vivaldo had seen each other and the first time that Eric meets Ida. A policeman walks bay and “seemed to take a dim, even a murderous, view…and ceasing to wait on occult inspiration, peered commandingly into the bar.” (251)

This scene is representative of many scenes that Baldwin uses to illustrate norms and expectations and the power that society at large has over the characters. Power, both personal and public, is a major element within the novel. Baldwin’s characters experience a loss of public power because of society’s perception of them and these perceptions manifest in their personal relationships. The identities that the characters fight so hard to manifest and hold onto (their personal power) is challenged because of their relationships and some of them end up losing this personal power. However, the loss of personal power is a result of societal pressures that want them to be something that they aren’t.

Rufus at the beginning of the novel is in such dire straits that he can’t (or won’t) see anything about himself beyond the color of his skin. Societal pressure put on him because he is black forces him into a mould that he didn’t fit into well. However, since Rufus felt the strain of society so intensely he ended up acting out those things which society already assumed about him with Leona. Leona was both loved and hated by Rufus. Unfortunately, in the end, the hate ended up winning out. Leona was in an impossible situation since she loved Rufus but couldn’t understand the things that he had to face on a daily basis. Even when she and Rufus were together and she experienced first hand prejudice from people, she insists that all people really want is to be friends. Being denied the right to live without suspicion and always the worst being assumed about him, Rufus, began taking out his anger on Leona, the one person who was closest to him. In Leona, Rufus saw every white person, their assumptions and their accusations and while he had no power over society at large he did have power over Leona. This acting out of the worst part of the societal stereotype was a way for Rufus to attempt to regain a sense of power that society had continually denied him.

Ida was in a similar situation with Vivlado with the strain of societal expectations falling on the shoulders of Ida instead of Vivaldo. Ida tries to find both personal and societal power the best way she knows how. She has an affair with Elliot in order to try to get an advantage in the world at large. This ultimately backfires because she ends up giving up too much of herself. Due to the pressures of society and the pressures she puts on herself through her affair with Elliot Ida continually reminds Vivaldo that she is black since that is what she is reminded of on a daily basis. Ida fights with Vivaldo for much of the same reason that Rufus fought with Leona. She is taking her anger and aggression out on the person in her life that she both loves but sees as representative of those pressures she feels continually. Ida, unlike Rufus, tries to find a way to obtain power in society but finds out in the end that isn’t possible without sacrificing too much of herself. The result of the relationship for Vivaldo is that he ends up losing much of his personal power while still maintaining the power he has in society at large. While never having to sacrifice who he is in order to be with Leona, he ends up losing much of his personal power in the relationship because he can’t (or won’t) see the impossibility of the situation that Ida is in.

Cass, in the novel, represents something completely different. Cass is the representation of the “angel of the household” but it is a representation that is seen to be flawed. The “angel of the household” idea is that a woman is to be the perfect domestic being. She is to be self-sacrificing, caring, nurturing, and the epitome of motherhood. In order to fulfill this roll, much of who Cass is is sacrificed to fit the societal expectation. In the end, she knows that this will never be the right thing for her and tries to gain that personal power that she feels she has lost with help of her relationship with Eric. The relationship succeeding had the collateral damage of Richard, her husband. Richard believes that Cass’ life is exactly what she wanted it to be. In fact, he had worked hard to make sure that she had the life she didn’t want. Richard’s loss of personal power comes in the form of Cass’ adultery and who that adultery was with. Eric, being a gay man, was everything that Richard was not. Eric threatens Richard because he was able to give his wife something he was not, challenging his role of protector and provider. To add insult to injury, Richard views Eric as less than a man but once he realizes that he was able to do something he could not, Richard starts to fear that he may be less of a man.

The interplay of personal power versus societal power within the novel is both complex and inevitable. As far as the personal relationships go, there is no way for the characters to be with each other unless they are willing to sacrifice parts of themselves to each other. Obviously, for some characters this is easier than others. The characters that already sacrifice much of themselves in order to just live in society can’t (or won’t) sacrifice more of themselves in order to be with the person they love. The pressure that society puts on Ida, Rufus, and Cass can’t be truly understood by the respective partners and they end up doing things that both hurt their loved ones while simultaneously trying to find their own personal place. This struggle ends up showing how they are trying to be safe but continually run up against the cold reality of their situations.

Throughout the novel, a central theme is how characters lose innocence, or move from a state of safety to the perception of a harsh reality. This is accomplished by the "personalization" of external circumstances for each character; broader social problems, specifically, systems of racial and sexual injustice, transition from a group problem to an individual's burden when one character makes them personal for another. The character of Rufus, both in life and in death, because he was unable to escape lapsing into and performing the normative role inherent in his "blackness," personalizes these broader problems for the characters around him, and causes them to perceive different realities. Eric is the first one to have the weight of the world shifted onto him by Rufus. In the relationship between the two, Eric "paid" for his closeness to Rufus through extreme emotional degradation. The language of "paying dues" would be similarly used later by Ida, and, indeed, Eric's payment rendered unto Rufus was to take abuse equivalent to or simulating some of the broader norms of race and sex that Rufus was suffering under. The pattern repeated itself in Rufus' relationship with Leona, though this time the reciprocated love and passion that existed on Rufus' part led to his own destruction. Rufus' death personalizes the external situation in Harlem for Ida, as she explains to Vivaldo near the end of the text. She was counting on her brother for a way out of the meager life of few prospects among the pimps and criminals of the Harlem streets. His failure to break out of the normative black male role caused her to slip into a normative black female role which she preforms until she comes clean with Vivaldo: that of the white man's whore. While the intention here is not to convey that Ida's going along with the society's normative role for her—her decision to be the "biggest, coolest, hardest whore" (347) in the big whorehouse she felt her life became after Rufus' death—represents her approaching reality, the situation seemed real enough to her, and it is one of perceived realities that she confronts along the course of the evolution of her character. Vivaldo, too, though affected indirectly by Rufus through Ida, is caused to see reality differently when he questions near the end whether he ever really "loved" Rufus, or was just impressed by and fearful of his otherness.