Comparative | Cutural Context | The Great Gatsby, All My Sons, The King’s Speech

“The cultural context can have a significant influence on the behaviour of the central character/characters in a text.”

Compare the way in which the behaviour of the central characters in at least two of your texts is influenced by the cultural context of those texts.

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I agree that the cultural context and the expectations of the society in which a character lives strongly influence their behaviour. We see different aspects of cultural context, such as family, social class, and war, influence the characters in the texts I have studied. I will discuss The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (GG), All My Sons by Arthur Miller (AMS), and The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper (KS) to show the importance of cultural context.

The role of family is an aspect of cultural context that has a strong presence in all three texts. In GG, family is not something that holds a lot of value, as far as the central characters are concerned. Tom fails to show loyalty to his family, evidenced through his affairs with Myrtle. This disregard of family values causes the characters in GG to be flippant with their relationships. They think it is acceptable for them to have mistresses as well as wives. In contrast to this, the relationship between Bertie and his wife, Elizabeth, in KS is one of genuine commitment. We can see through her actions, such as her continued open-minded search for speech and language help for her husband, that she is very supportive of him. They have a strong bond based on more than just wealth, unlike Tom and Daisy. A notably light-hearted moment of happiness they share, when she playfully stuffs marshmallows into his mouth in the carriage, is a reflection of the depth of their relationship. We see no such affection between Tom and Daisy. In AMS, we also see the importance of support within a relationship. Despite Joe not believing that Larry is still alive, he still forbids Chris to marry Anne. “You marry that girl and you’re pronouncing him dead,” he tells him, “Now what’s going to happen to Mother? Do you know? I don’t!” This shows us that Joe doesn’t want to hurt his wife. We can see that in this text, supporting his partner is more important to Joe than being honest.

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In GG, we see that it is normal for children to be raised by nannies rather than their parents. This is apparent when Daisy introduces Nick to her daughter, and then her nanny takes her away after a couple of minutes. We get the impression that Daisy’s daughter does not have a very strong bond with her mother, and spends most of her time with the nanny. She even admits to Nick that the highest hopes she held for her daughter was that she would be “a beautiful little fool.” The situation between Daisy and her daughter is something we see paralleled in KS. Bertie reveals to Lionel that he was not very close with his parents when he was a child. He tells him about the nannies he used to spend a lot of time with, and that it wasn’t always easy. Bertie’s parents’ unique cultural role as monarchs seemingly left them too preoccupied to be present during his childhood. This has affected him deeply as we see his struggles to talk about his family and his childhood.. Bertie’s father even refers to the family as “a firm.” This lack of a genuine human bond possibly contributed to Bertie’s speech impediment. Similarly to KS, in AMS we see the pressure put on children by parents. This is particularly obvious through Joe’s business, and his strong intentions to pass it onto his son, Chris, despite his lack of interest. Business is something that is very important in this text, and it is clear that this causes Joe to force his company onto his son.

Another aspect of cultural context that greatly influences the characters in each of these texts is that of social class. It is closely linked to the role of family as it is by and large inherited. In KS, we see the pressures that are put on each of the different characters due to their position in society. David’s relationship with Wallace is restricted and looked down on because she had been previously married. This is only an issue due to his royal status.. This is something that greatly influences his life, ultimately leading him  to abdicate in order to continue his relationship. We also see a character stray away from the social class of his family in GG. Jay Gatsby changed his name from “James Gatz,” in an attempt to disguise his lower-class background. We once again witness the pressures from society in relation to class, with Gatsby’s desperation to fulfil his self-created image of an upper-class man. In contrast to both of these texts, the characters in AMS are not as wealthy and upper-class as those in GG and KS. Social class does not seem as valued in the society the Kellers live in. Intelligence is more important than education. A prime example of this is Joe Keller himself, an uneducated man who is well-respected for his business’ success and his street-smarts.

debs dresses irelandSocial class is something that Bertie in KS values dearly. His position in society often causes him to disrespect Lionel, due to the fact that he is of a lower class. He demands to be addressed as “Your Majesty,” and “Sir,” whereas Lionel ignores the obvious difference in class between the two, and asks to treat one another as equals. In GG we also see how social class influences the characters so that they treat each other in a certain way. Tom knows that Gatsby does not come from a high-class background, and refers to him as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.” This shows us that men from ‘old-money’ families often looked down on ‘new-money’ men in GG. This is once again contrasted in AMS, where it is apparent that social-class and family name is less valued. In GG and KS, surnames are very important to the characters, whereas in AMS, Joe does not seem to care that he is disgracing his own name, and his business by selling faulty airplane parts that result in soldiers’ deaths. Other characters know the truth behind Joe Keller’s business, yet do not view him or his family as any worse because of it.

War is an aspect of cultural context that is present in all three texts. GG was set shortly after WWI, and KS was set just at the beginning of WWII, while AMS was set post-WWII. Was has a great influence on the actions and behaviour of many of the characters in each text. In GG, we see that the end of the war  made the characters behave in very careless and selfish ways. Two characters that stand out as being very destructive and careless are Tom and Daisy. Nick reflects back on their actions throughout the novel with the description: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”. Another example of this vast celebratory careless is during Gatsby’s parties: lavish and colossal, with “music [...] through the summer nights… stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten”… for people “who never even knew each other’s names.” In contrast to this we see the negative effect that war had on the characters in KS. The threat arising from Germany at the beginning of WWII puts huge pressures on Bertie as king. He expresses this during a heated conversation with Lionel, in which he reveals his doubts about his abilities. As in KS, in AMS we see the negative effect that the war has had on the characters in the play. The most immediate effect of war on the Kellers was the death of the son, Larry. This death influenced and affected the life of Kate the most, in my opinion. She is driven insane by the thoughts of her son, and her own conviction that he may still be alive: she mentions that the tree blowing down has something to do with Larry. At the end of the play, we see how the guilt of Joe’s war-fuelled business results in the most extreme action of the text, his suicide. This clearly shows us how war can have such a large range of effects on different characters throughout the texts.

In conclusion, the three texts I have studies granted me valuable insights into the influence our cultural contexts of different societies on the lives of individual people. . Family, social class, and war, are three aspects of cultural context that can have varying influences on people within different societies. Gaining a deeper understanding of this as a result of comparing and contrasting the three texts, The Great Gatsby, All My Sons, and The King’s Speech, has certainly been a worthwhile experience.

The marking scheme directs examiners to reward discussion of:
- the world is a difficult/violent/constricting one and this affects the experiences of the characters 
- the cultural context is empowering/nurturing and this has an impact on the lives of the characters 
- values/attitudes help to explain the behaviour of characters 

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