Unusual Heroes

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Unusual Heroes

Sometimes, it is the most unexpected of characters who actually bring a lot to the (fictional) table. A great hero stems from a shaky background, and normally lives at a time where he or she is put at a disadvantage, but somehow musters up the courage that no other character in the story can fathom. It is through this description of a hero that we find that some of the best heroes are the underdogs. This is the case with the heroes in both Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. While they seem to be non-trustworthy, static characters, Oryx and Mary, respectively, are heroic rebels because they have the courage to stand up for themselves, each of them has lived in a less than ideal situation, and they go against the status quo of the societies in which they are presented.

The foundation of a hero is what drives that character to become a hero; they can become heroes for people that struggle with the same things they do. For both Oryx and Mary, they are already at a disadvantage, because they are both women living in patriarchal societies, but each of them is, or has, lived in a less than ideal situation in some point of their lives. A reader wouldn’t necessarily see this at first in Long Day’s Journey into Night; Mary grew up in a very privileged home; her father spoiled her and she got whatever she wanted from him. As a young woman, she was educated at a convent, where she was praised for everything she did (O’Neill, 96). Mary lived in a world where she had everything and was appreciated by the people who loved her. After her marriage to Tyrone, however, this aspect of her life changed, rather drastically; Mary went from beloved daughter to forgotten housewife. Mary was left to fend for herself without even a fraction of the attention she received as a young person.  In Lacanian Orders in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the authors discuss the current situation in which Mary lives. As Farshid and Bita observe, “Mary hates the fog, because it reminds her of the past, happy times to which she cannot return” (67). Mary doesn’t like the life she is living now, and in the play, we see Mary dwelling on things in the past. A typical heroic trait is one of moving forward instead of dwelling on the past; it is in that power to move forward that readers can see the heroic nature of Mary.

            In the time period presented in Long Day’s Journey into Night, women were often manipulated by their husbands and Mary is no exception to that. Tyrone often manipulates her thoughts and feelings by casting them out as unimportant. While Tyrone does this to Mary, there are instances where we see Mary stand up for herself. When Tyrone tries to tell Mary that he has given her everything, including a home, Mary responds, “It was never a home. You’ve always preferred the club or a barroom. And for me it’s always been as lonely as a dirty room in a one-night stand hotel” (O’Neill, 64). Here, Mary is defending her point of view; Tyrone has never given their family a proper home, and she calls him out, stating that he would rather spend time in barrooms than with his wife and children. In 1912, it wasn’t typical to stand up to a husband; so not only was she displaying her heroism by standing up for herself, but she was also displaying her heroism by going against the status quo. Furthermore, Mary again expresses her opinion when she explains to Edmund, “I’ve never felt it was my home. It was wrong from the start. Everything was done in the cheapest way. Your father would never spend the money to make it right…All he likes is to hobnob with men at the Club or in a barroom” (O’Neill 35). By expressing her opinion in such a way that makes her husband look bad, Mary is going against the social norm.

Mary’s morphine addiction can also be seen as rebelling against the societal expectations of motherhood. Women during this time we expected to live their lives for their husbands and children, but Mary is hardly that, as Edmund points out when he refers to her as “a dope fiend for a mother” (123). But what none of the Tyrone men seem to understand is that her addiction is the only thing she has; they certainly want nothing to do with her, as she points out several times: “Don’t go yet, dear. I don’t want to be alone” (85) and “You will all be leaving me so soon” (86). While Farshid and Bita point out that Edmund’s idea of Mary “completely differs from and cannot match the mother image he has in his mind” (67), what Edmund fails to realize is that by not fulfilling the status quo role of mother, Mary is taking a stand against the patriarchal society in which she lives. Although Mary doesn’t become an addict in order to rebel against society, her addiction, nonetheless, does question the status quo: Women are wives and mothers, not drug addicts. But in a society where there are few outlets for women, Mary becomes addicted to the only thing she feels she can call her own.

