Written By Frances Guzman
American Literature is defined as literature that is written in the United States of America. However, American Literature also has other defining characteristics with common themes and plot points found within most pieces. Alongside these characteristics, the piece must also be thought-provoking as well as teach something. American literature should also include bits and pieces of the author’s own experiences within their pieces as well. The themes used may vary but they ultimately boil down to include themes of discrimination, mainly gender discrimination, and its association to mental illnesses, lies and deceit, and the American Dream. Gender discrimination and the connection it has with mental illnesses is a prominent theme in A Streetcar Named Desire, while lies and deceit is an important theme in Good Country People and “The Swimmer". Lastly, the well-known theme of the American Dream is present in “The Swimmer” and Death of a Salesman.
Sold by Patricia McCormick is a first-person novel that tells the story of a girl named Lakshmi. This text was chosen because it illustrates discrimination against women and how it negatively impacts them, lies and deceit, and the American Dream in the eyes of a thirteen-year-old. Lakshmi is originally from Nepal but has been promised a better life for her poor family if she goes to work for Uncle Husband, a man who simultaneously poses as her uncle and husband. After leaving with her family’s blessing, she is taken away by Uncle Husband. Uncle Husband works with Aunt Bilma who helps bring Lakshmi across the border and sells her to Mumtaz for ten-thousand rupees. Mumtaz then forces Lakshmi into the sex slave industry in India in order to pay off the debt she now has after being sold into prostitution. Sold sheds light on the sex slave industry from a female worker’s point of view. McCormick creates Lakshmi to give oppressed and forced sex workers a voice. Through Sold, readers learn about the harsh reality most sex workers face in illegal brothels.
Discrimination towards women is unfortunately a common occurrence in Asia. The discrimination that women are faced with in many situations leads to several different health issues; one of them being a decrease in mental health. Gender discrimination often leads to a low self-esteem and an increase in anxiety and depression as well as the development of other stress-related disorders. This theme is present in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams through Blanche DuBois. Blanche is character that experiences discrimination due to her status as a female which, in turn, leads to a decline in mental health such as depression and personality disorders as well as negatively impacted relationships. For example, she states, “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth” (Williams). Gender discrimination as experienced by Blanche causes her to unravel as she is raped, forced into a mental institution, and abandoned by Mitch due to her lack of innocence. In history, women have often been valued according to their beauty, abilities to be a housewife and maintain the household, and their virginity as well as their capability to procreate. They are viewed as sexual objects and this viewpoint leads to Blanche wanting to hide her flaws instead of embracing them. Blanche hides behind her “magic” and lies to uphold the image of beauty and youth to her male counterparts. Blanche is lying to herself and others by hiding her appearance and refusing to go out or be seen in the light. Her name comes from the French term meaning white. The color white is often associated with purity, innocence, and virtue which are stark contrasts to Blanche’s actual character who sleeps around with other men. This ironically shows her lack of innocence and corrupt behavior. Williams inserts bits of his own life by creating Blanche as a reflection of his sister Rose, mimicking her mental imbalance and possible sexual assault.
