165 Down the Rabbit Hole

Isaiah Knowlton

The evolution of American literature has been a gradual yet important process. Shifts in style and content have altered as national societal ideologies have changed. As the nation has moved away from times where slavery and misogyny dictated the American mindset, the structure of contemporary texts look very different in content from early American literature. It may be observed, however, that, thematically, the two eras are quite similar. Though the methods by which thoughts and emotions are expressed have altered, the underlying themes have remained static. One would think that a story from the late 20th century filled with robots, kung-fu, and a technologically engineered reality would be completely unrelatable to any work from early America. Yet surprisingly, The Matrix is a film deeply rooted in philosophical and political nuances that comprise many aspects of early American literature. Based upon the adaptation of concepts presented in literature from early America, the following analysis provides a greater interpretation of the evolution of concepts rooted in the nation’s culture.

The introduction of the film presents audiences with a fictional reality set as an allusion, tricking mankind into a false sense of their existence. While the characters seem live in a world similar in every aspect to modern day America, this is a front. In actuality, they are used as batteries to power a large artificial intelligence grid that powers a robotic reality. The concept of using humans as producers, i.e. humans as property, is extremely common in the American literary canon. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, for instance, makes many proclamations about how humans should better themselves. Emerson states there is “difficulty to detect the precise man”, but if one is to “do [their] work, and [Emerson] shall know you. Do [their] work, and [they] shall reinforce [themselves].” Measuring the merit of a person is difficult if they are unable to contribute to the general populous. Emerson strips away the identity of a human and values them based upon their status as producers. This is an example of the ideology surrounding humans as property, but the essay differs from the film slightly in content. Here there is a choice, a call to action. While Emerson’s essay implores people to become producers, The Matrix provides a choice to the general population. Though Emerson’s essay does not present a perfect depiction, the lack of choice is a reflection on some aspects of early American society. While Emerson calls to a general audience, certain groups were more likely to be targeted with these ideals. In texts such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we see the depiction of enslaved peoples as property. They are treated similarly to cattle based upon the color of their skin. Through discriminatory speech and violent acts, white slave owners dehumanize enslaved peoples and promote a sense of ownership over them. For instance, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Linda Brent is viewed not only as property based upon the color of her skin, but also as a producer based upon her gender. Being a woman, she is seen by white male characters such as Dr. Flint and Mr. Sands as an object capable of fulfilling their sexual desires and well as producing children. Through these texts, the American ideology of creating working machines out of human beings is shown clearly, whether based upon their societal value, skin color or gender. This is reflected in the first act of The Matrix, where the revelation that humans are batteries is made. Here, humans are shown to be property of machines, using their energy as producers. This ideal matches a common thread throughout early American literature, using modern contexts to express it. This is a very important due to its larger implications for American perspective. The greater consensus seems to be that grouping some denominations of people into producing factions is warranted, and beneficial to society. This differs however when taking an individualist approach to analyzing the events. While many white Americans viewed enslaved peoples as property, literary texts develop characters that humanize enslaved peoples. For instance, Madison Washington, from the The Heroic Slave, breaks free from the these bonds, and thereby becomes a hero. While emerging from an entirely different context, this heroic individual character development resonates with The Matrix, as Neo, a man who is reborn when he escapes from a producer lifestyle, becomes a God-like figure among the human population. American society values humans as producers, but when individual characters break that mold, they become heroes. This is a theme passed down through hundred of years of works, and still holds weight in modern media.

The expression of characters is another aspect of early American literature that is similar in nature to The Matrix. There are three types of characters in the film. Neo and the population of Zion are aware of their reality, and are actively fighting to make it change. They have been disadvantaged by circumstances out of their control, and are now moving to alter their current state on the hierarchy of power in their society. Characters such as Babo from Benito Cereno or Madison Washington from The Heroic Slave are also reflections of these ideals. Taken from their homeland to be made property, these two characters lead revolts against their captors in an attempt to gain power and freedom. These character archetypes have wavered and morphed over time, but remain stagnant in their basic qualities. These rebellious characters are, in both mediums, portrayed as just in their actions of rebellion, and show the favorable weight society puts on ideological standard bearers. The second kind of character is represented in the film by those who are still living in a false reality. Those still inoculated in the world set up for them by the machines live lives of ignorance, unaware of the true nature of reality. Many figures in the American canon reflect this traits. Mr. Listwell, also from the novel The Heroic Slave, is a man living in a reality of ignorant bliss. Though he has some illusions to the horrors of slavery, he is unaware of their impact. He has all the tools necessary to draw important conclusions about his reality, but fails to see the greater picture. This can also be a reflection of the general white American populus who were roused after reading the events of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The third type of character is exemplified through a man named Cypher. Though he is aware of his reality, he chooses instead to live in peaceful contentment within the machine. His reality is on carelessness rather than ignorance. He is not moved by the reality of the world, and chooses instead to ignore this fact, to the detriment of his crew, in order to live a life of comfort. Many characters are seen to do this, most notably in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mr. Sands is aware of the circumstances surrounding Linda’s life, but chooses to ignore them as it would compromise the comfort of his reality. Purposeful unawareness seems to be a trait often applied to slaveholders in early American literature. In the opening chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two men discuss slavery, saying that ““I would rather not sell him,” said Mr. Shelby, thoughtfully; “the fact is, sir, I’m a humane man, and I hate to take the boy from his mother, sir” (2). Though they are aware of the awful reality in front of them, they choose to ignore and apply their own personalized spin on it to better ease their conscience. These three character archetypes have been passed down to modern works. Though their representation may have changed, their underlying traits remain unwavered.

