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The Theme of Alienation in The Glass Menagerie, Size the Day and Reservation Blues

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Review of English Studies draft Original Article

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Keywords:

alienation, fictions, drama

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Bista 1 Krishna K. Bista The Theme of Alienation in The Glass Menagerie, Size the Day and Reservation Blues Alienation is a feeling of not belonging. This feeling can be psychological, physical, social, economic or religious. As defined in the Microsoft Encarta Dictionary, “Alienation is the process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.” This concept of alienation, i.e. feeling of cut off or disconnected from society, family, and/or peers, is a common theme in modern American literature. This paper makes an attempt to analyze and study the

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theme of alienation in three selected texts of American authors—Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1949), Saul Bellow’s Size the Day (1956), and Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues (1995).

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In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams portrays each of his characters who is

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distanced from society and personal involvement. Amanda Wingfield, the mother whose husband deserted her years ago, lives partially in the world of her youth and the memory her

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gentlemen callers in order to escape the complexities of present time. The language she uses always suggests another time and place. Her son, Tom Wingfield, a poet by nature, feels that his

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environment is destroying his poetic abilities. Her daughter, Laura Wingfield, is slightly

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crippled. Laura is isolated from the real world, and lives in the world of old phonograph records and little glass animals. Williams shows through the nature of these characters that all these individuals are alone in the world. The most extreme form of estrangement takes place in the character of Laura. The playwright brilliantly illuminates the concept of isolation in Laura’s life through the symbolic use of glass. The character of Laura is unique and totally cut off from the present day world. In her twenties, she lives with her mother but largely she is isolated from contact with the outside

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Manuscripts submitted to Review of English Studies

Bista 2 world. During her early school years, she felt isolated from her classmates because of physical problems. Laura states that she “never had much luck at making friends” in school because of her self-consciousness over having to walk with a leg brace (Williams, 94). After only a few days at a business college, Laura “broke down completely” the first time she had to take a typing test and never returned to school (Williams, 32). She returns home and escapes into a fantasy world. There she obsesses over her menagerie of glass animals and her father’s phonograph records. Laura sits alone playing with her glass animals. Her mother constantly wishes her to

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have gentlemen callers but she does not have even one. Like the glass, Laura is extremely fragile with high possibility of being easily destroyed. Joseph K. Devis has mentioned that “glass animals [of Laura] represent her own immobilized animal nature and her inability to cope with

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the demand of a flesh-and-blood world” (192). In other words, she is crippled and is trapped in

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her own world of alienation. He further writes, “Given broader implications, the separate pieces of the glass collection reflect the fixed attitudes of all the members of the Wingfield family as well as their isolation from one another” (192).

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The Glass Menagerie portrays individuals not only feeling away from reality but also

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wishing to escape time and history. Tom cannot endure his home life or his job in the shoe

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factory and uses the motion pictures as a temporary means to escape. He has complete disgust with everything. Tom says to his mother:

You think I’m crazy about the warehouse? You think I’m in love with the Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that—celotex interior! with—fluorescent-tubes! […] I go! Every time you come in yelling that God damn “Rise and Shine!” “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself,

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Bista 3 “How lucky dead people are! But I get up. I go! For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! (28) Tom desires to escape to a world in which he may be free to be himself. Tom teases his mother with a made-up story about his ‘secret life’ when she demands to know where he is going. He says to his mother: “I’m going to opium dens! Yes, opium dens, dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts, Mother. I’ve joined the Hogan gang, I’m a hired assassin, I carry a tommy-gun in a violin caste” (Williams, 28). A sense of isolation is also clearly pictured in the character of

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Amanda. She recalls her glorious days of receiving up to seventeen gentlemen callers’ in a single afternoon. She wishes that her daughter, Laura would have many gentlemen callers. She says: “Not one gentleman’s caller? It can’t be true. There must be a flood; there must have been a

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tornado” (Williams, 25). In Gentlemen Callers, Michael Paller also writes that “Amanda is often

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considered a foolish woman lost in nostalgia that she wields as weapon to protect her from the present” (35). It is clear that she endlessly talks about her golden days of her youth whether they existed or not.

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The theme of isolation is also vividly portrayed in Saul Bellow’s novel Size the Day.

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Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist, is the character in the depersonalized big city of New York.

