Patrick McEvoy-Halston ENG 5063 Alan Ackerman 10 May 2006 Moderns and their Mothers’ Reach: Returning

to the Empowered Mother in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman In Terrible Honesty, Ann Douglas argues that moderns felt they needed to find a


way to free themselves from their Victorian predecessors, and discusses how the cultural products of the modern period worked to fashion a milieu which enabled moderns to feel free from their influence and command. Free, they fashioned one of the richest cultural periods that have ever existed. But she also argues that the moderns knew that a price would have to be paid for all this growth. She writes that they knew at some point, the Maternal—the “element” they repressed and beat back—would make stage a return, and make them pay for their insolence. Some theorists—especially those influenced by object-relations thought—argue, however, that the nature of how most of us experience our own self growth and freedom would ensure that moderns would themselves stage the return to a matriarchal environment—that is, that She wouldn’t need to return, for they would feel compelled to “come visit her.” I hope to suggest that some modernist plays may have well served to both help effect the matricide Douglas argues modernist cultural products helped effect, and to vicariously offer them a means by which to temporarily return to the maternally dominating environment they so loathed and feared. Specifically, I will explore how Brick and Margaret, in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Biff, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, are made to seem relatively empowered moderns who exist outside of the maternal surround, but who risk

2 upon their return to a maternal environment, the loss of hard won and highly prized independence. Douglas makes a very bold argument in Terrible Honesty: she more than argues that modern New York was moved by a desire to effect cultural matricide, to war against mothers and everything maternal, she argues that modernism itself was moved primarily by this impulse. According to Douglas, moderns preferred, for instance, crisp, precise, straightforward prose that “cut through all the bull,” because it was deemed a prose style opposed to that valued by Victorian matrons—because it was deemed, non-motherly. She believes that moderns were at war against those leading matrons of (American) Victorian society who made selfish use of those about them—of their children, especially —to serve their own ends. She acknowledges that the moderns’ successful effort to create a new and very fecund culture depended on them feeling as if they had, if not slain “her,” beat back the Victorian Titaness (i.e., the term used by moderns to refer to the empowered matriarchal figure in the Victorian period) enough to create room for their own growth. But Douglas is baffled by the fact that moderns felt they needed to effect matricide in order to produce breathing space for themselves. That is, she asks herself, and cannot answer, why a generation would go to war against maternal Victorian matrons who’d long been dead before any of them had been born? Given that Douglas writes about the difficulties specific moderns had with their mothers, and even argues that the entirety of Hemingway’s opus should be primarily understood as an effort to distinguish himself from, and revenge himself upon, his mother (222), it is odd that she doesn’t consider the possibility that the real reason they warred against mothers was not because they felt Victorian matrons somehow had a hold on

3 them, but because they felt and feared that their own mothers did. She chooses to conflate John Watson’s—the most prominent 20s child psychologist—observations concerning how mothers attend to their children and the effects this attendance has upon them, into her larger argument that the moderns were at war against their historical predecessors, against the Victorian epoch. But if Watson’s belief that mothers more harm than help their children is in fact true, we have reason to suspect that moderns truly needed to make use of their cultural products to help them cope with problems associated with difficulties arising from attempts to grow apart and distinguish themselves from their own mothers. According to Ann Hulbert, Watson should be counted amongst a host of child experts who proliferated in the modern era who believed that unfulfilled wives made use of their own children to satisfy their unmet needs (Raising America 141). He observed that mothers tend to over handle their children, kiss them obsessively, “stroke[e] and touch [their] [. . .] skin, lips, sex organs and the like,” and argued that no one should “mistake it for an innocent pastime” (141). In short, he argued that mothers made incestual use of their children. In order to spare children this incestual handling, he argued that parents should ensure that children spend as little time with their mothers as possible. According to Watson, children must be placed in separate beds, in separate rooms, kept away from their mothers, else they suffer the repercussions of being perpetually swarmed over and used by them (Douglas 43). The repercussions of such handling for the child: debilitation—the child would forever thereafter have difficulty leaving behind him/her “nesting habits,” and was therefore unlikely to be able to “conquer the difficulties it must meet in its environment” (141).

