‘The pursuit of individuality and distinctiveness ultimately leads to conformity and deep feelings of failure.’ Good Morning/Afternoon, and welcome to this literary seminar at Hunters Hill High. My name is Obi Williams and I have prepared a speech on the Human Condition, its relevance in Post WW2, and how it is presented through Post WW2 literature.
This time was a period of immense social transformation, as during the war, unemployment had ended and the economy had greatly expanded which meant the end of the war brought with it; higher employment levels among women, a greater search for wealth, and a more every-man-for-himself type of society. This change led to a shifting of values for the majority of the population, a shift where there was little concern for the welfare of the minority and no apprehension that ones success could lead to the downfall of another.
‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D Salinger and ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller are both texts that were written throughout this time of social, cultural, spiritual and economic metamorphosis. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ through the portrayal of Holden Caulfield, explores an individual’s tumultuous tale throughout city living and teenage years of post WW2 America, hoping to find recognition, companionship and purpose, but falling short of their expectations of themselves.
Likewise in ‘Death of a Salesman’, Willy Loman is used to convey a story of bitter regret and misfortune, that had befallen thousands of similar Americans of the time. Fundamentally, what becomes present through the portrayal of Holden Caulfield in ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman’ is that the pursuit of individuality and distinctiveness ultimately leads to conformity and deep feelings of failure.
The term ‘Human Condition’ refers to the unique features of being human, or the defining characteristics of what makes us human. Regardless of gender, race or class, the inescapable elements of the human existence include self-awareness, rationality, sapience, mortality, meaning and loneliness.
These experiences are relevant to any person no matter where they live, how old they are, what society or cultural group they belong to, or what their perspective is towards life in general. Due to the nature of the Human Condition, it is very limited in its ability to develop and evolve. This being said, the included details are able to change due to improvements in technology, medicine, education, and public health, all of which change the quality of life for humans and can influence the impact of the Human Condition on their lives.
The ‘search for something’ is a crucial aspect of the Human Condition, specifically how the pursuit for individuality and distinctiveness ultimately leads to conformity and deep feelings of failure. This feature demonstrates the irony of man’s ever-present need to gain distinguishing success over any other. The majority of attempts by any human to be ‘better off’ or different than the people that surround them result in that individual being consumed by a mediocre, insipid and bland life that is the opposite of what was intended.
The contextual concerns of the Post WW2 era arise from the concept of ‘The American Dream’, and the primary interest of ‘The American Dream’ is success, or at least the search for it. Countless Americans of the time either found wealth, success and accomplishment, or, in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, they were simply ‘tossed aside’. The ones who were simply ‘tossed aside’ represent those who faded from their pursuit of individuality and difference into a life of conformity filled with deep feelings of failure.
Emerging social identities will either make or break a being's hunt for individualization and distinctiveness. Because of the social and economic boom of the time, distinct social groups started to emerge in the attempt to distinguish themselves from each other. This individualization is shown through Salinger’s portrayal of Holden Caulfield, a troubled teen who is struggling to cope with his life and which stage of life he belongs to. At the time, a person was either an adult, or a child, and Holden struggles to identify with either.
Holden digresses to say “I'm seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I'm about thirteen” then contradicts himself by saying “Sometimes I act a lot older than I am”, to reveal that he truly cannot confirm within his own mind where his identity lies. Holden represents the ignition of the ‘adolescent’ identity primarily through the language he uses and ideas that he has. During the novel, Holden says “Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy.” And uses vague expression, swearing, lack of descriptive language and poor sentence structure that were common among the everyday ‘teen’ of the time, and still are today.
Similarly, ‘Death of a Salesman’ depicts the story of a man who is a part of an emerging class, however, in the potent play this man, Willy Loman, belongs to the ‘working’ or ‘middle class’ rather than the ‘teen’ identity. This societal class was born from the American Dream, and became the backbone for the industrialized, successful nation that was growing at the time.
Within this class there were, and still are, two classifications of people; that of the ‘hopeful’ successful & wealthy middle class that are an epitome of the American Dream ideology, and the realistic world that Willy is a part of, unhappy, unsatisfied and covered in debt. Much like Holden, Willy struggles to identify with either of these groups, as he wants to be a part of the ‘hopeful’, and positively loathes the class of unhappy, realistic fellow ‘Lomans’ or ‘Low Men’.
Willy’s ‘hopefulness’ is displayed when he is exclaiming to Linda that he ‘Sold over $500 gross in providence and $700 gross in Boston’ even though he is lying, and only really made not even half that, this reveals that Willy’s heart is set on achieving success worthy of the American Dream standards. His hopefulness however is cut short when Linda tells him how much they owe to others, to which Willy replies ‘A hundred and twenty dollars! My God! If business don’t pick up I don’t know what I’m gonna do!”
