Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part One

Mules and Men is a beautiful work by the later Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, consisting of her ethnographic work in Northern Florida, near a sawmill town. Her contribution in this work consists mostly of collecting a significant amount of African-American folklore, but by combinging the folklore and stories with the stories, dialog, and interactions of the people who gave the stories, she enriched the narrative and shows how these stories (many of which now have a permanent place in Americana) emerged from social relations. She collected these stories beginning in 1928, but would not see them published until 1935. She was thus, not collecting these tales as part of the Works Progress Administration projects to collect oral histories of former slaves. Her original funding was private.

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Hurston’s introduction reveals some important background about why she thought it was so important to preserve these stories. Much of this may be obvious to us now. She realized that she was talking about collecting the cultural heritage of an exploited people who were told repeatability that their voice was not important to the nation. When she introduced her project, her subjects asked her with disbelief, why would anyone want to read about those “lies” (which is the term they used for this folklore). As Hurston writes: “The best source [of folklore] is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are the most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” (10) She also cuts right to what she sees as the major motif in the lore she documented: the ability to outsmart superiors and the fluid nature of social relations. This, naturally, is not really an accurate description of race relations in early 20th century America or life in slavery (where many of these stories emerged), but it suggests a deep attitude of resistance and a value that challenged the hypocritical hierarchies in American democracy. She summarizes: “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John—not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folk-lore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer ‘Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him.” (10–11) The fact that she has to introduce John Henry directly suggests how internalized this folklore became to Americans since the 1930s.

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As James Scott suggests in The Art of Not Being Governed, there is a great power in oral cultures, an advantage that literate cultures do not have. It is actually suggested in the quote in the last paragraph. Literature cultures, Scott suggests, are bound by the texts they create. Members of literate cultures are blinkered by what they wrote down, often centuries earlier. Sure, they can reinterpret, but oral cultures are much freer to adapt texts to the new conditions. For many of the stories we read in Mules and Men, their direct use as a mental survival strategy in slavery is clear. Masters are mocked, their oppression and violence explained, and the people at the bottom of the system are able to prove their worth and turn the tables. One may even suspect that the ruling class in the old South was foolish to prevent slaves from reading, because by keeping most of them illiterate, they forced them to create their own narratives of Christianity, a much more liberating narrative.

The fact that the narrative is contested is not even that important, because it becomes the fuel for social interactions. Hurston narrators a humorous (but apparently serious) disagreement about why alligators look the way they do. We are given three different stories, each building off the last as story tellers try to improve on the last speaker. This series began earlier with discussions about other animals. Story telling (and adapting or improving on stories) was a part of community building. This is missing in cultures that share stories through the ages through books. (Yes, the library really is to quiet sometimes.)

There are many stories that can be enjoyed in this volume (around 70). There are several important motifs I came across in the book. Since these stories are liquid there is not a single analysis of any one theme, so I will not attempt to provide it here. There are some tensions pointing in certain ways but many of these have variations. The most important theme running through most of the stories has to do with shifting the nature of hierarchy. Someone on the top of a natural or artificial hierarchy is undone by someone below them. Whether it is a slave outsmarting a slave owner, a woman getting the best of a man, or even men fooling God, we find that these stories challenge social divisions, class, and caste. As a corollary to these we are often presented with bosses or masters as manipulative, corrupt, foolish, or naive. This turns the tables on the hierarchy in another way. Often this narrative is replayed in the animal kingdom.

Mules and Men should be more widely read and appreciated. I suspect that most people know Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and never get the chance to come across this beautiful work. In the second half of my coverage of this Mules and Men, I will talk about what she has to say about voodoo in the second part of the book and perhaps come back to some of the folklore.

 

Tennessee Williams: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955)

Life is important. There’s nothing else to hold onto. A man that drinks is throwing his life away. Don’t do it, hold onto your life. There’s nothing else to hold onto. (Big Daddy, 927)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first performed in 1955. It was written by Tennessee Williams and direct by Elia Kazan (who previously directed the Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire). The entire play takes place over the course of a single evening in the wealthy plantation household. The news has just arrived that the patriarch of the family. Big Daddy, will soon die of cancer. The imminence of this unavoidable date is made clear in the third act. There are two major related tensions throughout the play. The first about when the break the news to Big Daddy and Big Mama and how to talk to them about the inheritance, which Big Daddy has postponed dealing with by not writing a will. The second tension is about the younger son Brick, who has started drinking after the death of his close friend Skipper. As we learn later in the play, not long before he died, Skipper confessed homosexual desires toward Brick. Brick becomes disgusted with the “mendacity” of life, his family, and himself. He starts drinking, refuses to have sex with his wife Margaret (who apparel he was always a bit sexually aloof toward). This sparks rumors in the household that Brick shared Skipper’s homosexuality. Margaret’s inability to convince of a child connects these two tensions. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law have many children and use that to bolster their claim to the inheritance, although Big Daddy and Big Mama clearly favor Brick. I am sure the plot is mostly well-known, so I will get right into it.