4 Watson’s view of mothers is, we note, very non-Victorian. Nowhere in his writings is one to find a conception of mothers as “angels in the house.” That is, in his conception of them, mothers are not those who, despite all their sufferings, somehow manage to offer their husbands and children the kind of support which would keep them emboldened moral forces. Rather, as noted, he sees them as those who cannot but use their children to satisfy their unmet needs. His account of mothers should fit very well with those who argue that most women through time (and still today) have been insufficiently nurtured and respected by the societies they grew up in. That is, it should fit well with those who argue that most women through time, and still today, grow up in patriarchal societies which to a lesser or greater extent, denigrate their female members. The effect of patriarchy upon women is not something Watson was interested in—he was instead intent on voicing his loathing of them, but it is something Lloyd DeMause, a contemporary independent scholar whose conclusions on the effects of the maternal misuse of children to some extent mirror Watsons,’ is interested in. Concerning such, DeMause writes: [I]mmature mothers and fathers [,that is, mothers and fathers who themselves were not reacted to warmly, affectionately by their own parents] expect their child to give them the love they missed when they were children, and therefore experience the child’s independence as rejection. Mothers in particular have had extremely traumatic developmental histories throughout history; one cannot severely neglect and abuse little girls and expect them to magically turn into good mothers when they grow up. [. . .] The moment the infant needs something or turns away from her to explore the world, it triggers her own memories of

5 maternal rejection. When the infant cries, the immature mother hears her mother, her father, her siblings, and her spouse screaming at her. She then “accuses the infant of being unaffectionate, unrewarding and selfish . . . as not interested in me” [Brazelton and Cramer 11]. All growth and individuation by the child is therefore experienced as rejection. “When the mother cannot tolerate the child’s being a separate person with her own personality and needs, and demands instead that the child mirror her, separation becomes heavily tinged with basic terror for the child” [255]. (The Emotional Life of Nations 151) DeMause argues that since we cannot help but grow in life, that “fears of growth, individuation, and self-assertion that carry threatening feelings of disintegration lead to desires to merge with the omnipotent mother—literally to crawl back into the womb” (94). According to DeMause, these feelings of disintegration are associated with a sense that we will somehow be punished for our growth. Throughout our life we are drawn to make a return to our mothers, but this reunion inevitably returns upon us all the troubling feelings which necessitated our leaving her behind in the first place. As DeMause writes, “fears of growth, individuation and self assertion that carry threatening feelings of disintegration lead to desires to merge with the omnipotent mother literally to crawl back into the womb desires which immediately turn into fears of maternal engulfment, since the merging would involve total loss of the self” (94). DeMause clearly does not believe we return to our actual mothers when we experience feelings of growth panic. His interest is in the social sphere, in how, when we feel the need to stage a return to the maternal, we construe our cultural/social sphere so that it helps us feel enmeshed within a maternal seeming environment. If true that

6 moderns, owing to fear of growth panic, felt the need not only to slay the maternal “beast” but also to return to her, perhaps their theatre, their plays, offered such a service. Douglas delineates how theatre worked to help nurture an anti-maternal ethos in the modern era. It may be that we can look to plays such as Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to find both tendencies at work— that is, to find evidence of how it would enable a vicarious return to an empowered maternal figure, and also the enactment of a form of matricide. Before delineating how Big Daddy’s home is actually made to seem a symbiotic, maternal space, one lorded over throughout much of the play (especially in the first two acts, but also to some extent in the third) by Big Mama, there is much to be said about the particular nature of “our” (i.e., moderns, and those of us who experience the play today who are operating under the effects of DeMause’s concept of “growth panic”) likely proxies—Brick and Margaret, who have ventured into it. Though the study of reader immersion in texts has “not been particularly popular with the ‘textual’ brands of literary theory” (15), as “it conflicts with [their] [. . .] concept of language” (92), reader-response literary theorists and cognitive psychologists who study readers’ involvement in texts, generally agree that reading involves the reader (or audience member) in “creating” a world that “stretch[es] in space, exist[s] in time” (Gerrig 15). The cognitive psychologist Richard Gerrig argues that the text actually “serve[s] as [a] habitat” (15) for the reader, and that readers are “placed” within the text as “side-participants or overhearers” (119). He does not believe that “transportation into a narrative world is dependent on narrative skills” (95), but he does believe that our level of immersion in a text will depend on how well we identify with the main protagonists. If Douglas is correct in her characterization