Oryx lives a life that is vastly different from Mary’s but Oryx has the same heroic, rebellious nature. Oryx, much like Mary, lives in a patriarchal society, but she is set up for failure from the start. Oryx grew up in an extremely impoverished village, where children where bought and sold regularly: “Oryx had been a younger child, often pushed to the side, but suddenly she was made much of and given better food than usual, and a special blue jacket, because the other village women were helping out and they wanted her to look pretty and healthy” (Atwood 135). It wasn’t until Oryx was being sold that she was actually cared for by her mother; she was being sold into the sex trade, and her mother, essentially, gave her away for a small profit. Oryx is told from the beginning that her only worth in life is her beauty and sexuality: “The image of Oryx is described as sexual commodity […] her femininity is constructed as object of sexual consumption…She is subjected to the reality of the use of women as body since her very childhood” (Irshad & Banerji 590). Oryx grew up in a horrible environment, yet one of her most heroic qualities is that she never allows herself to become the victim.

            To begin, Oryx is not a victim of her childhood circumstances, although it would oftentimes seem the easier route, especially as Jimmy attempts to victimize her. Jimmy tries to find out his girlfriends’ wounds; he pretends to care about them in order to have sex with them. He attempts the same move on Oryx; he tries to sexually manipulate Oryx by asking about her traumatizing childhood: “So [Jimmy] would ask, and then she might say, ‘I don’t know. I’ve forgotten.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to tell you that.’ Or, ‘Jimmy, you are so bad, it’s not your business.’ Once she’d said, ‘You have a lot of pictures in your head, Jimmy’” (Atwood 132). Jimmy asks Oryx repeatedly, in hopes that she will eventually reveal her wounds, which would make Jimmy the knight in shining armor coming to her rescue – in other words, the savior, the dominant partner. While it seems unimportant, this constant rejection by Oryx displays a heroic trait.

Jimmy is able to manipulate multiple women throughout the novel because of the sexualized image of women in their society, but Oryx, who has been told since birth that her only worth is in her beauty, doesn’t give in. Jimmy wants to come to Oryx’s rescue, but she won’t let him. Irshad and Banerji write, “It is well cited by Atwood through various references in the novel that Oryx declines and undermines all the efforts of Jimmy to be a bandager for her wounds and afflictions, thereby refusing any consolation that identified the weakness of Oryx before Jimmy” (591). By declining Jimmy’s advances, Oryx is standing up for herself and the image of women in her time by teaching people like Jimmy that not all women can be manipulated or need to be rescued.

            Rather than being sexually manipulated, Oryx sexually manipulates Jimmy. Upon one of their first sexual encounters, Jimmy narrates, “But then Oryx seduced him. What else to call it?… she marched right in, she had him out of his shell in two minutes flat. It made him feel about twelve. She was clearly a practised hand at this” (Atwood 367). Oryx becomes dominant, while men in her society would normally view women as being submissive. In the society presented in the novel, to be feminine is to be sexually submissive, as we see with so many of Jimmy’s girlfriends and also with the images of childhood Oryx on HottTotts, wearing only an innocent pink ribbon anda garland of flowers; as an adult, Oryx completely defies this and instead wraps Jimmy around her finger. Oryx challenges the stereotypes by “deviate[ing] from her femininity by being sexually adept and expert against the prevalent myth of women as sexually passive, inferior and even sexless” (Irshad & Banerji 590). By being sexually dominant, Oryx is a hero because she shows that women do not need to be submissive to get what they want in life.

            The perceived inferior status of women is a common theme in both works -- women are seen as less than men in all aspects of the societies in which they live. But heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes they show up in the most surprising of characters. Mary, while she seems an unlikely hero because of her morphine addiction, she is a rebel in the only way available when women didn’t have a voice. Similarly, Oryx seems so static throughout the novel, that it seems so unlikely that she is a hero, but, in fact, she is the unsung hero of her novel, refusing to be a victim. Both Oryx and Mary defy the status quo in their societies and stand up for themselves and the women of their times. Both women are the unwritten heroes in their respective plots and bring about, as Joseph Campbell claims, “regeneration of their societies as a whole.”

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