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Williams was fascinated and horrified by the emotional burden placed on people by their family. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the clearest examples of family suppressing honesty and openness about desire that I can think of in literature. Saying that is immediately undermined by the fact that there is a whole lot of confessional in the three hours that follow the play’s story. Margaret confesses sleeping with Skipper again. While it turns out that was Skipper’s attempt to know the truth about his sexuality, Margaret saw it as a more spiritual effort to be closer to Brick. She also confesses to her sexual needs. Brick’s elder brother, Gooper, more or less confesses to his clear desire to inherit the plantation despite the lack of sentiment between him and the family. The doctors and the family confess to Big Mama and Big Daddy about the cancer diagnosis. Brick confesses to Big Daddy about why he drinks and the details of his love for Skipper. Big Daddy confesses to everyone his contempt for his wife. Big Daddy confesses in private to Brick about his own sexual desires and his regret for not experiencing more women when he could. With all this confessing you would think they were the most open family in the United States. Yet, this explosive night comes at the end of years of lies, subterfuge, and false faces. As Brick explains, he drinks because of disgust over “mendacity.”

I would like to take a close look at Big Daddy. His confession is not a death bed confession. He comes back from the doctor rejuvenated. Sick for quite a while, he was certain he was to die. The family and the doctors tell him that he will live and that he has only a “spastic colon.” This is presumably to protect Big Daddy on his birthday party, but we suspect the real reason for the subterfuge is to give Mae (Brick’s sister-in-law) and Gooper time to prepare their scheme to secure the plantation. No, Big Daddy’s confession is a confession of someone reborn into the world. He feels momentarily reborn. He wants to use this fresh start to knock Brick out of his premature death through the same kind of embrace of radical honesty. I am convinced that Big Daddy wanted to knock Brick correct so that they could go off together on some sort of adventure.

The core of Big Daddy’s confession is that he has been sexually repressed by his obligation to his family, the plantation, and to his wife. Big Mama is surprised at the contempt Big Daddy levels are her. I did not read this as the lies of a long-suffering wife. It sounded to me that she was authentically shocked. Big Daddy is bringing something new to the table and we need to read it as a blueprint for the future, a future he believes will go on for a number of years.

Ignorance—of morality—is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way that anything living should go, go without knowing, without any knowledge of it, and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it. [. . .] Yes, boy. I’ll tell you something that you might not guess. I still have desire for woman and this is my sixty-fifth birthday. [. . .] It is, remarkable and admirable both. I realize now that I never had me enough. I let many chances slip by because of scruples about it, scruples, convention—crap . . . . All that stuff is bull, bull, bull!—It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow’s lifted, I’m doing to cut loose and have, what is it they call it, have me a—ball! (932–933)

A few minutes later, he takes on a less lurid and more philosophical tone, highlighting the absolute confinement that the plantation and his family has burdened him with. When he discusses cancer it is in the terms of imprisonment.

The human machine is not no different from the animal machine or the fish machine or the bird machine or the reptile machine or the insect machine! It’s just a whole God damn lot more complicated and consequently more trouble to keep together. Yep. I thought I had it. The earth shook under my foot, the sky come down like the black lid of a kettle and I couldn’t breathe!—Today!!—that lid was lifted, I drew my first free breath in —how many years? (937–938)

I cannot help to read that as a long-term perspective on his marriage. I do not want to give too much sympathy to Big Daddy. He is, after all, a quite brutal planter. He made his fortune starting as an overseers (and we know how those tended to be during the height of Jim Crow). If the plantation household was a den of mendacity, it was that way due to the design of Big Daddy. His brutality to his wife and elder son is hard to read at times. Yet, for one evening he was also to taste the freedom from the moral burden of the family. This is a harness around people of all classes and of all ages. It is also comforting to know that he is not alone. Many other characters taste a bit of freedom from that “disgust” that Brick is most honest about.