7 of moderns, that is, that they were fiercely independent and unsentimental, it would seem likely that they would identify both Brick and Margaret as “kin.” Both are loners—Brick shies away from physical contact, and seeks to remove himself from any kind of involvement with others in his eager pursuit of the “click” that promises complete detachment, complete self-ensconcement and invulnerability; and Margaret imagines herself a singular cat intent on little else other than her own self-interest. And if they were making use of the play to engage with the threatening maternal environment, moderns would perhaps be pleased that both protagonists seem appropriately armoured and weaponed “shells” for them to “embody” and identify with. Brick’s name suggests he is all protected—he is, with his empowered detachment, his sense of himself as entirely defeated, virtually impervious to being moved by others. He is mostly walled against the world, though not completely so. However, as I will explore, the fact that he has a weak spot, that he requires a “click” before he is safely ensconced and invulnerable against predations, may in the end actually work to empower him, for it makes him seem a good match for Margaret, the stronger of the two, and the one particularly well empowered against being incorporated by the maternal surround.) Margaret is made to seem akin to a weapon—specifically, to an archer’s bow. She is likened to Diana, Greek goddess of the hunt. And though Henry Popkin is surely right to see Brick, who is likened to a “godlike being” and to “Greek legends” (43), as akin to the Greek hero, Adonis, the handsome athlete (“Plays of Tennessee Williams” 45), he may also, with his one weak spot, with his need of a clean click to be completely armored against experience, be fairly likened to Achiles too. That is, he might fairly be imagined a man-

8 god whose one weak spot is surely one “the goddess of the hunt” might both find and effectively strike. He, then, is a barrier, resistant to influences, she is likened to an object which can puncture through them (i.e., barriers): they are both appropriately empowered to have some hope of dealing with an environment which threatens to remove their sense of themselves as distinct individuals and to reduce them to servile minions. We note this is the threat, according to Watson and object-relation oriented researchers such as DeMause, the mother confronts her children with; and it is the threat Margaret obsesses over in act one. She is set on social climbing, on not falling from her place on the social ladder into the muck or trash. In an apparent effort to make herself secure herself against such a threat, she concerns herself with dramatizing how different she is from those she imagines as clearly “off the ladder.” One of those she is concerned to distinguish herself from is Gooper’s wife, whom she claims belongs not above but along side the odorous and indistinct, base human lot. Specifically, she deems Mae someone who serves their needs, whose beauty and body is at their service. She depicts her as the carnival queen who must “smil[e], bow, and blow kisses to all the trash in the street’ (21). Margaret is one of those who in the play who actively associates Mae as a breeder. She uses the fact that Mae has given birth to five children already with at least one more on the way, to make Mae seem someone who not only tends to, but who also is responsible for producing, the overflowing and non-distinct, i.e., garbage. She also actively distinguishes herself from Mae’s children. She repeatedly calls them “no-neck monsters.” This is a way of making them seem all body, for in this particular encapsulation of them they lack the neck which separates and elevates the head and mind

9 from the (base) body. She insists that Mae gave them dog names, and imagines them as part of a pack of dogs she might use in a hunt. But she imagines them as such not to suggest how she might use them but to help identify them as entities who, in a variety of ways, are clearly different from her, i.e., she would lead, they would follow; she is a goddess, they are animals. She differentiates herself from them once again, and most effectively, when she likens herself to a cat; for unlike dogs, cats cannot readily be imagined as ever losing their own distinctive identity by being merged within a pack— and unlike Mae, the carnival queen, their claim on aristocratic characteristics and qualities is well founded, secure. We note, though, that in act one neither Brick nor Margaret is made to seem completely empowered over others, and are pressed to fend off invasions. Though as I have suggested is the case, Brick’s vulnerability to Margaret will end up helping him seem removed from the threatening maternal, in act one Margaret’s ability to get through to him and upset him certainly works to make him seem someone who can be moved. Margaret’s ability to strike, deflect, dodge, and wound, is put to test in the first act, and she too seems someone who—other than with Brick—is acted upon more than she acts upon others. Brick and Margaret have to deal with invaders: first the no-neck monsters whose screams permeate their room, and then Big Mama, who authoritatively encroaches upon what is ostensibly their territory, their bedroom. Margaret’s first line in the play, “One of those no-neck monsters hit me with a hot buttered biscuit so I have t’change” (15), foreshadows her subsequent difficulties in dealing with encroachments in the first act of the play. Soon afterwards, she comments upon their “screaming” (16). The children actually can be heard to scream twice in the fist act, and are to be counted

