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Leaving Cert English Poetry FAQ

Cultural Context - Big Maggie, The Great Gatsby and Juno for Leaving Cert English

“In any cultural context, deeply embedded values and attitudes can be difficult to change.” 

Compare the extent to which the above statement is valid in relation to your understanding of at least two texts on your comparative course. (2013)


This is an excellent answer. The author's use of quotation is superb. 

If you are studying Big Maggie, you may find this analysis helpful. It's way too deep for a Comparative essay, so don't worry about the detail:

"Maggie’s ruthlessness makes her a frightening and repellent character, yet Keane anchors her in a rural Irish milieu of the late 1960s which helps to explain it.

She has seen the world through eyes which seek out the dark corners of Irish culture, a perspective reinforced by her status and gender.

In principle her plan to make adults of them [her children] is preferable to the smothering matriarchalism which was the norm even as Keane wrote the play in 1969."

You may also like: Full Guide to Leaving Cert English (€)

The cultural context of a text is the world or society of the text. It involves the setting in which the events occur and the structure of society. For my comparative study I explored the worlds of three contrasting texts: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film “Juno” by director Jason Reitman, and “Big Maggie” by playwright John B. Keane. The setting for each of these texts differs dramatically in terms of period and location, from the Roaring Twenties in America to 1960s rural Ireland to the 21st century in modern America. As a result the values and attitudes witnessed in each text vary significantly. In this essay I will explore the values and attitudes in these texts, some of which are more deeply embedded (in what?) than others. 

Interesting comparisons of attitudes towards gender can be made in my three studied texts. While “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie”  have deeply embedded patriarchal societies, we see equality between the sexes in “Juno”. In “The Great Gatsby” Fitzgerald portrays clearly the deeply entrenched perception of male dominance and superiority that existed in 1920’s America. (Replace with In “The Great Gatsby” Fitzgerald portrays a 1920s American society dominated by men. There is no need to overcomplicate it. Fitzgerald portrays a society, not a perception. Dominance and superiority are more or less the same thing, so why use both?) Tom Buchanan, described as “a brute of a man” (excellent quote), is the epitome of the powerful male voice. He silences women and sees them only as an object to own. In chapter one Nick refers to Tom and Daisy as “the Tom Buchanans" (Boom! Another excellent quote.) Daisy’s identity is lost and she falls under the ownership of Tom. Similarly in “Big Maggie” we see the patriarch in the form of Walter Polpin. By all accounts he was an insensitive man and he abused Maggie without consequences, which Maggie makes known to her children in scene one: “you let him abuse me!” The subservience of women towards men is highly valued in both “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie”, but unlike Maggie Polpin the women in “The Great Gatsby” do not challenge the patriarchy. 

Cultural Context - Big Maggie, The Great Gatsby and Juno for Leaving Cert English

Unlike in “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie”, “Juno” portrays a society where both sexes are valued as equals. Men are not viewed as the dominant gender, but are instead viewed on a level par with women. It is not the sole responsibility of the women to be the homemaker. In Juno’s family for example, Mac and Brenda equally share the parenting responsibilities. With Mark and Vanessa it is Vanessa who has a steady job. This is a stark contrast to “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie” where men are the head of society. I found it intriguing to see the great differences between how these societies view gender roles. It was encouraging to see how far society has progressed from the 1920’s to the modern day 21st century and how much attitudes towards women have changed for the better. 

There is quite a difference to be seen in the three texts regarding attitudes towards marriage and family. While in “The Great Gatsby” marriage and family are the least of their concerns, in “Big Maggie” and “Juno” the value of the family is a lot stronger. In “The Great Gatsby” we see how the party lifestyle and moral ambiguity has led to the decline of marriage. Tom is able to broadcast his affair to the world and much like Walter Polpin in “Big Maggie” and he receives no punishment for it. In both “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie” marriage is merely a means to an end. It is not something that involves love. Instead people married for security and wealth. In chapter two of “The Great Gatsby” Lucille says “I almost made a mistake too, I knew he was beneath me,” when talking about a man she almost married. This shows how little they valued love. Similarly in “Big Maggie” Maggie said that “marriage was the only safe place for a girl.” Marriage was not viewed as anything more than a safety net. 

