‘So-easily-vanquished skirmishers’: A study of individuals within systems in the work of Randall Jarrell
In this study, I trace the development of a pervasive but largely implicit subject in Jarrell's work: the relationship—usually antagonistic—between the individual and systems. Specifically, I discuss how Jarrell depicts the individual within the systems of the army, the family, and mass consumer culture. I contend that in both the army and consumer culture, the individual is either at odds with the system or entirely swallowed up by it because of its enormity and virtual omnipotence. Within the family, the story more complicated. In his early work, Jarrell typically depicts the child at war with his parents. However, in his late work, the conflicts between the child and his parents are largely resolved and the family provides a refuge from the terrors of the world.
Each chapter of this study is comprised of three sections: Introduction, Poems and Stories, and Conclusion. In the introductions to Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, I examine Jarrell's perception of the given entity that possesses systematized power. I cite from Jarrell's poetry, fiction, essays, and letters, and also from work by Jarrell's critics. In Poems and Stories in each of these chapters, I discuss specific works from Jarrell's oeuvre, including his books for children, that depict the individual “at war” with the entity at hand. In my Conclusion, I examine the response Jarrell advocates the individual make to being “at war” with the given entity that threatens to overwhelm him: in each instance Jarrell insists that one carry on in spite of one's powerlessness and recommends that one employ imagination to help one palliate one's inevitable suffering at one's powerlessness.
In my Introduction to Chapter 5, I attempt to define Jarrell's perception of love, which, I argue, he believed able to reconcile the individual to his circumstances. In Poems and Stories in this chapter, I examine works that depict the individual so reconciled. Finally, in my Conclusion , I examine Jarrell's own last days and speculate as to whether or not love proved a reconciliatory power to him in the midst of a depression that may have culminated in suicide.