10 amongst the numerous noises which invade the room throughout the act. The children’s screams, Mae’s footsteps, Big Mama’s booming voice, the phone, croquet sounds, all encroach upon, and call into question their able to ensure their privacy. We are encouraged to attend to the fact that though they have their own bedroom, they are not securely removed from, distinguished from, the goings on in the rest of the house. Their bedroom’s walls aren’t much of a barrier, and neither is its door. Though Mae asks if she can enter their room, Big Mama attempts entry without asking permission to do so, and is irritated to find her path blocked by the locked door. Before she enters, Brick retreats to the bathroom, shuts its door, and leaves Margaret to deal with her. Margaret tries to assert herself while talking to her, but Big Mama is not someone she has much success in rebuffing. By entering through another entrance into the room— the gallery door, Big Mama actually catches Margaret by surprise when she finally does enter the room. Big Mama’s loud voice, too, “startle[s]” (33) and unnerves Margaret. Margaret tries to persuade Big Mama that there is a need for privacy in a home, but Big Mama replies, “No, ma’am, not in my house” (33). She would encroach upon her son, even though Margaret tried to inform her that Brick was dressing, that he was naked. But the possibility of seeing her adult son’s naked body is not something which can deter her —she argues that she has seen such many times before, and, as we note, seems driven throughout the play to subject her son to the sort of “kiss[ing] and [. . .] fuss[ing] over” (50) she subjected him to as a child, and well knows he cannot stand. Moreover, while in the room, she demonstrates that she is quite willing to show others her own bare body: she lifts up her skirt to show Margaret her bruises. Doing so helps her demonstrate to Margaret that she, not Margaret, has authority within the space of the bedroom. It is her

11 means of demonstrating to her that “their” room is just one part of a home she considers all her own. Within their bedroom, she clearly feels empowered to say as she wills. She suggests to Margaret that the reason she must be without a child is that she is unable to please her son in bed, and Margaret is overtly shown to be phased by this assertion. Big Mama is not successful in getting her son out of the washroom; but she is not driven out of the room by Margaret. Instead, someone calls her and, in a proprietary fashion, she “swe[eps]” (37) out of the room. And, by slamming the door shut on the way out, she finds means to loudly convey her irritation at their having dared sought to inhibit her from entering their room at will. Only after she has left, does Brick leave the bathroom. He “hobble[s]” (37) out, an act we likely cannot but compare to Big Mama’s emboldened exit, and understand as evidence of Big Mama’s seemingly certain strong hold over others within her household. Big Mama’s subsequent entrance into a room—which occurs immediately after the intermission at the beginning of act two—is described as being even more brazen and assertive than her entrance into Brick and Margaret’s bedroom. We are told that “instant silence [is] [. . .] almost instantly broken by the shouting charge of Big Mama, entering through hall door like a charging rhino” (49). We are also subsequently told that her dress, “her riotous voice, booming laugh, have dominated the room since she entered” (50). She is characterized as a maternal figure bent on physically enveloping others within her enormous body. She is again looking for Brick, to smother him with attention, but instead ends up subjecting the Reverend Tooker to the sort of humiliating close contact she’d prefer to “lavish” upon Brick. She pulls the reverend close to her, “into her lap,” and exclaims in a shrill laugh, “[e]ver seen a preacher in a fat lady’s lap?” (51).

12 Given Big Mama’s empowered presence in the first act, the second act must have close to being unbearable to maternally oppressed moderns. But very quickly, there is respite: Big Daddy, thinking himself free of cancer, decides it is time to thwart Big Mama’s influence over the household. According to Douglas, many moderns imagined the great matriarchs of the Victorian period as Titanesses. She writes that they felt the need to create a god equal in power to the Victorian Titaness, a male god who could be imagined as effectively warring against her. Specifically, she writes: “Really to kill such a god, to finish her off for good and all, the moderns needed another god; to free themselves from the devouring, engulfing mother god, a savage and masculine god was required” (243). She writes that, for instance, Freud’s empowered father was embraced by moderns because he helped in fashioning a sense of the father as brutally empowered over the mother. Douglas also attends to various empowered male characters, or characters with masculine attributes, that modern artists were intent on fashioning in their works; and most certainly, given the way he is portrayed, Big Daddy should qualify as such a construction. For he rudely but effectively manages to beat back the maternal figure Big Mama (read: matricide), who to this point in the text, had been omnipresent and (essentially) unopposed. Though with Big Daddy’s girth and appetite it seems strange that he airs this particular argument, but he is one of two characters in the play (the other is Margaret) who voices an argument against expansion. Thinking of Mae’s sixth child, Big Daddy complains that once one obtains property how pretty soon “things [. . .] [get] completely out of hand!” (61). He responds to Brick’s comment that “nature hates a vacuum” by arguing that “a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces

13 it with” (61). He most certainly is set to limit Big Mama’s rulership over the household, her presumptive management of all he takes to be his. In a rant he rails not only against her rulership but against her presumptive, invasive use of her body. He says: I went through all that laboratory and operation and all just so I would know if you or me was boss here! Well, now it turns out that I am and you ain’t—and that’s my birthday present—and my cake and champagne!—because for three years now you been gradually taking over. Bossing. Talking. Sashaying your fat old body around the place I made! I made this place! [. . .] [A]nd now you think you’re just about to take over. Well I am just about to tell you that you are not just about to take over. 58 Big Daddy’s bullying of her does to some extent terminate Big Mama’s dominance throughout the remainder of act two, but Big Daddy loses his self-confidence and largely vanishes from the play once he learns he does indeed have cancer, and Big Mama again threatens to find a way to assert herself in his absence. In act three, and after after Big Daddy’s declaration that it is nobody’s but his own, she shows she still thinks of the house as her own. She says, “I said, hush! I won’t tolerate anymore catty talk in my house” (114), and says the equivalent several more times throughout the act. She also continues to advance upon Brick, to engage with him physically. We are told that she approaches her son, puts her hands through his hair, ruminates about what he was like when he was a boy, and Brick backs away as “he does from all physical contact” (117). She then argues that they “all got to love each other an’ stay together, all of us, just as close as we can, especially now that such a black thing has come and moved into [their] [. . .] place without invitation” (117).

14 But if Big Daddy success at “matricide” was incomplete, she is still too shaken by what might dramatically have seemed, both to her and to the audience—like another act of matricide—the family converging on her to visit upon her “the bad news”—to be capable of the confident invasiveness she managed at the beginning of the play. Big Mama has had her time of effective self exertion, her time in the “sun,” and now Margaret is the one who effectively imposes her will upon others. She uses it to make claim to Brick—thereby ensuring he would be taken safely away from a mother who threatens to overwhelm him, and that they would not be placed in a servile position to others. Margaret is ideally suited for such a purpose. For Big Mama sees Margaret as an “other”—she is not part of her brood: she is alien to the household. The text primes us to imagine her as someone who may aptly be thought of as somehow existing outside the household even while within it. She is a cat who dances on a roof. She is also Diana, goddess not only of the hunt, but of the moon—an entity which makes its appearance in act three, as Brick attends to in an effort to remove himself from the goings on in the household. He looks to the moon for solace and escape, and at the end of the play, he seems to want Margaret to look over him. Sex with her, we note, would involve none of the closeness which so repels him. She says that he will satisfy her desires; but we know that this is best done when he is detached and uninvolved. In act one, that is, she declared that he was “[s]uch a wonderful person to go to bed with, [. . .] mostly because [he was] [. . .] really indifferent to it” (24). Maggie, too, we note, is very singular and alone. There is a sense, then, that their “love making” would be very different from the kind Big Daddy had involved himself with Big Mama; for though Big Daddy also declares he only