Tennessee Williams: “The Rose Tattoo” (1950)

A man that’s wild is hard for a woman to hold, huh? But if he was tame—would the woman want to hold him? (Estelle, p. 662)

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In Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo we see yet another example of a strangely dysfunctional family that works to control or limit the options of younger members through the imposition of the values of the elders. As a comedy, the tale is light and ends with everyone ending up with the right person. In this case, the example is a Sicilian immigrant family in the Gulf Coast. Throughout the play it is largely isolated from the rest of the South, the contact from the outside coming in the form of a love interest to the young lady Rosa and a salesman who reminds us how closed off the South was to immigrants for much of the twentieth century. The plot mostly revolves around Rosa’s mother Serafina and her efforts to prevent the sailor, Jack, from courting her daughter. After the death of her husband, Serafina withdrawals more and more into her home and her work as a seamstress. This happens at the same time that Rose attempts to move away from those familial confines causing the central family drama.

Serafina is essentially incapable of thinking of a life without her husband. We cannot know the full reason why she became this way, but it is not hard to imagine similar people. She talks at length about the centrality of him in her life. It is presented in the context of an erotic discussion about monogamy.

When I think of men I think about my husband. My husband was a Sicilian. We had love together every night of the week, we never skipped one, from the night we was married till the night he was killed in his fruit truck on that road there! . . . I could up all the nights I held him all night in my arms, and I can tell you how many. Each night for twelve years. Four thousand—three hundred—and eighty. The number of nights I held him all night in my arms. (678–679)

Well, if truthful apparently monogamy works for her. Of course for the people that it works effortlessly for, the suggestion that others may feel the need to stray is unthinkable. The suggestion in the same conversation that her husband had an affair nearly drives her to madness. The traffic undercurrent of the incident is that you realize that Serafina is so fixated on the memory of her husband, she will not change. She is rooted in the past. This informs her interventions into her daughter’s love life with Jack. Jack is burdened with expectations since he is a sailor and presumed to be morally fallen.

Catholicism dwells in the background of The Rose Tattoo. Along with her widowhood, religion is the major restraint on Serafina’s moral independence. Her struggle is played out in a romance with Alvaro. In the end it works out well for everyone. Two new relationships are born and the past is overcome, at least temporarily. The tension of the play is still worth taking seriously despite it all ending quite nicely. Serafina spends most of the play in dreadful fear of the moral influence of the outside world. This protectionism has real consequences as Williams has shown in his more serious plays. She even strikes out at the Catholic schools, blaming them for what she saw as the moral decline of Rosa.

Today you give out the diplomas, today at the high school you give out the prizes, diplomas! You give to my daughter a set of books call the Digest of Knowledge! What does she know? How to be cheap already?—Of, yes, that is what to learn, how to be cheap and to cheat!—You know what they do at this high school? They ruin the girls there! They give the spring dance because the girls are man-crazy. (697)

It is, of course, our great joy when Serafina becomes man-crazy herself.

Tennessee Williams: “Summer and Smoke” (1948)

You talk as if my body had ceased to exist for you, John, in spite of the fact that you’ve just counted my pulse. Yes, that’s it! You tried to avoid it, but you’ve told me plainly. The tables have turned, yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance! You’ve come around to my old way of thinking and I to yours like two people exchanging a call on each other at the same time, and each one finding the other one gone out, the door locked against him and no one to answer the bell! (Alma, 638)

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Summer and Smoke opened in 1948 a year after the author, Tennessee Williams, put out his Pulitzer winning play A Streetcar Named Desire. The play, can be easily overshadowed by its greater sibling, but it remains an interesting effort looking at the difficult of two people incapable of finding love for each other because of the liquid nature of their worldviews. Although a bit troubling, Summer and Smoke is dramatically more liberating than some of Williams’ other plays. The Glass Menagerie suggests how people are unable to escape their condition or their ways of thinking, They are stuck in the past. A Street Car Names Desire suggests the possibility of change but paints a horrific picture of mental decline. Summer and Smoke suggest more benign chances. Alma becomes less coy about her love for John overtime. John starts out the story a bit earthier and open about his desires for Alma, but eventually settles down and become a good boy. So, they fly past each other. I do not want to so easily forgive the social forces at work. Alma begins the play a product of an overly romanticized view of the world, clearly a product of her upbringing and culture. John abandons his sensual origins in the pursuit of a career and a family. Alma outgrew her socialization while John becomes socialized. Alma ends up going her own way by seducing (or accepting the suggestions) of a young man, reversing the situation of the early part of the play.