In both A Streetcar Named Desire and Sold, the discrimination that the women face is a common theme which ultimately leads to mental illnesses. In Sold, Lakshmi becomes depressed after suffering both emotional and physical abuse while at Happiness House, Mumtaz’s brothel. The suffering that Lakshmi endures stems from the gender discrimination she faces at the brothel where she is treated as property rather than a human being. McCormick writes, “I have been beaten here, locked away, violated a hundred times and a hundred times more. I have been starved and cheated, tricked and disgraced”. Lakshmi acknowledges the treatment that she is forced to undergo because of her age and gender which leads to her recognizing her struggles. This realization sends her mental health into a decline as her depression increases and worsens the longer she stays at Happiness House. It is ironic that she is in a place where half of the name is happiness and, yet her experience there is an exact opposite representation of that. This shows discrimination because only the customers, men, are happy. After she tries to run away from her first customer, Lakshmi’s head is shaved, and she receives a death threat from Mumtaz which scares her into complying. Even when Lakshmi was back home, she faced discrimination. She was promised to be-wed to boy in the act of an arranged marriage. Lakshmi must “praise, respect, and thank” her stepfather for taking her family in after her father’s death (McCormick). However, her stepfather rarely works and gambles away all their money. The family’s status is immediately elevated by having a male within their household even if he does nothing to help or care for them. Similarly, to Blanche, Lakshmi’s name has a deeper meaning. In Sanskrit, Lakshmi means goal while in the Hindu religion, Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Like Blanche, Lakshmi’s name also contrasts her actual character. In the novel, Lakshmi and her family are extremely poor farmers who sell their crops. However, due to a monsoon, their crops are ruined which leaves the family with none to sell as a source of income. This shows how they are neither wealthy nor prosperous. Although not to the same extent, McCormick was sexually abused and uses her experience as a base to the sexual abuse Lakshmi endures.
The second main theme that defines American Literature is lies and deceit. This theme is majorly included in Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor. In this piece, Hulga lies to Manley Pointer about her age in order to make him seem more intelligent and older than herself which allows her to appear more desirable. Manley Pointer lies about his motives in order to deceive Hulga and steal her leg. Both characters lie and try to deceive one another in order to get what they want and in Manley’s case, it works. Christianity is utilized by Manley as a way to deceive Hulga and her family. Manley uses his job as a bible salesman to enter the Hopewell house which allows him to pick up on the character’s insecurities and desires to be superior which he uses to his advantage when exploiting them. Even when Manley’s true motive becomes apparent, Hulga tries to lie and deceive herself: “You’re a Christian! […] You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all — say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian” (O’Connor). Even as Hulga recognizes Manley’s motive is to steal her leg instead of being with her, she tries to convince herself that he is a fine, good Christian. Hulga’s character is a reflection of O’Connor. Both ladies have PhDs and with the time period O’Connor was living in, it can be assumed that she was oppressed because of her gender. This is similar to the oppression Hulga faces by her mother due to her disability. Lies and deceit are an American Literature staple because it is a relatable theme for readers.
Like Hulga, Lakshmi is deceived, deceives others, and deceives herself. Lakshmi and her family are deceived by Uncle Husband into sending her away to be sold into the sex slavery industry. After being tricked by Uncle Husband, Lakshmi is continuously tricked by Mumtaz concerning her debt. Mumtaz continuously adds on to Lakshmi’s debt and since her earnings are meager, it is a sure way to guarantee that she will never be able to leave. Alongside being tricked of her job and wages, Lakshmi is also tricked by herself as a way to maintain her identity. As a way to cope with her situation and deceive herself into believing she is okay, she sneakily borrows a schoolbook from a fellow sex worker’s son in the Happiness House. Although she does not know English and cannot read the book, she uses it to pretend that she is back home in Nepal alongside her best friend, Gita: “I do not understand the words inside, and the pictures are queer and otherworldly. But at least for a few minutes, I pretend I am in school with Gita and my soft, moonfaced teacher, and I am the number one girl in class again” (McCormick). Lakshmi uses her imagination as a way to cope through the traumatic experiences she faces at the brothel. By doing so, she manipulates herself into believing that she is alright which eases her pain and suffering.
Lies and deceit as well as the American Dream are included in “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. Like Willy, Neddy believes that the American Dream finds each individual and not the other way around. Cheever writes, “He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty”. Neddy blocks out the memory of losing his house and family which deceives the readers too. By doing so, Neddy also disillusions and deceives himself into thinking he still had the American Dream which includes his riches, family, and sanity. Neddy’s denial is revealed throughout the story by supporting characters and foreshadowing. The first supporting character that hints at Neddy’s loss of the American Dream is Mrs. Halloran. When faced with Mrs. Halloran’s apology on his misfortunes, Neddy is clueless. This leads to Mrs. Halloran pacifying him due to pity. The second instance occurs when Neddy appears at Shirley Adams house where she mentions how she is unable to continue lending him money. These encounters and his continuous drinking foreshadow Neddy’s loss of his American Dream. Cheever includes bits of himself within Neddy’s character since he struggled with an addiction to alcohol as well.
