Cultural Context - I'm Not Scared, The Great Gatsby, The Plough and the Stars for Leaving Cert English

Understanding who holds power and who is powerless helps to reveal the cultural context in texts.

#625LabThis essay is en route to a H1. Why? Clearly structured, genuinely engaged with the question, eloquently written. It errs on the side of being a little too long. It would be unusual for an overly long essay to be particularly good, so don't feel under pressure to write and write and write.

People always ask how much you should quote in the Comparative, if at all. I think this essay has the perfect amount of quotation for the Comparative section: it's not at all taxing to remember these quotes, but they are super versatile and hard-hitting. You may also like: Complete Guide to Leaving Cert English (€)

The cultural context of a text is the world and society at the time. The texts I have studied are “The Great Gatsby” (TGG) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I’m Not Scared” (INS) directed by Gabriele Salvatores and “The Plough and the Stars” (TPATS) by Sean O’Casey. My understanding was greatly enhanced by evaluating the way in which power is distributed between the characters. There is a vast contrast in cultural context between the Roaring 20s in America, Southern Italy 1978 and early 20th century Ireland, however there are still some striking similarities. I studied the texts taking a more in depth look at the class, race and gender distinctions while also considering the world’s views on religion at the time. Understanding this world gave me a better insight as to why characters made certain choices or behaved in a certain way. 

The opening scene in INS is a key moment as it shows children running through a vast field of corn. The subtitle “Southern Italy” informs us of the setting. Italy, at the time, was divided into the industrialised North and the poorer agricultural South. It was a time of unrest as many criminals took to violence and crime to better their lives. There were many kidnappings with the view of getting a ransom from the rich. (This should be summarised in one sentence as this doesn't directly deal with the text). However in TGG there are four locations set around the urbanised New York: West Egg, East Egg, The Valley of Ashes and New York. West Egg is an area of “new money”, wealth that isn’t generational but was earned through determination and ambition, whereas East Egg is a place of “old money”, wealth that has been inherited. The Valley of Ashes represents the grim underside of the other locations whereas New York is a city filled with light, colour and life. In a key moment Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan all travel to the city to party and drink in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. (Why is this important? Because it shows they are rich? Then say that. The worst thing you could do is retell the story without your own comment.) When we turn to TPATS we are faced with a different world. There is an unmistakable air of poverty in the setting of the tenements in Dublin, up to and during the 1916 Rising. The tenements at the time were some of the worst housing conditions in Europe with their inhabitants often being referred to as “slum lice”. Understanding the society at the time helped me realise how the distribution of wealth and the distribution of power are synonymous, not only in the texts but in the world today. 

Throughout INS the difference in wealth between the North and South is prominent. Filippo, a child of the North, is kidnapped by Michele’s Southern village with the desire of extorting a ransom from his prosperous family. In a key moment when Filippo’s mother appears on television in the hope of contacting her son’s kidnappers she is well groomed, polished and educated. Yet in the innocence of childhood, class boundaries are irrelevant and meaningless to Michele and Filippo. In TGG there is also a clear distinction between the upper class and lower class. The upper class spend their time drinking and partying while relying on the lower class to do the work but still considering themselves the “dominant race”. Wilson, a member of the lower class, lives in the wasteland and is denied wealth and power as the upper class look down on him. This division is also reinforced in TPATS where the impoverish working class seem to struggle on a daily basis to survive. In a key moment a well-dressed middle class lady enters the tenements. O’Casey captures the “upperosity” beautifully as the lady believes the lower class men should risk their lives to walk her home. The situation of Filippo getting taken advantage of for ransom is very like the part in TGG where Gatsby is used for his lavish parties. Also Michele in INS reminds me of Nick in TGG because they both act as a friend for the exploited characters. (I don't think that Gatsby was exploited. He decided to earn society's validation willingly. It's fair to compare them, but it would be better for the author of the essay to qualify the comparison a little more.) In INS Michele defies his father as he visits Filippo eventually setting him free. A different moment in TGG conveys a similar idea of friendship where Nick is the only person to attend Gatsby’s funeral from the hundreds that attended his lavish parties. 

