This sample essay on Past Influences Present provides important aspects of the issue and arguments for and against as well as the needed facts. Read on this essay’s introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.
The two works of literature discussed in this essay have several similarities in their underlying themes and narratives. The Street Car Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, was not only well received by critics, but also adapted into several stage productions. The post Second World War period in which the play is set was a period of rapid social transformation.
The United States had emerged as one of two superpowers and there is unprecedented growth in the manufacturing industry. This alters the conventional equations of power between men and women, cities and country sides, northern states and southern states, etc. It is in this shifting and evolving milieu that the lives of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois cross paths, which ultimately leads to much interpersonal turmoil.
Similarly, the novel ‘The Reader’ written by Bernhard Schlink is a work of high literary standard. The movie version too got several nominations in the Academy Awards. The Reader too is set in period of the Second World War, although its narrative finally takes us to the end of the century. While the particular contextual settings in which lead protagonists Hanna and Michael Berg develop their relationship is different from that of Stanley and Blanche, one could see strong parallels between the two stories. This essay will foray further into such relationships and ascertain how the present lives of both Blanche and Michael have been influenced by past due to them mainly keeping and finding out secrets.
In The Streetcar Named Desire, the lead character of Blanche DuBois’s interactions with Stanley, Stella and Mitch are all defined and shaped by her troublesome past. Early in her youth, she falls in love with and marries a gentleman in Laurel, Mississippi. But the romance and happiness was short-lived as she soon discovers that her husband is homosexual, who subsequently kills himself. This tragic end to a whirlwind marriage had left a deep scar in Blanche’s psyche, making her prone to flights of fantasy and illusions of grandeur. Throughout the play, Blanche is show as being obsessively concerned about her looks, clothes and jewellery. This behaviour is partly due to feelings of insecurity as a result of aging. But more importantly the luxurious lifestyle with which she was accustomed to in Laurel, as well as the fairytale marriage to Allan, ended in disaster. While the reason for Allan’s suicide is revealed to Mitch, the details pertaining to the loss of their ancestral mansion is told to Stanley, when the latter coerces her to divulge the same. In many ways, the behaviour of Blanche since her arrival at Stella’s home is an attempt to recompense for these losses. This manifests itself as a form of neurosis as she becomes obsessed about her looks and appeals to the opposite sex. Beneath the veneer of refinement and culture, she desperately craves for intimacy from every possible source. Even a young salesman who comes to the door is taken advantage of by Blanche. Hence, Blanche’s abnormal behaviour is very much rooted in her past.
In the case of The Reader too, the later narrative of Michael is full of remorse and guilt for his ignorance in the past. When evaluating the novel, one has to study it in the context of the burgeoning body of holocaust literature that has been published in the last sixty years. Rather than dealing in dichotomies of good and evil in the characters of Hanna and Michael, Bernhard Schlink does present a nuanced view of the questions confronting an entire generation of Germans post holocaust. Michael’s individual turmoil is only representative of this greater malaise. While the novel provides an entry point for further exploration of the moral aspects of the holocaust, it is simultaneously a statement on the limitations of the written word to convey and elicit comprehensive responses. To the extent that this is an accepted fact, not just applicable to the lead characters of The Reader, but for the Novel in general, the author does a satisfactory job of perceiving and probing answers to these tough questions. For example, the novelist does a satisfactory job in spelling out the internal monologues of Michael, as the latter comes to terms with his past. For instance, in one of the passages of the book, Michael’s conscious thoughts were given expression by Schlink through the following words: “She was too far away for me to read her expression. I didn’t jump to my feet and run to her. Questions raced through my head: why was she at the pool, did she want to be seen with me, did I want to be seen with her, why had we never met each other by accident, what should I do? (The Reader, p. 79) Such internal monologues do indeed show us the mechanisms with which Michael confronts his past and gives it perspective. In this way, in both The Reader and The Streetcar Named Desire, we see how the events and facts of the past play a crucial role in shaping the narratives of the present.
Coming back to The Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois was so entrenched in the nostalgia and romance of her past that she refuses to recognize realities anymore. Her ideal notions of men, women and culture are markedly divorced from the rapid changes that have taken place in the country after the war. Seen from this viewpoint, Stanley comes across as a brutish and uncivilized bully who constantly harasses and exploits his wife Stella. This impels Blanche to advice Stella to leave Stanley and seek a new life for herself. She reminds Stella of finer enjoyments of life such as art, music and poetry and implores her to find a civilized man who would care about these things. But in reality though, it is Blanche who is holding on to a vision of the past that no longer exists. Her idealized view of romance, marriage and culture is so divergent from the new industrial realities of post war America, which is typified by the rugged masculinity displayed by Stanley. While Stanley might lack social grace and politeness, he is honest to himself and others around him. But Blanche’s criticism of Stanley is a subconscious defence mechanism against her own illusions. By way of being critical of him she is retracting to an idyllic notion of the past.
Strong parallels of this can also be found in the later realizations of Michael Berg. At the time of his adolescent affair with Hanna, he was unaware of her involvement in a concentration camp. Michael was also unaware that Hanna is illiterate, which is why she likes other people to read her stories. During the law trials that followed the holocaust, it was revealed that Hanna made her prisoners read to her, which is when Michael finally understands the truth. It could be argued that since Michael was young and vulnerable when he first met Hanna, he cannot be held responsible for the crimes she abetted. Moreover, he was not aware of all the facts at the time. But to understand Michael’s enduring fascination and attachment to Hanna, one has to look at the initial circumstances in which they met. In the impressionable psyche of young Michael, the beauty and allure of Hanna would have made a lasting impression. To take the above mentioned assessment a little deeper, let us take a specific example. Early in the narrative of the novel we come across this memorable piece of writing (the narrator is the young Michael Berg): “As she was reaching for the other stocking, she paused, turning towards the door, and looked straight at me. I can’t describe what kind of look it was–surprised, sceptical, knowing or reproachful. I turned red. For a fraction of a second I stood there, my face burning. Then I couldn’t take it any more” (The Reader, p. 12). It is moments such as these that reveal in depth the characters of Hanna and Michael. It also explains why Hanna continued to hold a power over Michael right up till her last days. But for some untold reason, Michael carries a burden of guilt about his relationship with Hanna. He could not shrug himself of this guilt even after the passage of many years. It is this strange and unarticulated attachment toward Hanna that prompts him to keep in touch with her during her time in prison. He sends her several books to read (albeit anonymously), knowing that she would get some solace from it. Later, toward the last days of her life, she hands over to Michael what little money she’d saved up along with another cherished possession.
There is, of course, one crucial difference between the development of Blanche and Michael. In the case of Blanche, with every passing day her insecurities seem to grow and her illusions of grandeur seem more absurd. In other words, her mental poise and sanity steadily withers away as she eventually becomes totally deluded and acts insane. Blanche resorts to greater amounts of liqueur and fantasy to console her of numerous fears. But in the case of Michael, as the narrative progresses, he seems to grow wiser with it. As the novel concludes with the death of Hanna and as Michael hands down her savings to an education fund, he seemed to have attained a closure on Hanna. Although the author does not explicitly state it, this final act from Michael gives him a sense of relief and peace. The very opposite is the case with Blanche, who becomes totally insane toward the end of the play, and is handed over to medical attention. Hence, the impact of the past on the present plays out in distinctly different ways in the cases of Michael and Blanche. While Michael seems to benefit from the unravelling of past secrets, Blanche gets overwhelmed by them and ultimately succumbs to them.
Bernhard Schlink, The Reader, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (London: Phoenix, paperback edition, 1998).
Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire (play), first published in 1947.