The medium in which The Matrix was created reflects the importance of its adaptation of early American literature’s themes. The film’s science fiction genre allows the themes and ideas to be presented in a way that is applicable to modern viewers. When it first appeared, the fantasy landscape of the film captured the imaginations of viewers, as technology and a fear of A.I. were of rising national interest at the time. Since American society has changed so drastically over the past few centuries, the works presented in the early American literary canon are of extreme importance, but might lack the relatability that once made them forces of social change. For instance, contemporary readers might not feel the same weight when reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a nineteenth-century reader.

As a film, The Matrix allows filmmakers to highlight technological aspects by incorporating them into the visual spectacle of the film’s world. Film is also more accessible to the general population, and more popular than literature. While early American themes and characterization still emerge in modern texts like The Matrix, the shift in medium from text to screen is significant. With the rise of technology, print texts have fallen to the wayside and film has become a more dominant way to express ideas to a larger audience. This also bring new possibilities regarding the exploration of these themes. For example, Cypher is one of the main antagonists of the film. Knowing he stands for a representation of willing ignorance is enough to dislike him, but his characterization is amplified by the way in which Joe Pantoliano express these qualities through speech and actions. The story of The Matrix, captured through the medium of film, draws on, reshapes, and adapts characters and themes present in early American literature, building upon them through visual and audio representations not accessible in print text.

Every aspect of The Matrix is influenced by technology. From its distribution method to the plot of the film, technology was a driving force behind its success. The film was a breakthrough in terms of its effective usage of CGI and the incorporation of technology into the making of the film. A wave of uniqueness enveloped the film due to these influences, differing it from the typical action and science fiction films of the time. It gave the film a sense of importance, making it a national trend setter. Though themes and characters may be reoccurring, The Matrix uses technology to create a new echelon by which to express them. The format of the film allows the philosophical ideas present to be distributed with a speed and on a scale not available to authors in past centuries. Technology also enabled viewers to easily discuss and clarify this heavily philosophical film. Mediums such as film summaries and discussion boards can expand upon and answer many viewers’ questions. These new innovations–innovations not present in the nineteenth century–allow for a greater understanding of the material. This is applicable to the modern consumption of classic literature as well. After reading Self-Reliance, my views on the piece were based in an area of acceptance. I found ideas presented in the essay to be influential and inspirational. After implementing mediums such as online analysis’ of the text, however, I become more critical of the text. New innovations in media surrounding a text also contribute to its importance, with equal weight to the methods by which the film is distributed. The influence of technology on modern media has changed the way creators push forth their ideas, giving them new opportunities to express themselves, while also giving readers and viewers more outlets to give or gain a greater perspective on the work.

Technology has revolutionized the methods by we consume media in the modern era. New methods of media production have flourished over the past century, exemplified in films such as The Matrix. These methods have also developed new outlets by which people are able to express opinions and textual interpretations. In “Rethinking Early American Literature,” assignments in which every student is required to post their opinions on a text to a blog were frequent. What distinguished these assignments from print ones was our ability to view the opinions of our classmates. If I was ever confused about a text, I was able to access the blog to read the views of my peers, enhancing my understanding. Based on this, discussions in class have been richer in content on every front. Peers are able to see and comment on the ideas of their counterparts, which leads into new revelations, metamorphosing during class discussions. In this regard, technology has altered the perception of American literature, yet it can do so much more. The way in which the subject is studied has now shifted. With access to the Open Anthology of Early American Literature, any text needed for reference in the course is available digitally. There is also the option to access critical essays and historical documents surrounding the piece. While enhancing the understanding of the piece, this digital anthology also allows for greater information to be spread when discussing the work as a group. Digital technology has completely shifted the study of any work, contemporary or classic. Through these innovations scholars of all fashions are now able to gain greater understandings of works, artists are able to express themselves through new outlets, and audiences have a vast array of methods to discuss and analyze works. These changes have revolutionized perceptions of media, and new waves of study have spawned from these innovations. Media has changed, consumptions has altered, and it is all due to technology.

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. John P. Jewett & Company, 1852.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, et al. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Modern Library, 2000.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. L. Marie Childs, 1861.

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “Chapters 1,2, & 7.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The National Era, 1851.

Wachowski, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, directors. The Matrix.

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