The American Dream is the final theme that defines American Literature. The American Dream is a prominent theme in many pieces of American Literature, including Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Willy Loman, the main protagonist, views his brother, Ben Loman, as the ideal candidate and prime example of the American Dream. Ben Loman is financially successful, well-liked, good looking, charismatic, and materialistically comfortable. Willy believes that if an individual possesses these characteristics like his brother does then they will naturally achieve the American Dream. Willy’s ideology on the American Dream is that it is manifested by destiny. Because of this mindset, Willy focuses his attention on his son’s, Biff, popularity and attractiveness since he believes that is how one achieves the American Dream: “‘Remember how they used to follow him around in high school? When he smiled at one of them their faces lit up. When he walked down the street’” (Miller). Despite being popular and well-liked in high school, Biff does not amount to much later in life. At thirty-four years old, Biff is working on a farm where he is unhappy. Biff’s peak in high school leads to a lackluster job and unhappy life which confounds his father because it contradicts his idea of the American Dream. Miller opposes his own upbringing through Biff. Miller’s career started off with a poor Broadway debut, yet he continued to write novels and plays. Because of the continuous hard work and effort put into his pieces, he shows his opposing ideology on the American Dream through his actions. By Miller putting in time and effort, he chases the American Dream and succeeds in achieving it unlike Biff and Willy.
The American Dream is an important theme in American Literature because it is relatable for so many Americans. People often immigrate to America for new opportunities that would not be available for them in their own countries. This is the case with Lakshmi. In Sold, Lakshmi and her family chase the American Dream which leads to them sending Lakshmi with Uncle Husband and Aunt Bimla to what they thought would be a legitimate job as a maid. McCormick writes, “’There will be one less mouth to feed here, and I will send my wages home’”. By writing this scene, McCormick reaches readers that will find it relatable. For readers who are unfamiliar with this situation, they can learn about the hardships other individuals face to try and support their families through Sold.
Sold should be included in the canon of American Literature because it includes major themes that define American Literature pieces. These themes include discrimination and its correlation to mental illnesses, lies and deceit, and the American Dream. A Streetcar Named Desire touches on gender discrimination and how it negatively impacts those discriminated against. Good Country People and “The Swimmer” use the theme of lies and deceit as a way for the characters to cope and manipulate others. “The Swimmer” and Death of a Salesman use the American Dream as a way to explain the success of those around them and as an explanation to their own success which they are waiting on. Sold uses discrimination and its connections with mental illnesses to shed light on the poor treatment of females, lies and deceit to illustrate ways of coping and surviving, and the American Dream to show hope for the future. Sold also teaches readers about the sex slave industry and how brothel workers are often forced into the industry under false pretenses. Through this insight of brothel backgrounds, McCormick provokes readers to think about sexual assault in general and how stories like Lakshmi’s are more common than we are aware of. McCormick also embeds her own experiences of sexual assault into the story through Lakshmi.
Frances Guzman is a first-generation college student who identifies as a pansexual, non-binary individual. After graduating from Rosemead H.S. in 2017, she began studying at Pasadena City College as a Creative Writing major. Most recently, Guzman plans to further her education at a UC or CSU after Spring 2020. Currently, she serves as the President of Queer Alliance, Executive Secretary of Associated Students of PCC, and works as a Student Liaison at the QUEST Center and American Sign Language tutor at PCC. She has received numerous accolades recognizing and honoring her academics, success in English and ASL, and volunteer work within her community.
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