Just as we see a lack of regard for marriage in “The Great Gatsby”, we also see a lack of family values. Daisy is not willing to alter her party lifestyle to stay at home and take care of her daughter. Children do not appear to be viewed as important in this culture, and instead of receiving love and nurturing from her parents, Tom and Daisy’s child is brought up by a nannie. In this society people believe that having a seemingly perfect family gives them a greater social standing in society. We see a similar situation in “Big Maggie”, but where there appears to be no familial love in “The Great Gatsby”, there is in “Big Maggie”. Even though Maggie drove her children away, she believed she was doing the best for them. While Maggie’s way of showing Gert how Teddy really behaved was unorthodox, it was done to protect Gert from getting hurt. The value of family in “Big Maggie” contrasts hugely with “The Great Gatsby”. Daisy and Tom made no attempt to raise their child however in “Big Maggie” Maggie wanted what was best for her children. (That's debatable.) “Juno” incorporates a different view of the family to the other two texts. Family is a central theme in “Juno”. Mac and Brenda helped Juno through every stage of her pregnancy with love and support, which contrast hugely with both how Maggie and the Buchanans treat their children. Family holds great value in this modern society, which is apparent in the way Vanessa longs for a child. It was fascinating for me to witness how family values have varied and grown throughout time.

Sex and sexuality are huge themes throughout the three texts, and the attitudes towards sexuality contrast greatly in all three. “The Great Gatsby” is set in the Roaring Twenties, a time where inhibitions were let go and morals were absent. As a result people grew more promiscuous and were more open about sexuality. When Tom takes Nick to meet his mistress in New York, he has no qualms about disappearing into to the bedroom with her while Nick is there. This openness contrasts significantly with the attitudes towards sex in “Big Maggie”. While they are more progressive in “The Great Gatsby”, sexuality is still a taboo in the 1960’s rural Ireland of “Big Maggie”. When Maggie learns of Katie’s affair with Toss Melch, she abuses her and repeatedly calls her a “whore.” She forces Katie to admit that she was “committing a sin with him.” It is evident that the presence of the Catholic church had a huge influence on relationships, with Maggie admitting that her husband hadn’t slept with her for ten years. Conversely in “Juno” people are much more open about sexuality. When Juno visits the abortion clinic the girl there tells her they must know about “every sore and every score”, and even offers her a condom, telling her about herself and her boyfriend. I found it interesting to see how sexual culture varied from text to text, depending on time and place.

The main values of these three texts contrast tremendously. In “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie” we see that they value wealth, status and appearances, while in “Juno” they value friendship and love. In “The Great Gatsby” Fitzgerald excellently shows the way that wealth is viewed. Those living in East Egg are seen as superior as they are of old money, and their houses are described as “white palaces.” In counterpoint those in the Valley of Ashes are seen as lowly and “ash-grey men”. To the wealth obsessed society of the 1920’s these people were considered as second class citizens and were looked down on by the wealthy. This is apparent by Tom promising Wilson to sell him his car even though he keeps putting it off to toy with him and show his power over him. Society works in a similar way in “Big Maggie”. Wealth and appearances are valued above all else. Maggie forces Katie to marry Johnny Conlon, and threatens to cut her off from the family money unless she does. As well as that when Mary and her mother come to tell Maggie that Mary is having Maurice’s baby, Mary and Maggie fight about the family wealth. Maggie accuses Mary of using Maurice to gain more wealth: “this house, this farm and all that goes with them for one minute of madness in the back of a motor car?” It is clear that above all else wealth and appearances are the greatest values in both “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie”. Conversely in “Juno” we see a brighter side to things. Wealth and power are no longer the most important part of life. Instead it is love and family. Juno’s family are there for her no matter what, and while in “Big Maggie” we see Maggie threaten her children, in "Juno" we do not. Mac and Brenda do everything they can to help Juno even though they aren’t extremely wealthy. We see how little wealth matters with Vanessa. Even though she lives in a wealthy part of town and she has a beautiful house and expensive things, the only thing she really wants in life is a baby. It was very enlightening to see the various values in the lives of these characters and how they influenced each character in these texts. 

Without question deeply embedded attitudes and values are difficult to change. In “The Great Gatsby” we see how they let their lusts and their wealth ruin their lives. In “Big Maggie” we see how the patriarchal society ruled and how it shaped Maggie’s relationship with her children. However in “Juno” we see how love and family can shape a person for the better, regardless of wealth and status. As a whole I believe the title statement is most applicable to “The Great Gatsby” and “Big Maggie”, however I am grateful to see how society has progressed from the oppression of those two to the acceptance and love in “Juno”.

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