INS and TPATS differ from TGG in that there is a lack of financial security in both INS and TPATS. In INS this lack of assurance encourages Pino to assist in the kidnapping of Filippo as he is promised financial security for his family. However in a crucial moment we see Pino accidentally shooting Michele in the leg, thus his involvement almost cost him that very family. Similarly in TPATS Jack joins the army as an escape from tenement life. Unlike in INS he doesn’t do this to better his family rather he is selfish and chooses his career over his wife. (It's not selfish as such, it's unfair towards his family.) In a key moment he quips “Ireland is greater than a mother...Ireland is greater than a wife”. (Be careful. It was Lieut. Langon who said that Ireland is greater than a mother.) On the contrary in TGG many characters didn’t know what it was like to suffer financially due to generational wealth and prosperous jobs. This financial security causes them boredom which leads them to drink alcohol which was supposedly illegal at the time. In spite of this, many people were motivated by the “American Dream”. This can be seen in a key moment where Gatsby is stretching for the “green light” which is just out of his reach. Gatsby is consistently trying to improve his life, as well as Nick who moved to New York to do so. When we turn to INS again we see Pino aspiring to improve his family’s life by kidnapping Filippo. In a key moment Pino talks about the seaside, a place where he will take his family “when it’s all over”. A place that represents an escape, happiness and a better life. In a key scene we see characters buying second hand shoes from a mobile shop which could symbolize a stylish world and therefore a more lavish lifestyle. TPATS conveys a similar idea with Nora attempting to mimic the middle class. These attempts are frowned upon by her neighbours Bessie and Ms Gogan as they believe she is getting notions of “upperosity”. However her purchases and flights of fancy are just an escape mechanism for her as she hopes to create a better life out of the tenement for herself, her husband and her expected child. This strengthened my understanding of society at the time and the struggles they faced. This also improved my apprehension of the powerless characters and how they aspire to become powerful and better their lives. (Stellar stuff, the bit in navy.) 

I noticed in both INS and TGG that women are powerless and not regarded as equals. In INS women don’t play a dominant role. They are not consulted concerning the kidnapping of Filippo and have little choice but to go along with what is happening and what the men decide. In a key scene we see a group of men around Pino’s kitchen table discussing the tactics of the kidnapping. There are no women present other than Anna who is there to wait on the men. Similarly, in TGG women are perceived to be a pretty decoration on the arm of a man that should be seen rather than heard. This idea is strongly reinforced in a key moment when Daisy hopes for her daughter to grow into a “beautiful little fool”. TPATS differs from these texts as the women in this play are portrayed as strong willed, feisty characters. The men aren’t depicted to be as strong as the women with characters such as Fluther and Peter retreating to Bessie’s room when the fighting breaks out. On the contrary, men in both TGG and INS are seen as providers and a superior gender. In INS men are either brutal individuals or weak allies of the sadistic Sergio. I was disgusted by their willingness to use a defenceless child in order to satisfy greed and envy. Nonetheless both Pino and Anna are loving parents. Anna wishes for Michele to take responsibility as he grows up such as taking care of his little sister. In contrast with this Pino believes becoming a man is all about physical strength. In a key scene Pino asks Michele “Did you do your pushups?”, before challenging him to an arm wrestle. The freedom and parental love Michele enjoys differs from TGG in that Tom and Daisy’s daughter is cared for by nannies with little freedom to explore her surroundings. In a key moment the ‘well-disciplined child’ is brought into a room in which Daisy, Nick, Tom and Gatsby are having lunch as Daisy wished ‘to show [her] off’. This intensified my appreciation of the texts as it gave me a more rounded idea of the gender discriminations at the time. I believe the portrayal of powerful men and powerless women reflects the patriarchal social structures at the time. 

Despite frequent references to religion in both INS and TPATS it is difficult to assess its actual impact on the characters. In TPATS Bessie is from the Protestant religion and asserts her right to sing Protestant hymns much to the annoyance of her Catholic neighbours. She does however seem to get some consolation from her faith in a key moment when she says “Oh God, be Thou my help in time o’ throuble”. When we turn to INS, we see the inhabitants of Acqua Traverse are Roman Catholic through their religious statues, pictures and crucifixes. In a key moment they decide they couldn’t “stab him [Filippo] as it would be a sin”. I noticed in both INS and TPATS that they use the vernacular of their religion yet it seems to ring hollow as they show very few moral scruples with the looting in TPATS and the kidnapping in INS. This helped me realise that the power in these texts was vested in greed rather than religion. 

Through my study of the distribution of power in the texts my comprehension of the cultural context was greatly enhanced. As a result of my extensive studies of social pressures, social classes, religion and the roles of both men and women I received a better insight into the world and society at the time.

Comparative Study Cultural Context - I'm Not Scared, The Great Gatsby, The Plough and the Stars for Leaving Cert English
Image: Warner Bros

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