To Lose Thyself
by Niki Ingram
Rated "PG" by the Author.
edited: Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2007
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This essay is a comparison/contrast paper for my College Literature class examining a common theme from three different plays or short stories.
To Lose Thyself
Often, when a person becomes so caught up with something he or she feels is lacking in his or her life, or when someone becomes so distraught over a situation, the person resorts to creating a new reality, a fantasy, to help cope with the loss or trouble they are experiencing or have experienced. The more American society progresses the more accomplishments people feel they must achieve in one day; this puts extreme amounts of pressure on individuals which encourages people to escape from the real world for brief periods of time. One common method of this is to watch television and fantasize about living in a particular world portrayed through a show; another common method of temporarily taking a break from day to day life is playing video games. Often, an individual may go through a drastic change in life that perhaps they cannot cope with, or a person may become so caught up in a particular way of thinking that they do not see reality for what it is. A good example of this is when girls become anorexic due to the common mass media portrayal that females are only attractive if they are very thin. Many women feel that they will only be accepted by society if they starve themselves, so they make their world revolve around food, or the lack thereof, which causes their mental thought process to change. This fantasy that exists inside numerous females’ minds can become such an obsession that it takes control of their lives.
Literature is an excellent way of depicting the vast amounts of examples of why people have the tendency to escape and the ways in which people deal with them. Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, Henry Reifsneider from “The Lost Phoebe,” and Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie are excellent examples of characters in literature who have dealt with trying times or who have experienced changes that cause some sort of visible transformation in how the character deals with life. Each character has his or her own set of issues, and all three of the characters leave the reader with little hope of changing their attitudes about life.
Blanche DuBois is a woman who has confined her existence to relying on men to elevate her low self-esteem and to bring fulfillment to her restless endurance. Blanche resorts to finding and sleeping with various men in hopes of filling the hole her husband abruptly left within her by taking his own life. She develops a reputation in her hometown as someone who sleeps around and is fired from her job for having inappropriate relations with one of her high school English students. With no money, home, or resources left, Blanche is driven to the point of near desperation and turns to her younger sister, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stanley, for a place to stay in hopes of bettering herself.
Blanche hopes to find someone to marry, someone she can rely on, someone who will simply care for her. To achieve this she feels she must lie to everyone about her past; otherwise, she feels no one will accept her. Blanche recognizes her chances are slim of finding someone to settle down with but instead of willingly accepting it she attempts to deny her reality and mask it by creating, in her mind, a world where everything is beautiful and romantic and she is young and attractive. Blanche openly admits to this when she says, “I don’t want realism. I want magic. Yes, yes, magic!” (P 145) Blanche almost achieves her goal of a content life through Stanley’s friend, Mitch, but when Mitch discovers how much Blanche has been lying to him Blanche is cruelly denied her desire by Mitch telling her she is too dirty for him. After Mitch tells her this, Blanche, feeling completely helpless, unknowingly delves into the depths of her imagination by severely intertwining reality with fantasy. Blanche does not want to accept the fact that no one wants her but once she has been discarded by Mitch, instead of actively doing something about her rejection, she resorts to living a completely different life inside her head. Blanche becomes wholly convinced that her friend, Shep Huntleigh, is coming to whisk her away to a vacation cruise ship where they will be happy and Shep will care for her.
The night that Mitch denies Blanche is the night she disconnects with reality, but Mitch isn’t the only reason that induced this outcome. Stanley comes home to find Blanche dressed up in an old gown with a tiara atop her head. Blanche, fully in her own realm of conscious, tells Stanley, “Just when I thought my luck had begun to fail me—” and Stanley interrupts with, “Into the picture pops this Miami millionaire.” (P 154) Blanche explains to Stanley her spun version of what happened with Mitch; she fabricates about what he said and did, then Stanley queries, “Was this before or after the telegram came from the Texas oil millionaire?” Blanche is at first confused about the telegram for she had temporarily forgotten about her lie. Stanley recognizes this and says, “There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination...Look at yourself! Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag-picker! And with the crazy crown on! What queen do you think you are?” (PP 157-158) After Stanley’s confrontation with Blanche he rapes her which pushes Blanche to the point where her mind goes into survival mode; she literally cannot accept the events that have just been cruelly played upon her so she draws into herself and lives through her own world where everything is just right.
Whilst Blanche is overcome by the fantasy over her supposed lucky outcome, Stanley and Stella contact a mental hospital to have her committed, all the while playing along with Blanche’s fantasy. The day the doctor comes for Blanche, Stanley and Stella tell Blanche the man at the door is her good friend, Shep, when in reality it is the doctor taking her away. Blanche sees the visitor at the door and, when in a moment of clarity, discovers it is not her friend, becomes hysterical and runs back into the bedroom. Soon, however, she reverts back to her world of fantasy, calms down and willingly goes with the doctor, making the decision that she can rely on him. Blanche’s last line in the play which is directed to the doctor, “Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” (P 178) leaves the reader with the feeling that Blanche has given up on living a normal life that does not depend on whimsical daydreams; she has not embraced facts but has become so afraid that she has lost touch with reality.
Henry Reifsneider’s story is tragic in a satisfying sort of way. Henry and his wife, Phoebe Ann, were married for forty-eight years before Phoebe’s death. They lived in the same house, on the same farm, for their entire unity, and Henry was even born at that location. They bore seven children, three of which died, and the rest had ultimately abandoned the couple to their old, worn out ways. Henry and Phoebe lived a simple life, and both grew to rely fully on each other. Often though, Phoebe would tease Henry about leaving him: “Now you hush, Henry. If you don’t, I’ll leave yuh. I’ll git up and walk out of here some day, and then where would y’be? Y’aint got anybody but me to look after yuh, so yuh just behave yourself.” (P 53) Comments like these were merely jest, but would later affect Henry’s method of accepting his wife’s death.