15 “humped” his wife, while very likely sex between Brick and Margaret would be kept to a minimum, Big Daddy believes that forty years of such left him feeling drained, depleted, in search of some means of revitalization. And though at the end of the play we know she will become a mother, it is very unlikely that we imagine Margaret as obviously maternal in any way. She certainly is shown to loathe young children, and very likely strikes us as the sort of mother Watson argued children ought to have, that is, as someone who would give her child the bare minimum of attention it required before absconding off elsewhere, in a very cat-like, fickle fashion. Another play which might serve as a means by which—again via proxies— moderns might have satisfied a need to return to a maternal environment and effect a certain kind of matricide, is Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The plot involves Biff being summoned home by his mother so he might help save his father, Willy. Just like Big Daddy, Willy is made to seem someone who suffers owing to being servile to his wife. Big Daddy argues that his wife had slowly taken over, and that forty years of living with her had been a lifetime of living with someone he loathed. He declares he will not be servile to her; but even though he does to some extent “beat her back” and feels newly ascendant by doing so, he still mentions to Brick that they should keep their voices down in the home, for fear of being overheard—that is, there is, perhaps, never a sense in the play that the house he lives in is unquestionably his space. Willy may be thought of as someone who, owing to the fact that he could not ignore his wife’s wishes and leave Brooklyn, found himself forever contained, trapped within a space lorded over by her. Like Big Daddy, within the house he makes every effort to “expand himself”—his manner is bullying; but there is a strong sense that this behavior far more works to

16 highlight how smothered and threatened he feels than it does to dramatize any strength he might ostensibly possess. Because he proved to be someone who “could not get away,” Willy spends a life perpetually fending off pressing forces. He voices his suspicion that his real problem, his tragic flaw, is that he can’t escape, while in discussion with Bernard. He seems to believe that a moment was once presented to him where he might escape to a more manly life, but in failing to take advantage of it, he doomed himself to a caged and small life. He plays back in his mind the moment his brother Ben offered him, Freedom—that is, when Ben offered him a chance to join him in Alaska. Ben had gone there, we note, in search of his father. But Linda persuaded Willy he would be better off not leaving, in remaining a salesman. But it seems clear that Linda had her own interests at heart in this effort. She was content with the relatively stable life, and wanted it to continue. Guerin Bliquez rightly sees Ben as Linda’s rival, and is right to argue that in convincing him to not abscond off to Alaska, Linda emasculates him, him a victim of her ambition (“Linda’s Role in Death of a Salesman” 384). (Karl Hashbarger is another critic who maintains that in persuading her husband to stay in Brooklyn, she proves “victorious” over a “man” [Burning Jungle 28]). Willy, then, fails to leave behind a life his wife clearly is comfortable with in pursuit of a space and a life associated with his father—that is, with a masculine, adventurous, empowered Father. He is, then, the sort of pathetic figure moderns, as Douglas imagines them, feared they might become unless they found means to create a culture they could readily imagine as inhospitable to would-be matriarchs. According to Douglas, they managed such, in part, by nurturing the idea of the empowered Father; but

17 also by making themselves seem entities mothers could not readily handle, entities mothers/matriarchs would fear. If her conception of moderns is correct, then surely they must have readily identified with Biff, someone who in his youth mothers feared (40), and who, unlike his father, found means to leave his old world behind and ensconce himself within a masculine new surround (i.e. Texas). Like Brick and Margaret, then, Biff has some ability, some power, which would encourage moderns to use him as a proxy. But just as Brick, most especially, seemed perpetually at risk of being “caught” by his mother, Biff is at risk of finding himself upon his return living a life he had once successfully left behind him. Linda would have Biff rescue Willy, but as Christopher Bigsby argues, “[t]he price of saving Willy may [. . .] be the loss of his own freedom and autonomy” (Arthur Miller 104). As is the case in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, early in the play there is an unforgettable sense of the mother—in this case, Lind—as a formidable, dominating power. Though arguably there is never a time in the play in which others (read: Willy’s) ability to interrupt her works to make her seem weak (for the most part, it works to make her seem astonishingly tolerant, and therefore justified in whatever demands she might make on him and her inattentive children), unambiguously the one part of the play in which she repeatedly interrupts others works to make her far more empowered than just someone who could offer her husband effective “resistance” (25). She commands the stage; she commands her sons, and very effectively makes her sons feel guilty about their lack of attendance to their father. Biff decides that he even though he “hate[s] this city [. . .] [, he’ll] stay” (58) and help out.

