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Literary Devices in The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBois and Seventeen Syllables by Hisaye Yamamoto

Updated on May 23, 2015

Literary Devices and Identity in The Souls of Black Folk and Seventeen Syllables
W.E.B. Du Bois, in his book The Souls of Black Folk, brings up an idea he terms “double consciousness” (3). He uses this phrase to refer to the phenomenon of having two identities and being unable to reconcile them easily. Du Bois talks about double consciousness in light of simultaneously being a Negro and American, and feeling like other people view the two as mutually exclusive. He, however, believes that his Negro and American selves can be merged without losing elements of either side (3). Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables also calls attention to the issue of culturally constructed versus self-determined identities. The story presents characters who struggle to relate to each other on account of identity, and have personal difficulties constructing their identities given cultural constraints. This essay will examine Seventeen Syllables as well the first chapter of Du Bois’s book, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, and how they use style, tone, metaphors and similes to discuss socially constructed and self-determined identities. Du Bois believes that identity should come from the merger of one’s cultures, as opposed to renouncing one culture in favor of another, or a totally self-determined identity independent of culture. Seventeen Syllables, on the other hand, presents the idea that self-determined identities may be beneficial to certain individuals, but the rules of society make it impossible to separate identity from cultural background.
Du Bois’s veil symbolizes the undeniable influence of culture on identity (Allen Jr., 56). The veil is an important symbol in In Our Spiritual Strivings which recurs throughout the book. It is first mentioned when DuBois describes the pivotal moment of realizing he was different from his peers as being “…shut out from their world by a vast veil” (2). The veil is used somewhat literally to describe a partition between black and white people. That he used a veil instead of a curtain to describe the partition is interesting, and suggests a sort of intangibility and uncertainty. It also hints at the veil being a lens showing the different races’ opinions of each other, when he mentions “see himself through the revelation of the other world” and “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (3). He seems to believe that the veil is an inescapable barrier that forces culturally constructed identities on everyone to some extent. Although Du Bois initially brings up the idea of transcendence, or living “above” the veil, it is revealed that it still restricted him by offering white people more opportunities (2). It can be said that the veil always causes identity to have a culturally-constructed aspect, but this aspect is not necessarily very strong.
The juxtaposition of Du Bois’s elaborate and stylistic language with the fact that he is writing a sociological essay mirrors his struggle with identity. Although the book is a collection of essays on sociology, Du Bois chooses to use highly figurative language reminiscent of a storyteller’s rather than the expository language that would be expected of an essay. For example, he mentions an unasked question that others “flutter” around in the first paragraph (1). Although this paragraph is essentially an anecdote to frame the essay, it could easily have been the opening of a novel. Instead of simply stating that people frequently but indirectly bring up racial issues when talking to him, Du Bois instead paints a vivid image of people fluttering around the question like moths around a lightbulb, conveying its allure and danger. The use of storybook language continues even when the anecdotes end; he talks about the Negro being born with a metaphorical veil, and mentions “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (3). Even though formal writing usually calls for a succinct and academic style, Du Bois seems to have decided that figurative language would suit his work better and done away with what he was “supposed to do” entirely. This parallels what he describes in the essay itself. Du Bois’s contradictory form and style of writing can be considered analogous to how people seem to think he cannot be both American and Negro, implicitly reflecting his reluctance to follow what society dictates. The way the essay is written ties in completely with the essay content, and helps DuBois bring his point across more effectively.
Du Bois conveys his belief in an “African American” identity through his tone and dismisses the idea of an identity derived independently of culture. The essay reads like a manifesto, with Du Bois treating African Americans as one whole and speaking for all of them. He presents the veil and double consciousness as facts that apply to all African Americans. For example, he frequently refers to “the Negro”, implying that all Negroes are united and go through one experience (3). Du Bois also makes liberal use of rhetorical devices, appealing to readers with pathos and ethos. For example, he gains the reader’s sympathy with the anecdote of being “shut out” as a child (2). He poses the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” semi-rhetorically, and talks about the struggles and disappointment of emancipation, appealing to a compassionate reader’s judgement (2,4). He describes the ideals and goals of the African American community with conviction, for example “longing…to merge his double self into a better and truer self” (3). This portrays African Americans as morally upright people who simply wish to be treated decently. Du Bois asserts the standpoint and rights of African Americans as a whole by acting as their spokesperson, showing his confidence in one common identity.
Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables approaches identity as something that is very much restricted by culture, and this is shown in the symbol of haiku. Haiku is an important plot point, and Yamamoto’s sparse prose is also reminiscent of the poetry form. Traditionally, haiku utilizes strict syllable counts which make it somewhat restrictive. In this story, the rules of haiku are a metaphor for society’s restriction on gender roles. Rosie’s mother Tome attempts to defy societal norms by constructing an alter ego, Ume, but she ends up humiliated and put back in the place of dutiful wife. Even though Tome is careful not to neglect chores, and Ume only “came to life after the dinner dishes were done”, Tome’s husband is unwilling to allow this arrangement and continually tries to publicly assert his power over his wife, for example when he demands they leave the Hayano household and when he burns the picture (100). Another characteristic of haiku is how it conveys complex meanings with very few words. It parallels the Hayashi family in this way. Although the family looks peaceful and simple on the surface and there are no direct confrontations between its members, it is loaded with tension. This can be seen from all that lies unspoken between the Rosie and her parents, for example Rosie’s pretending to understand haiku, her father’s silence about his discomfort and how Rosie never hears about her mother not wanting to marry her father until she is fairly old.
If culture had not dictated that Mr Hayashi was supposed to be dominant and Mrs Hayashi submissive, they probably would have been content the other way around (Cheng, 93). It is implied that Mr Hayashi is not inclined towards higher-order thought and feels uncomfortable during intellectual conversations. His wife is the opposite, enjoying and succeeding at artistic endeavors. Tome and her husband do not generally seem to mind the reversal of traditional roles, but this changes when they are with other people. Mr Hayashi is visibly uncomfortable when they go to visit the Hayano family, as well as when Mr Kuroda visits, going so far as to insist that they leave early and marching off to destroy the picture. Confrontations like these are not shown to happen while the family is alone at home. This shows the strain that cultural values put on the family, with Mr Hayashi feeling like he has to live up to the image of a traditional man and humiliating his wife in order to do so even if dominance does not come naturally to him.
Language is also an important part of identity in this story, shown most strikingly in the linguistic barrier between Rosie and her mother. Rosie was brought up in America, and is thus uncomfortable with Japanese. Even though she is Japanese by heritage, she seems to fit in more as an American. Rosie prefers to speak English (“English lay ready on the tongue but Japanese had to be searched for…”) and blends in fairly well with her American friends, like Jesus and Chizuko (99). She demonstrates a good grasp of American culture when she impersonates famous people for Chizuko at recess. Meanwhile, Tome only came to America when she was nineteen, and not of her own volition. Even in America, she is more comfortable with speaking and writing in Japanese. Rosie and Tome are unable to relate to each other, as seen by Rosie’s lack of interest in her mother’s haiku, resent towards her mother for “begging”, and how she feels that her mother’s “consoling had came much later than expected” (102, 109). A lot of the misunderstanding between Rosie and Tome is rooted in their difficulty understanding each other’s languages and cultures. This shows that the culturally-constructed barriers are significant enough that they cannot be transcended even by familial bonds. Also, Mr Hayashi’s eventual outburst is described with an interesting simile, “exactly like the cork of a bottle popping” (107). This shows how tension has built up inside him until he can no longer control himself. The simile itself is not something that would commonly be found in English, but it does sound like a direct translation of an expression from an Asian language. Chinese frequently uses very specific onomatopoeic similes. There are, for example, terms used to describe rainfall, the sharpening of a knife and the sound of drinking. Given the similarities between Japanese and Chinese, it is likely that this is a feature of the Japanese language as well, and the simile may have been a nod to it. The way it jars with the rest of Yamamoto’s Western-sounding prose was possibly intended to underline how heritage is permanently linked to identity, no matter how much someone may seem to fit into a culture they were not born in.
Du Bois and Yamamoto both seem to believe that identity is inextricably linked to culture. Du Bois supports this idea, promoting the idea of forming an identity based on all aspects of one’s culture. Generally, only race is mentioned in his essay. He paints a very general picture of African Americans and seems to expect everyone to fit easily into the mold. Of Our Spiritual Strivings is a hopeful call to arms intended to unite African Americans. In contrast, Yamamoto explores the idea of gender, language, culture, ethnicity, personality and age all contributing to a complicated personal identity. Unlike Du Bois, it is unclear whether she supports the idea of a wholly self-determined identity. She does however suggest that it is an impossible concept given the many barriers put in place by society by depicting Tome’s multiple failures to determine her own fate. Seventeen Syllables is less optimistic than Of Our Spiritual Strivings, and shows the realism of the restrictions placed on people by society and culture.
Works Cited
Du Bois, William EB. "1995. The Souls of Black Folk." (1903).
Allen Jr, Ernest. "Ever Feeling One's Twoness:" Double Ideals" and" Double Consciousness" in the Souls of Black Folk." Contributions in Black Studies 9.1 (1992): 5.
Yamamoto, Hisaye, and King-Kok Cheung, eds. Seventeen syllables. Rutgers University Press, 1994.
Cheng, Ming L. "The Unrepentant Fire: Tragic Limitations in Hisaye Yamamoto's" Seventeen Syllables"." Melus (1994): 91-107.


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