The attitude to urban living

One focus point in Siri Hustvedt’s essay “Living With Strangers” is the attitude to urban living. This element may be relevant in both your analysis and your comment section in your essay, which is why we have placed it here between those two main sections.

The writer never uses the word “urbanization”, but in many ways this is what her essay is about. Urbanization refers to the constant increase in the proportion of people living in urban areas as opposed to rural areas. This development goes on all over the world, and New York, where Hustvedt lives, is no exception. Naturally, when millions of people move to the same place, it requires good infrastructure so that everybody may find a place to live, a place to work, as well as functional transportation. If there is poor infrastructure, the citizens might be more likely to feel stressed and consider each other as competitors in the struggle for resources.

However, even with great infrastructure, it is still a challenge for humans to live close together with a lot of strangers. And this, more specifically, is what Hustvedt wants to explore in her essay. How does the human psyche handle the challenge of being faced with so many strangers - of whom some behave in an irrational way - on a daily basis? As she points out via her many examples, city dwellers have found a universal coping technique: simply ignoring one another.

She starts out her examination of this by stating that there is a great difference between living in rural areas, like the Minnesota town where she grew up, and in big cities like New York. In Minnesota, you would always greet everyone you met, even if that person was a stranger, because “passing someone in silence wasn’t only rude; it could lead to accusations of snobbery” (ll. 3-4).

When she moved to New York in 1978, she discovered that the social code of conduct is quite different there: “This simple law, one nearly every New Yorker subscribes to whenever possible, is: PRETEND IT ISN’T HAPPENING” (ll. 19-20). Hustvedt expands on this point when she concludes: “Active recognition of other people has become mostly a matter of choice” (ll. 101-102). In her rural upbringing it was not a choice because you might be socially excluded by the local community if you were considered snobbish and self-centered. This difference may seem paradoxical: In the city people live close together but do not speak while in the country people live in thinly populated areas but do speak.

However, Hustvedt defends the social code of the city for two reasons. First of all, it would simply be too impractical and too overwhelming t...

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