18 The means of his escape from a life she really wants no part of to some extent mirrors the one, according to Douglas, adopted by moderns to empower their resistance to Victorian moralism. According to Douglas, moderns came to understand Victorian moralism as overly simplistic. She writes that they did not lose their interest in doing right; rather, they concluded that what was right was far harder to determine that their predecessors seemed to assume it was. Specifically, she writes: “The older generation was quick to accuse the younger one of lacking moral standards, but in truth the moderns wanted not fewer ethics but more searching ones” (33). Linda manages to control Biff by suggesting that following her request (to stay and help save Willy) is the morally right thing to do. But just like the moderns learned to be less intimidated by and less respectful of Victorian moralism, Biff finds means to not let his mother’s sense of what is right trump his own sense and search of such. At the end of the text he would confront his father and tell him, amongst other things, that he means to depart and live the life he prefers to live. He means to bust the lies he feels have cloaked and smothered their household throughout their lives. Believing him intend on inflicting another cruelty upon Willy, Linda tries to dissuade him. Much like before when she denigrated her children for their ostensibly inappropriate behavior, she does so here, calling them “animals” and “louses” (124). But while before calling Happy a “bum” and identifying Biff as someone who had lost all love for his father primed them for her management of them, Biff is not this time deterred from his preferred course by either her name calling or her remonstrance. He readily accepts her brutal characterizations of him as true. He identifies himself as “scum of the earth,” but presses on “with absolute assurance, determination” (125) to have his confrontation with his father.

19 We note this sense of him here as someone who would speak the truth regardless of the harm it might effect is exactly how Douglas argues moderns preferred to imagine themselves. She argues they “[o]pposed every form of ‘sentimentality,’ they prided themselves on facing facts, the harder the better” (33). Their sense was that because they sought out terrible truths, and the Victorian ostensibly avoided such, that they were superior, stronger than they were, and should not therefore look to them for leadership. Biff, as he makes his way past Linda, certainly seems the stronger of the two. His determinism, his desire to hash it out, makes him seem bullish and masculine. It makes him seem someone who as a youth, mothers would have feared. Linda believes Biff effort to confront his father can only harm Willy; but in fact his insistence on confronting his father him works to rescue him—only not in the way Linda had hoped for. She hoped Biff would help save his life, keep him afloat. But Willy understood his life as insufficiently masculine, as cowardly, even. The nature of his life was such that Linda could without pause proclaim him, “not great,” as someone, who, when things went awry, she could readily conceive of as “a little boat looking for a harbor” (76). Biff helps make his father feel great again, as he did before with his football prowess and clear adoration of him. Their confrontation ultimately works to show Willy just how passionately his son still cares for him, something he had been unsure of for some time. Biff, then, is a relative from afar who offers him great joy, and he clearly imagines this visit as akin to the visit Ben once paid him. Emboldened, he imagines Ben with him once again, and persuades himself that he might just have one last opportunity to demonstrate to himself and to others that he is in fact an empowered provider, a risk taker, a success.

20 Bigsby writes that “Linda trumpets the fact that they have repaid their mortgage as if this was in some way the objective towards which their lives had been directed” (103). It certainly seemed the objective towards which Linda was directed, but it was one which Willy never saw realized, for he died before the last payment on the house was made: Linda actually says at the funeral, “we were just about free and clear” (103; emphasis added). The play ends with the two of them seeming very disparate. Not only is she alive, and him, dead, but she—someone who to this point seemed the one who best understood her husband—is left unable to fathom the possible motive behind his actions. Willy escapes her understanding and her grasp, and so too does Biff—we know he will once again move away and tend to the realization of his own preferred way of life. Just as is the case with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the play ends by making those characters moderns likely identified with—those who likely seemed most akin to themselves—in the ascendant, and their feared predecessor, the matriarch—whether a representation of the Victorian matron, their own mothers, or both—seem depleted and inert. Both plays, then, seem very well designed to help effect the “changing of the guard” Douglas argues moderns’ cultural products were intended to effect. But given the extent to which the maternal, the matriarch in each of these plays is allowed to loom large, perhaps they also worked to satisfy a need their real freedom and growth ended up enabling, namely, the need to revisit and re-experience maternal power so potent it could readily command obeisance, and cost one the opportunity to live one’s own life. Works Cited Bigsby, Christopher. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

21 Bliquex, Geurin. “Linda’s Role in Death of a Salesman.” Modern Drama 10 (1968): 383-86. DeMause, Lloyd. The Emotional Life of Nations. New York: Karnac Books, 2002. Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Hashbarger, Karl. The Burning Jungle: An Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Washington: University Press of America, 1979. Hulbert, Ann. Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. New York: Knopf, 2003. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Saleman. New York: Viking, 1967. Popkin, Henry. “Plays of Tennessee Williams.” Tulane Drama Review 4.3 (March 1960): 45-64. Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: Signet, 1955.


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