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Tommy is estranged from all the important people in his life. He is separated from his wife. He can not talk to his father about anything important. He tells the truth of his hunting past that his “dad never was a pal” to him when he was young (Bellow, 11). He is also troubled with the loss of his job and financial instability. Moreover, he talks only superficially to his friend, Rubin even though both of them know each other very well. Tommy feels out of place staying at the Hotel Gloriana because it is filled with elderly retirees. He feels isolated amidst crowds throughout the novel:

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Manuscripts submitted to Review of English Studies

Bista 4 Most of the guests at the Hotel Gloriana were past the age of retirement. Along Broadway in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, a great part of New York’s vast population of old men and women lives. Unless the weather is too cold or wet they fill the benches about the tiny railed parks and along the subway gratings from Verdi Square to Columbia University, they crowd the shops and cafeterias, the dime stores, the tea rooms, the bakeries, the beauty parlors, the reading rooms and club rooms. Among these old people at the Gloriana, Wilhelm felt out of

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place. (3)

Tommy’s sense of disconnection seems to start with his own relationship with his father, Dr. Alder. However, old Dr. Alder speaks to his son “with such detachment about his welfare”

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that Tommy “could not speak his mind or ease his heart to him” (Bellow, 34). Tommy has had a

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sad and painful past. When he was young, “his dad was at the office or the hospital, or the lecturing” (Bellow, 12). In fact, he was out of true parental love and care in his childhood. His

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sense of alienation emerges from his situation of being away from parents and family love. Also, his own choices of his life are the causes of his isolation and loneliness. He had lied to his

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parents, dropped out of college and moved to California to begin a Hollywood career though he

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gets no further than being a burden on the earth. Saul Bellow depicts this strange side of Tommy as:

He was the only member of the family who had no education. This was another sore point. His father was ashamed of him. But he had heard the old man bragging to another old man, saying, “My son is a sales executive. He didn’t have the patience to finish school. But he does all right for himself. His income is up in the five figures somewhere.” (11)

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Bista 5 Besides his education and job, Tommy also has discomfort with his own name. His birth name is Wilhelm Adler. He says, “the changed name was a mistake” (Bellow, 21). This shows that he has the confusion over his different names: his father calls him “Wilky” but he has chosen the name “Tommy Wilhelm.” He apologizes for the life he has lead, for wasted time, and he asks God for help to be “out of this clutch” (Bellow, 21). At one level, Tommy’s disappointment is because of his love to Olive, his girlfriend, too. He hopes to get married to Olive, but his wife Margret is determined not to give him divorce.

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She is cold, harsh and unsympathetic. As she is the mother of his two children, she demands monetary support from Tommy. He, on other side, finds himself completely alone in a place where everyone seems to be very happy, i.e. New York. At another level, the economic status of

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Tommy becomes another serious factor of his isolation from his family and society. He lives in

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the materialistic society of New York City. Mr. Pearls, money worshiper and Dr. Adler are unlike Tommy who is naïve and does not understand the financial dealing of the city. The

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German Officer has to explain to Tommy the nature of the document he has signed with Dr. Tamkin, a healer and poet. The manger was familiar with the ways of the city: “Here was a

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man…who knew and knew and knew. He, a foreigner knew, knew; Wilhelm, in the city of his

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birth, was ignorant” (Bellow, 76). Rather than being a business expert, Tommy becomes a man of feeling and emotion. And he is completely isolated. It is in New York City where Tommy feels alienated from its inhabitants. He feels that communication with others is as difficult as learning another language: Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking and this happened over and over and over with everyone you met.

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Manuscripts submitted to Review of English Studies

Bista 6 You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood. (Bellow, 91) His alienation, in total, is associated with family members, outsiders, their language, place, and social status. His city life becomes a day of alienation and ruin. Tommy sees himself as an outsider in his own world of New York. Although he was born and raised in this city, he feels like a stranger: “I don’t belong in New York any more” (Bellow, 91). For him everything and everybody becomes crazy. By the end of the novel, Tommy stops caring so much what other

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people think of him and begins to see the world through his own eyes. After his raving fit of anger, Tommy goes out into the street and sees humanity. Tommy thinks, “I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hid, I want”

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(Bellow, 96). This shows that a sense of belonging is essential for any individual to come out of

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alienation. In short, Bellow’s hero Tommy in Size the Day feels totally cut off from his father, and the rest of his family—his sister, his dead mother, wife, and children. Moreover, he is