This exposes that, while Willy’s mind is aiming for the epitome of the American Dream, his real life situation falls very short of that. Holden Caulfield and Willy Loman each struggle with their identity between two classes of society, indecisively aiming for one and unwillingly fitting into another, leading to a perception of themselves as failures.
Conforming is neither a good nor bad element of life, merely a result of pursuing individuality and distinctiveness. ‘The Cather in the Rye’ presents this through Holden Caulfield, and the mental turmoil he experiences as a result of his non-intentional conformation. Throughout the novel, Holden attempts to distinguish himself from all the ‘phonies’ he so ever-presently witnesses around him. When Holden purchases the red hunting hat, a reoccurring motif of his individuality and hunt for himself, and states ‘I shoot people in this hat’ despite being an obvious hyperbole, it becomes clear to the reader that he does not wish to be like everyone else, even so that he despises everyone else.
An overwhelming sense of dramatic irony is developed as Holden develops as a character, he sees everyone else as phonies, e.g. when he is talking to Phoebe about Pencey Prep and says “you’ve never seen so many Phonies in your life Phoebe, there were so many of them” yet he shows the same qualities as them. He thinks everyone else is overly concerned with sex, but says "In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.” He believes that "Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell." And yet somehow expresses with pride at many times during his stay in the city that “I’ve got plenty of dough.” His behaviour and mentality that cause him to have no relationship with others, and cause him to be kicked out of 4 schools, simply result in Holden’s pursuit of individuality leading conformity, failure and despair.
Oppositely, in ‘Death of a Salesman’ Willy Loman is desperate to conform, desperate to keep up with the fast paced, dog-eat-dog economical environment of Post WW2, and desperate to not be left behind, forgotten or ‘tossed aside’. This becomes apparent when Willy struggles to accept a recent firing from his job, and attempts an appeal to his boss ““You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit” in the hope that somehow this man of power and success can restore some success into Willy’s own life, or at least some form of stability. When this fails Willy spirals further into his cortex of denial. The setting of the play further demonstrates Willy’s failure towards his social standpoint.
The Loman’s house is described as having “towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides” which, when compared to Willy’s idea of the perfect house “a little place out in the country” amplify how Willy’s search for individuality through success and financial gain has been consumed and him forgotten, much like his house has been absorbed by the wealthy and powerful buildings around him. As the family household is a microcosm of society, Willy’s family has been forgotten and defeated, and therefore so has he. All these elements of conformity in the play intensify the feelings of failure and discontent within Willy’s mind, which eventually lead to the drastic death of the Salesman.
The outcome of either protagonist’s chase for distinctiveness and individuality are both failures. Holden, despite feeling a brief period of happiness inspired by Phoebe’s innocence that causes him to say “I felt so damn happy all of a sudden”, is still reciting his entire tale from a facility that is helping him recover from physical and mental breakdown. For Willy, while the obvious outcome of his failure to conform, is his suicide, the mental tragedy he experiences precursors his death from the very start of the play when he exclaims to Linda “Suddenly I realize I’m going sixty miles an hour and I don’t remember the last 5 minutes”.
This line quantifiably summarises Willy’s perception of his own life, while he has been travelling, or living, he can’t recall exactly how his life and the events along the way have led him to this point. His suicide is an attempt to regain a shred of dignity for his family, by leaving them the insurance money to hopefully live out his hope of The American Dream. Regretfully this dignity is not regained, as Linda says, “I can’t cry” revealing her lack of true sadness and regret.
Essentially, regardless of time, location, class, gender or race, mankind will always be ‘searching for something’, specifically, searching for anything that will distinguish that individual from the people standing next to them. The universal context of this Human Condition experience is how it can negatively affect a mortal’s life and leave them in a state of discontent, nostalgically wishing for a past time. One of the greatest playwrights of our time, Arthur Miller, stated, “Willie Loman's situation is even more common now than it was then.” Willie Loman’s situation, a situation where an intrinsic hope of a better life that comes crashing down around him, or Holden Caulfield’s warped perception of the world, is still relevant today.
The visual displayed behind me edifies how the difference of a distinctive human, is hardly ever a valued feature, and in reference to Post WW2 literature, displays that distinctiveness ironically leads to conformity, and in extension leads to failure. This concept is one that transcends time into every generation and every individual taking part in that time, and the truth of it is this, ‘The pursuit of individuality and distinctiveness ultimately leads to conformity and deep feelings of failure.