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I suspect many wonderful moments are lost because people pass each other at different places in their life. I am also certain this would be less common and less tragic in a truly free society where people were allowed to be honest and open about their desires, needs, and points of view. Williams knows quite well that culture is horribly oppressive, most importantly to our psychology. Repression of desire (when mostly harmless at least) is one of the greatest possible crimes a culture can impose on individuals.

At the beginning, Alma suggests she is shocked by John’s sexual advances. He is to be a doctor and therefore should be above such lurid interests.

I’m afraid that you I move in different circles. If I wished to be as outspoken as you are, which is sometimes just an excuse for being rude—I might say that I’ve yet to see you in the company of a —well, —reputable young woman. You’ve heard unfavorable talk about me in your circle of acquaintances and I’ve heard equally unpleasant things about you in mine. And the pity of it is that you are preparing to be a doctor. You’re intending to practice your father’s profession here in Glorious Hill. . . But you have a gift for scientific research! You have a chance to serve humanity. (587)

Notice the moralism and class assumptions that invade that statement. It was probably lectures like this, given by many people through his life that convinced him to reform himself and settle down. Alma may, in the end, have regretted giving that lecture to him.

All in all, a play that should not be ignored for those interested in the relationship between sexual freedom and culture.

 

 

Tennessee Williams: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a quite amazing play. It contains the maturation of some of Williams’ most central themes, such as the burden of the past, the violence of human institutions (again the family is the most visceral and inescapable of these), and the difficulty of honest relationships. The key point to me is that Blanche DuBois was making an honest attempt to remake herself by moving into her sister’s house after fleeing her ancestral home of Laurel. While she certainly made mistakes, she is not a horrible person and did not deserve the abuse she received by her brother-in-law, which ranged from intrusive interrogations, spying, rape, and ultimately exile and institutionalization. As we learn, Blanche has good reasons for her life falling apart. It is striking that compared to the family, the law and the state is actually quite open about giving people second chances. As difficult as it may be to survive the bureaucratic machine of the state after a mistake or a catastrophe, it at least (through systems of parole and bankruptcy) hold onto the mythology of second chances. Stanley (and more hesitantly Stella Kowalski) exploits Blanche’s weaknesses for his own pleasure and domination in the household.

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Stanley is a working class guy and actually has a rather strong relationship with his wife due to their sexual chemistry and regular periods of freedom from each other. Certainly Blanche’s arrival—destitute and homeless although under certain pretensions—disrupts their delicate system. Stanley is eager to defend his little world from what he soon takes to be an intruder. (The hot water bathes seemed quite bothersome.) Class prejudice shapes Blanche’s view of Stanley. She also picks up on his defensive attitude toward his space and his family. “Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and these he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking!” (510)

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Blanche may share some of the delusions attitudes of Amanda in A Glass Menagerie, but unlike Amanda, Blanche is really harming no one else with her delusions of grandeur and her promiscuity. If we look at her situation we find much to sympathize with. She was left in the ancestral home with the remnants of a Southern aristocracy (now a gerontocracy). Her job is to bury these elders one at a time. In the end she is left bankrupt and bearing the moral responsibility for being the last member of a decaying dynasty. Her husband killed himself after being exposed as a homosexual. Alone in her hometown she becomes promiscuous and an alcoholic and is eventually kicked out of the hotel she was staying at. She was fired from her job as a teacher around the same time (reportedly for starting a sexual relationship with a student). She certainly could have used some solidarity and support from her surviving relatives. This does not excuse her attitude toward her brother-in-law, which is dreadfully aristocratic.

The tragedy of the play is built on the tyranny of expectations both individual and social. Despite what Blanche says about Stanley, comparing him to an ape, he is as capable as the people of Blanche and Stella’s hometown of using moral expectations as a weapon. It is not clear that he holds them, but he sure does put on the moral outrage when he reports on what his informants tell him about Blanche’s unfortunate past in Laurel.

Of course the play ends with the largely unseen but very ominous threat of the asylum. Stanley arranged for Blanche to be taken in as a ward of a mental institution after her nervous breakdown resulting from Stanley raping her. Signs of her mental deterioration preceded this event and the rape is a tragic addition to her life of suffering. Stanley wanted to get rid of her and likely would have used a similar device to get rid of her. Why is it that in so much art, the police, the prison, the school and other authoritarian institutions are so easily attacked and undermined yet we continue to send our children and our brothers and sisters to these places? Why do not these depictions of institutions do more to undermine their power over our lives?