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alienated from himself and from everyone he meets in her journey. Finally, the notion of alienation can be seen in Reservation Blues, a novel by Sherman

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Alexie. This novel depicts life on the reservation and the actions of Native American Indian men

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and women. Every single character in the story is detached from parental love, social and cultural understanding and s/he becomes the victim of poverty, alcoholism, a poor education and other natural catastrophes. The legendry Robert Johnson in the beginning of the story “walks from crossroads to crossroads in search of the woman in his dreams” (Alexie, 6) He faked his death in an attempt to escape the ‘Gentleman’. Thomas-Builds-the Fire wanted to help him. Alexie writes, “more than anything, he wanted a story to heal the wounds, but he knew that his stories never healed anything” (6). Thomas is a story teller, later the lead singer, and he is

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Bista 7 isolated from his friends and family. Junior, Victor, Chess and Checkers are also isolated from their love, family and society. Alexie exemplifies the hunting personal issues of each character. For Thomas, it is the embarrassment of his alcoholic father. For Victor, it is the sexual abuse he faced at the hand of the reservation priest. For Chess and Checkers, it is the feeling of loneliness, the search for a ‘good Indian man’. Chess has suffered through an entire tribe of Indian boyfriends—Roscoe, Bobby, Joseph and Carl. What do Indian women want? Alexie mentions: “When Indian women

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begin the search for an Indian man, they carry a huge list of qualifications. He has to have a job. He has to be kind, intelligent, and funny. He has to dance and sing. He should know how to iron his own clothes. Braids would be nice” (75).

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The novelist shows that not only the fictional characters are alienated in Reservation

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Blues but also the Indian Reservation scene is isolated from the present day world where the readers find the old cars, the barely-edible foods, the corrupt tribal politicians, typical language

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and culture, and victim of bullies in the Spokane Reservation. The loneliness of Thomas is seen from the opening pages of the novel. Nobody on the reservation ever hired him to work. He is

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being frequently bullied by Victor and Junior, who “often tried to beat those stories out of

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Thomas, tied him down and taped his mouth shut. They pretended to be friendly and tried to sweet-talk Thomas into temporary silence, made promises about beautiful Indian women and cases of Diet Pepsi. But none of that stopped Thomas, who talked and talked” (Alexie, 15). He gets punished by the court and is an outcast in the community because of his storytelling, and earns a reputation of “a misfit storyteller” (Alexie, 57). Of several distinctive features of alienation, one of the most important is the suppression of American Indians by the predominant society. The description of tyranny of the tribal police,

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Manuscripts submitted to Review of English Studies

Bista 8 corruption in the tribal community and identity crisis and conflict between the American Indians and Caucasians are major features to evaluate isolated lives on the reservation. The Caucasians exploit the Native American culture presuming to be representative. Alexie is critical on the issue of the hatred of half-breeds on the reservations. The notion of isolation seems to come even in the blood of “Indianness.” Chess warns a white woman not to conceive a child with an Indian man: “Your son will be beaten because he’s a half-breed. No matter what he does, he’ll never be Indian enough. Other Indians won’t accept him. Indians are like that” (Alexie, 283). The

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characters are not seekers of love, sex, marriage and belongings but they are the victims of “murders, rapes, loss of faith” (Alexie, 250). Summing up, in each of these three texts the characters are constantly alienated and

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experience isolation from parents, family and society. They are separated from their loved ones

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both physically and psychologically. In Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Laura is physically and psychologically detached from the real world whereas Amanda and Tom want to be away from

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the physical world. In Bellow’s Size the Day, Tommy is failed to make the necessary social connection. And in Alexie’s Reservation Blues, Thomas, Junior, Victor, Chess and Checkers

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lack the potentiality to appreciate the social and cultural changes in the reservation and the

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outside. They are haunted by their past, alcoholic parents, society and religion. The common theme of alienation in these three literary pieces shows the complex post World War American societies and difficulties of individuals to find love, family and belonging.

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Works Cited Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995. “Alienation.” Microsoft Encarta 2006. DVD. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005. Bellow, Saul. Novels 1956-1964: Size the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog. New York: The Library of America, 2007. Devis, Joesh K. “Landscapes of the Dislocated Mind in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.” Jac

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Tharpe (Ed.). Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977.

Paller, Michael. Gentlemen Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth-

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Century Broadway Drama. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions, 1949.

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