After Phoebe’s death, which was caused by an incurable disease for their time, Henry becomes restless and grows tired of day to day chores. Without his Phoebe, life is almost not worth living. Neighbors and relatives display their desire to care for him, but he denies their offering telling everyone that he will be fine, that he can take care of himself. For five months he endures the loneliness caused by his wife’s absence, until one evening he awakens from sleep to see a few objects in another room that, in Henry’s mind’s eye, looks like Phoebe. He eventually comes to realizes it is just an illusion, but over the next weeks he continually sees these illusions in different places. Then one morning, Henry wakes up without the memory of his wife’s death and thinks that she has just left him like she used to jest about. Henry, wholly convinced his wife is still alive and abroad, begins wandering the countryside in search of her. He walks to numerous farms, inquiring as to her whereabouts, and each residence that he first attends is astounded at his senile questioning. Many people offer him assistance in finding his wife, but soon, after no sign of Phoebe, Henry resorts to simply wandering the country roads alone with purposeful keenness.
At first Henry’s wanderings are short where he returns to his home each night, but eventually Henry becomes so absorbed in his nomadic search for his wife that he packs eating utensils and sleeping supplies so that he no longer has to return home but can search farther and farther away from home in hopes of coming across his long-lost wife. With these actions, Henry demonstrates his lack of ability to accept the reality that has been forced upon him. He grew so used to Phoebe always, constantly being there for him that her sudden lack of absence caused him to literally lose touch with reality and become insane. His mind did not want to accept the fact that she was gone and so resorted to making a new story, one that he could control what was going on, and one that he could fix the dilemma his mind was confronting.
Henry’s story ends on a happier note compared to Blanche’s. One night, while out searching for Phoebe, Henry sees Phoebe in full form for the first time since her death; Phoebe continues on, ignoring Henry, but Henry persists, calling out, “O Phoebe! Phoebe! Have yuh really come? Have yuh really answered me?” And so he follows her, calling out her name and remembering the young, beautiful Phoebe that he sees and desires. Henry follows her to a cliff’s edge where, below, he spies her and with one final call full of passion he leaps to his love, leaps to his death. A few days later, neighbor-boys discover the body of Henry, alone, with an expression of contentment on his face; he had found what he had been looking for. This ending leaves the reader with a feeling of satisfaction because Henry came to his journey’s end with the goal for which he had been searching. The story, however, leaves a question of whether Henry’s cause of death was simply so strongly a delusion that he literally saw his dead wife over the cliff and did not comprehend that jumping over the cliff would cause him to die, or that he had given up on his life without Phoebe so completely that he killed himself to end the torture.
Amanda Wingfield is perhaps the sanest between Henry and Blanche but is certainly not without her issues. Amanda is the mother of two, Tom and Laura; both children are over twenty years old and all three of them live together in apartment. Amanda’s husband, left her quite a few years ago to get away from her imperious nature, so Tom is left to support the household by working at a shoe factory. Amanda, like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, is a waning Southern belle who often spends her time verbally reminiscing about her younger days in the “Blue Mountains,” and who also generally cannot accept that her life is different than what it once was. Tom and Laura give the implication that Amanda frequently dwells on the memory of the seventeen gentlemen callers she received in one afternoon:
Amanda: Why, I remember one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain—
Tom: I know what’s coming!
Laura: Yes. But let her tell it.
Laura: She loves to tell it. (P 1977)
Amanda clings to her past because she has a hard time accepting the fact that not only did her husband leave her, but also because she no longer receives these gentlemen callers who she in some way thought defined her.
Amanda also has difficulty accepting that Laura has never received one single gentlemen caller, so she plays make-believe where Laura has many men coming to visit her. Laura, a shy, reserved young woman with a mild limp was never strongly encouraged by Amanda to participate in activities outside the house because Amanda cannot accept that Laura is a little different. Her efforts in downplaying Laura’s supposed negative traits have the opposite affect on Laura that Amanda wants to happen because she has caused Laura to become even more aware of the differences in herself.
Also a part of Amanda’s own reality is expecting Tom to be a practical, hard-working, down-to-earth man that is sophisticated as opposed to who he really is, a whimsical poet who follows his instincts, and enjoys reading and writing. He escapes from his mother’s trap by going to the movies every night and often comes back intoxicated from an overindulgence of alcohol. Amanda is so set on who she wants Tom to be that she drives him away with her constant nagging and overbearing nature. Amanda acts this way because it is comforting to her. However, these actions show how selfish and stubborn Amanda really is; her escape from reality is weak and unoriginal, and she shows no ambition to change herself, for she is quite content living in the past.
Characters in literature are often more like real people than they first appear. Luckily for Henry, his reality ended quite well: he died happy. Blanche’s reality did not turn out so well; she regressed back to living through her rainbow-coloured lens instead of attempting to reverse her cyclic error of relying on fantasy and other men to feel content. Amanda’s character also saw little signs of improvement, although the reader is left with a positive feeling towards her. People need to realize that checking out of actual reality does not rid them of the problem they are attempting to escape, or even cause it to disintegrate; it simply allows one to stop thinking about it for a while. Perhaps instead of trying to deal with a situation, people think if they ignore it, or create a new reality, the problem will go away. By recognizing problems that characters have in literature, people may then be able to better realize the issues they are dealing with which may assist and/or teach an individual to better rely on themselves for gratification or to be content with the way things are. Also, perhaps a reader may recognize a particular problem in a character that they see in themselves and by seeing how the character dealt with it may encourage the reader to try a new approach so the reader’s end is not as tragic as the character’s end.
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