Capacity of the Mind to Survive and Develop

Compare the ways in which two texts you have studied show the capacity of the mind and self to survive and develop.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Caretaker, the characters survive the vagaries of their worlds by escaping into fiction, often to deleterious effects. Yet, while some grow out of their harmful delusions, others remain shackled to their illusions. Both George/Martha and Davies/Aston are shown to overcome and survive their bleak realities through the employment of illusions and narratives. However, while Martha and Aston evolve through their realisations and come to epiphany, Davies remains tethered to his illusions and confined in stasis, ultimately degenerating into nothingness. Both Albee and Pinter showcase the capacity of the mind’s ability to overcome adversity in various ways in a bid to survive, as well as its propensity towards undergoing restoration.

Both Martha and Davies invent and allude to distorted ‘truths’ to protect their ideal sense of selves and identities. In both cases though, rather than allowing them to develop, they both regress into harmful states of self. Resounding despair leads Martha to invent a myth of an ideal son whose existence actualises her ideal maternal identity, allowing herself to cope with her personal woe and suffering, yet it too is detrimental to her own true self. Martha describes in her idyllic, hypnotic narration, physical images of a “healthy child” with “Firm limbs”, “A full head of black, fine, fine hair” granting the son a sense of completeness and vitality that lives up to the description of a “beautiful, beautiful boy”. Martha’s repetition of the intensifier “So” and adjectives “fine”, “beautiful” and “wise” reinforces the perfection of the child and by extension, its mother. Moreover, the creative interweaving of the allusion to Jesus Christ, who redeems the lives of humanity, is a representation of the son-myth’s ability to offer Martha a new life as an ideal mother who “Carried the child…across great fields” and “raised as best I can against…vicious odds” in noble acts of maternal care and sacrifice, allowing to survive her childless reality. Alas, Martha retreats too far into her own illusions, “moving bag and baggage” into her own fantasy world. Increasingly disconnected from reality, she becomes overly preoccupied with the son myth as the illusory “one light in all this hopeless…darkness”, which leads her down a deranged self-defeating path of ruin, unable to move forward and face her own inner demons.

Similarly, Davies attempts to cover up his outsider status with allusions to the Sidcup myth and utilises it to give him a false ideal self and identity. However, it develops into a comforting self-deception that ironically immures himself, leaving him ensconced in his own distorted bubble and preventing his reintegration into society. The illusion of recovering his papers and references from Sidcup grants Davies a tangible sense of self and a secure place in the house, repeating “Prove who I am”, “Tell you who I am” and “Prove everything”, the insistent tone emphasising his unshakable, albeit deluded, belief that his papers are tied to his identity and that they are in fact somewhere in Sidcup, ready to be shown at any time to ascertain the veracity of his status as a Brit and allow him to “sort” himself “out”, echoing Martha’s usage of the son myth to create a perfect identity as a mother. Concurrently, his “plenty of references” acts as a buffer to protect his security in the house by attempting to establish rapport with Mick. While Davies believes that the papers can free him from being “stuck” and “can’t move”, this tethering to a false narrative only serves as a comforting myth that is not simply an act of willful ignorance, but a vital part of his survival that ultimately impedes his reintegration into society, trapping him in an isolated state of stasis instead. The mind’s ability to conjure deceptive fantasies in order to remediate one’s broken sense of self is often a double-edged sword. In both instances, while it allows the characters to navigate their way through their worlds, it too portends their eventual descent into static madness.

Both Martha and Aston’s minds are shown to have the power and propensity to overcome devastating adversities and undergo restoration. However, while Martha has to discard her illusions to restore her true sense of self and progress into a simpler, more truthful future, Aston has to rely on his Shed narrative to enable his mind and self to heal, eventually developing into a fully functioning member of society once again. Martha undergoes extreme duress as her identity is fractured and demolished by George’s act of murdering their son, yet her mind survives and redeems herself through the symbolic exorcism of her own myths and having to face a life without illusions, promising a new beginning with George. The sheer trauma that Martha undergoes is reinforced through her speaking declarative sentences only in capitalized letters “NO! NO! YOU CANNOT DO THAT!” showing her emotionally charged manner, lashing out in grief and anguish as she “Howls” and “Moans” animalistically. Yet, it is only after this painful purging that she is then left at her most conscious and sober, admitting to the truth that “We couldn’t” have children instead of distracting themselves with elaborate games. Martha is finally able to accept her own failures and accedes to George’s line with ‘a hint of communion’ heralding her spiritual redemption. The closing scene of the play presents both Martha and George confronting their reality in a ‘radically simplified language’ shorn of all the bitterness and sarcasm, with Martha leaning back on George as he ‘puts his hand gently on her shoulder’ and ‘sings to her, very softly’ affirming the renewal of their true selves. Martha, being able to answer the question about “Virginia Woolf” repeatedly with “I am…”, showing her in a vulnerable and accepting state, acknowledging her own fear of a life without the comforting illusions of the son or an ideal self. The surviving mind once again manages to develop and face the truth and in this truth, she shall heal.

Similarly, after facing up to the truth of the past as well as having negotiated losing his sense of self, Aston’s mind managed to survive and come up with a coping mechanism embodied in the shed to give him purpose in his life and integrate back into society, albeit having to rely on his shed narrative as a crutch to support himself, ultimately healing in the process. The concept of working with his hands to build the shed has a therapeutic effect on Aston, with him repeatedly using words like “can” and “could” to denote his ability to “do all sorts of things now”. Furthermore, repeated hand actions like ‘picks up a small plank and begins to sandpaper it.’ and ‘continues sandpapering’ makes him feel valuable and at ease in his alienated state. He also has something to look forward to, a purpose to define his life, with him now speaking in future tense “I’ll be able to”, “I’ll have” and “I could” reflecting the many possibilities and hopeful attitude that he holds, the enumeration of ‘I’ declares his individuality and independence, a defiant stance against the world that sought to silence him. This bears a striking resemblance to Martha and George’s reunification with their true selves through the shedding of illusions allowing them to, hopefully, move onwards in life. It is in this fervent desire to realise his dream that his mind can cope with his traumatic past, not only surviving, but developing and maybe one day thriving. When faced with the potential destruction/collapse of the mind and the self, both characters are shown to be able to negotiate the necessary course of action in order to survive and develop for a better future, whether through the acceptance of an illusionless world for Martha or through an empowering narrative that allows Aston to ‘rebuild’ his sense of self.

Both texts seem to suggest that we humans are not ‘fully formed’ creations. Instead, one’s mind has to adapt to the world around it and develop in order for the self to survive. The acceptance of its inevitability is necessary to the characters renewal in both texts: Martha’s reconciliation with the truth allows her to move forward and Aston’s decision to work on his shed and move on from the past provides him with a pathway into reintegration with society. Meanwhile, stasis leads to degeneration and the loss of one’s sense of self where Davies is left incomplete and lost.

Ethan Tan (20-I1)