Comparative | Cutural Context | The Great Gatsby, The Plough and the Stars, The King’s Speech

“Deep-seated attitudes and expectations illustrate the possibility or impossibility of social change in texts”. 

Discuss, comparing all three of the texts that you have studied for your comparative course.


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Attitudes and expectations tend to be entrenched very deeply in human culture. Social change, as it relates to an individual of any standing, is a function of these attitudes. Deep-seated stereotypes of how a monarch should marry and sound, what circles a nouveau riche should be accepted in and what political views to expect in a working class dwelling are just part of any society's context. Each individual's circumstances are often driven by societal norms, though we sometimes meet a character who defies the odds. For my comparative course, I have studied the following texts: the novel, ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the play, ‘The Plough and the Stars’ by Sean O’Casey and finally, the film, ‘The King’s Speech’ directed by Tom Hooper. I will refer to them as ‘GG’, ‘PS’ and ‘KS’ respectively throughout my essay.

All three texts make various references to war. I think that war leaves a large possibility for social change and demolishes many deep-seated attitudes and expectation in society. This is seen in all texts. For example, ‘GG’ depicts a society that recently went through the Great War. This contributes to the "vast carelessness" of the age. Everyone is mostly concerned with having a good time. In contrast, in’KS’, the impending Second World War seems to bring people together. This is seen in the various cuts Hooper presents us with during Bertie’s speech. People all over seem to be gathering to listen. The intensity of Bertie's struggle to change his speech is similar to that of Gatsby's personal improbable social leap. While Gatsby's fight is driven by infatuation, Bertie's is driven by an obligations to a nation in a difficult time. There is an image of Logue arriving at the palace with a gas mask, an indicator of how society lived during the war, a far cry from the flowing champagne of GG. War creates fear in PS: Fluther describes the ICA as “a few hundred lads with guns and rosary beads.” There isn’t hope associated with the rebellion. But the turmoil of the age cuts the barriers of political differences as is demonstrated at the end of the play when Bessie, a loyalist, seems to have taken over Nora’s role of care giver in the tenements as she lapses into insanity.

Politics is a prominent part of the cultural context, however there are many conflicting views within these texts. Each character seems to be so deeply set in their political beliefs that there is little possibility for change within their own social groupings. In KS, when Bertie appeals to his brother, David, then King, about the spread of communism across Europe, he simply responds, “Herr Hitler will sort them out,” Bertie is startled at his brothers indifference to current affairs. From this point we see David as an incompetent King, and we store more faith in Bertie. The characters have their own unchanging deep-seated attitudes. Similarly, we have contrasting political views in ‘PS’. Bessie, the protestant loyalist, Covey the socialist and the rest of the tenement. However, Bessie, Covey and Jack seem to be the only ones set in their beliefs. Overall there is a pessimistic view towards the rising despite the changes it could bring for the characters. They aren’t too bothered by the intricacies of the politics but rather their own survival in the rising. Covey, on the other hand, is an unexpected spokesperson for the socialist movement and is willing to discuss it whenever the chance is there, much to the annoyance to his co-dwellers. Unlike in KS and PS, the issue of politics is more subtle in ‘GG’. It is as if nobody wants to think about it now that the war is over.
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In ‘PS’ it is particularly evident that the deep-seated attitudes in relation to social class determine the probability of social change. Nora is described as “getting notions of upperosity” in the opening scenes of ‘PS’. Nora would like to get out of the tenements and create a better life for herself and Jack. However, with the attitudes displayed in this text, it doesn’t appear likely. The people of the tenements seem to think she is acting foolishly for an inhabitant of a tenement. As Fluther says: “A-a-ah, that’s going’ beyond th’ beyonds in a tenement house. That’s a little bit too derogatory.” The issue of social mobility is also addressed in ‘GG’. Gatsby is not part of what is depicted as ‘old money’. His wealth is newly acquired and thus is met with a sort of skepticism and superiority from the Buchannans’. There is a similarity between Myrtle, Gatsby and Nora in their aspirations. However, their ambitions and methods are all determined by the deep-seated attitudes within their respective cultural contexts. In contrast, there is a definite feeling radiating from both Daisy and Tom that their wealth allows them to rise above all societal expectations, the complete opposite to that of KS. In ‘KS’, as part of the royal family, Bertie holds certain duties regardless of his personal ambition, driven entirely by deep-seated expectations of an entire nation. These expectations push him to the very top of the hierarchy unlike the characters of PS and GG. Indeed, these expectations appear much stronger: he was forced to write with his right hand, he couldn’t do certain things that other children could like build model planes because of social status, etc. There is a definite impossibility of social change in terms of class in ‘KS’. The closest thing to such a change is the abdication which is portrayed in an overtly negative light. In all three texts, an impossibility is associated with social mobility due to deep-seated attitudes and expectations in their respective societies.

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Gender holds certain expectations in all three texts. In KS, Elizabeth’s role is to support her husband as she effectively does when she finds Lionel Logue: “As far as I am concerned, my husband has mechanical difficulties with his speech.” In contrast, Wallis Simpson defies this role by becoming the reason that David abdicates the throne. This is, however, frowned upon by almost everyone including Elizabeth. It appears that social change is possible in terms of the role of women in ‘KS’, however due ti deep-seated attitudes and expectations, it remains frowned-upon by society. In contrast, in ‘PS’, the role of women is for pleasing men and keeping them interested: “the wandher of a woman wears off after a while.” Nora, while fitting this role, also defies her husband. She follows Jack out into the barracks and makes a show of him. Besides this degrading attitude, there is the same expectation as in KS for a woman to be supportive. This is evident when Captain Brennan says that Nora should be around knowing that her husband died for a brave cause. However, Nora has already been driven to insanity by her husband's absence and the premature death of her baby. I think that social change is illustrated in ‘PS’ in terms of the role of women despite the deep-seated attitudes and expectations of society, as Capt. Brennan’s comment seemed to anger the people of the tenement. In ‘GG’, the role of women is depicted in the first chapter by Daisy when she speaks about her daughter: “I hope she’ll be a fool, a beautiful little fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world.” Ironically, Tom preaches that interracial marriage offends the concept of family as he cheats on Daisy and physically acts out against Myrtle. Daisy knows about Tom’s affair with Myrtle, yet she doesn’t seem to do anything about it. However, I do not think that Daisy was a fool as some of her actions appear calculated and manipulative. She too has an affair with Gatsby. She defies the role created for women by society in ‘GG’. I don't think attitudes or expectations as strong in ‘GG’ as in ‘PS’ and ‘KS’, certainly not as they relate to the role of women.

From studying the cultural context in all three of these texts, it is evident that the deep-seated attitudes and expectations of the societies conveyed to us in ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘The Plough and the Stars’ create the probability of social change within the texts in relation to various aspects of the culture. More often than not, we see that social change is improbable due to these circumstances, however there are many notable exceptions.


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