Fragile States of Mind and Self

Compare the ways in which two texts you have studied show fragile states of mind and self (2019 JC2 March Common Test).

Woman in Mind and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are arguably disparate plays: thematically, one charts a woman’s descent into madness, while the other captures the domestic madness inherent in disappointed couples. I would however argue that the two plays are similar in their presentations of fragile states of mind and equally fragile identities. Both Woman and Woolf show fragile states of mind through familial conflicts, as seen through Susan and Gerald’s depressing interactions and George and Martha’s disparaging verbal conflicts. Both plays also evince the fragility of identity through the use of hostile external forces by having Susan succumb to a psychologically destructive nightmare, while Martha is seen to be expunged of her false identity as a mother through George’s exorcism. The ultimate intentions of both plays, however, differs greatly.

Firstly, both Woman and Woolf employ familial interactions as a method of evincing fragile states of mind. In Woman, this is especially seen from Susan’s depressive interactions with Gerald, where she exhibits an uneasy anxiety about their marriage. In the first Act of play, Susan confronts Gerald about their marriage and the lack of intimacy between them. Susan points out that they ‘don’t kiss’, ‘hardly touch each other’, ‘don’t make love’ and ‘don’t even share the same bed’, reflecting her desperate attempt to evoke a response from Gerald regarding their emotional distance. By admitting that they have lost the ‘really joyous part of us’ and thus lost their ‘purpose’, Susan exposes a deeply woeful feeling and expresses the desperation and unease she feels from her failing marriage to Gerald, thus displaying the vulnerable and fragile state of her mind. This is compounded by her later threats is Act 2 when she threatens Gerald that ‘if (he) leave(s) (her) now for that damn — book’, ‘(he) will have nailed up the final — door — in our relationship’. Here, the audience will distinctively realise that Susan is desperate to get Gerald to focus attention on her by emotionally threatening the finality of his abandonment should he leave her for his book. Additionally, the use of em dashes indicates her inability to form coherent sentences, a condition that may perhaps be symptomatic of her volatile emotions and her delicate state of mind.

Likewise, in Woolf, George and Martha’s hostile interactions evince the fragile state of George’s mind. This is firstly shown in Act 1 while Martha is recounting how George has disappointed her father. As she begins to fling caustic insults at George by calling him a ‘FLOP!’ in capitalised and hence in a vituperative manner, George responds by breaking a bottle, ‘almost crying’. Martha has successfully exposed George’s mental fragility and provoked it, such that George’s only response is to react explosively, breaking the bottle in a manner that mirrors the brittle and then broken state of his mind. This is later compounded by Martha’s flirting with Nick in Act Two, which is shown to provoke and destabilise George’s already unstable state of mind. George is described as ‘break(ing) down in ridiculing laughter’ as a result of Nick’s insult; the audience realises his emotional instability from the excessive and violent manner in which he responds, breaking down in a manner that highlights his fragile state of mind. Further on, the stage directions indicate that George ‘looks at the back in his hand and, with a cry that is part growl, part howl, he hurls it at the chimes!’ The combination of his anguish and anger as seen from the part ‘growl’ and ‘howl‘ serve to highlight his destabilised and hysteric state of mind, further compounding the impression of fragility through his emotional duress. While certainly the conflicts used in the two texts differ, both texts employ familial interactions to evince mental and emotional fragility.

Both plays also employ the use of harsh external forces to evoke fragile identities in their respective denouements. In Woman, the audience observes Susan’s mental meltdown at the hands of her fantastical constructs; these constructs in turn highlight her fragile sense of self. As the nightmarish wedding progresses, Susan is described by the stage directions as being ‘ignored’ with people being ‘less and less aware of’ her. She responds ‘in horror’ and with ‘increasing fury’, but is nevertheless ‘totally ignored’ indicating that her identity is primarily built basis of receiving attention. Susan’s identity as a mother and wife begins to crack as she declares that it is ‘grossly unfair ‘, her desperate and urgent need for everyone to ‘LOOK AT (her) AT ONCE’ an indication that she constantly requires external recognition for her identity to remain intact and assuaged. However, Ayckbourn seems to view this as shallow and dissolves completely as indicated by the regression of her language (December bee?). Finally, this culminates in a ‘last despairing wail’ where the crumbling vestiges of her selfhood collapse altogether (with ‘last’ here indicating finality and complete collapse) as a result of her isolation. The audience will certainly rote that this is due t the social isolation, seeing her fragile identity as one easily subverted by neglect and abandonment.

Similarly, the denouement of Woolf results in the loss of Martha’s fragile selfhood when George decides to expel the son-myth from their relationship. Martha’s fragile identity is shown in her hysterical and anguished response to the exorcism: so heavily dependent is she upon it that her identity crumbles in the face of its destruction. As George declares ‘our son is dead’, Martha devolves into visceral displays of denial, ‘quivering with rage’ and more specifically, ‘loss’. Her capitalised exclamations (‘YOU CAN’T DECIDE THAT FOR YOURSELF!’) betray how she has been completely robbed of the tenuous foundation of her identity, and as she releases a ‘howl which weakens into a moan’ charged with the grief of losing her identity, the audience recognises the excessive dependence he placed on the now extinguished son-myth to actualise bee identity. Hence, her Artaudian reactions and hysterical response, if anything, draws attention to her excessive reliance on fantasy for identity fulfilment and thus her fragile identity.

Indeed, while both Woman and Woolf present similar narratives of fragility, the ultimate intent of their narratives may be significantly different. While Woolf concludes with the possibility of regeneration of selfhood, Woman ends by having Susan’s identity completely collapse. Perhaps while both texts seem to agree that familial tensions and hostile external forces expose fragile states of mind and identities, Woolf takes an optimistic stance toward this fragility by offering the possibility of healing. Unfortunately, Woman suggests otherwise.

Lek Siang Ern (18-U1)