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944)

I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent—why then, you’ll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you’ve got to look out for your sister. I don’t say me because I’m old and don’t matter! I say for your sister because she’s young and dependent. (422)

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This is part of a short speech by Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I put it on there as an example of how the language of freedom is so easily a part of the lexicon of American literature. One could hardly say that the characters in the 1945 play are free. With the exception of the “gentleman caller,” Jim, none of the characters are able to break themselves free of their chains. Yet freedom remains the goal. This is part of the argument of this blog. The discourse on freedom is deep in the American mind, as evidenced by its literary heritage, despite—or perhaps because of—the authoritarian institutions, capitalism, family, and all the other shackles.

Williams produced a handful of plays during the war. I am skipping over, for now, the one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (published in 1946) to look at the great run of plays he produced in the decade between The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was period saw Williams rise in the theatrical world and the awarding of two Pulitzer Prizes (not that we should judge the works based on such standards).

I have never seen A Glass Menagerie, or any other Tennessee Williams plays, performed live. I suspect that it would be a very claustrophobic experience. Williams took great pains in the stage directions to create the setting for his “memory play.” There are only four characters. The setting is an apartment near an alley in St. Louis. Escaping even for a minute is presented as a victory. Amanda Wingfield is the mother and she lives entirely in the past, often repeating banal lessons about the way life if to her near captive children. At every moment she reinforces the idea that her children are incapable of moving beyond the home, despite demanding that of them. Laura, her daughter, is the owner of the titular glass menagerie, which occupies much of her time. She has a leg brace and this had led to her mother being overly protective of her. By the time of the play, Laura lacks any self-confidence and is completely dependent on her mother and brother. Williams writes about her that “Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” (394) Tom, the son, has a meaningless job but has greater ambitions. The needs of his mother and sister keep him at the apartment. He is the one most directly enslaved by the situation and the one most capable of rebellion. The final character is a breath of fresh air. Tom brings in Jim as a “gentleman caller” for his sister, although there is little hope that it will go anywhere. Jim is not a brilliant man but he is quickly able to diagnosis the situation in the apartment and knows enough to stay away.

The structure of play is suggested on the first page. “Part I. Preparation for a Gentleman Caller. Part II. The Gentleman calls.” This is more or less the end of Amanda’s dreams for her daughter. In Amanda’s mind, the only hope for her daughter is if some man saves her by marrying her. Amanda seems to live in a deluded past that recalls an endless train of suitors for her own hand. This reaches the level of a tall tale when we learn about one day with seventeen suitors. Tom wants to get out desperately. He often goes to movies just to escape the apartment and his queer mother and banal sister. Amanda assumes he is engages in all sorts of other activities, but Tom denies this. Eventually, he brings in Jim who politely gets to know Laura and leaves. It was not a serious date for Jim, although Amanda and Laura envisioned it as a central event in their life. All in all, it is quite horrible to watch unfold.

The date was more like a brief therapy session where Jim desperately encourages Laura to go out into the world and make something of herself on her own terms. “Why, man alive, Laura! Just look about you a little. What do you see? A world full of common people! All of ‘em born and all of ‘em going to die! Which of them has one-tenth of yoru good points! Or mine! Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes—Gosh! Everyone excels in some one thing. Some in many! All you’ve got to do is discover in what.” (454) There is a bit pomposity in this lecture (he looks in the mirror when he comments how some people excel in many things), but it is a lesson that a woman like Laura, who has been told all of her life that she is inadequate and needs the support of a man, needs desperately.

Tom is probably the only character who can escape. He has a job and some dreams of his own. He spends most of the play with one foot outside the door anyway. There seems to be to be little hope for Amanda or Laura. Amanda is too married to the past. She must live in the delusional house she created. Laura long lost any chance for emotional autonomy. The lesson of this play for our thinking about freedom is the devastating impact family can have. Oppression is much more likely to be something intimate. People like Bill Gates and Terry Guo may be worth billions and run little empires, but it is our immediate boss, the tedious middle manager who oppresses us day to day. To talk about the patriarchal marriage system seems besides the point in a play like The Glass Menagerie. The damage done to Laura was done by the ones closet to her. As long as living in freedom requires a free mind, the problem of the oppression of familial expectations will need to be addressed. I have no doubt that there are countless Lauras out there (and no small number of Toms). The people who create the chains around these victims need to be accountable.

Watch it for yourself.