Gender Roles and its Implications on Adulthood Essay

Gender Roles and its Implications on Adulthood

In T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Greasy Lake,” an unidentified speaker recalls an incident where he and his friends, who maintain a maverick lifestyle and reject moral values, face a threatening opponent. Though their challenger is physically stronger than all three of them, they manage to subdue him. In the end, their frightening experiences compel them to realize the futility of their adolescent misbehavior and understand that characters even more ‘bad’ than they are exist out in the adult world. The characters of “Greasy Lake” escape a considerably less unfortunate fate, however, compared to Connie of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie, a fifteen years old girl, remains confined to her home and the outskirts of her town for the majority of her life. That is, until she is blackmailed into leaving behind the comforts of her home and family by an alarmingly dangerous character. Her end is left to speculation by the reader, but it is strongly implied that whatever events lie in store for her are far worse than what the unnamed narrator from “Greasy Lake” experienced. The two authors use symbolism and setting extensively, as they document their characters’ transition from childhood to adulthood. More importantly, however, both literary devices are used to demonstrate the importance of being prepared for one’s coming-of-age.

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Setting plays an important role in both short stories by defining gender roles and illustrating the type of environment each character developed in. In doing so, it becomes clear why characters living in relatively close time periods faced vastly different outcomes by the end of their respective story. The unnamed narrator lived as an adolescent during a time “when courtesy and winning ways went out of style” and “when it was good to be bad” (294). According to the speaker, he grew up in a setting where counterculture was cherished and where misbehaving was considered to be the proper way of conduct. Connie also frequently opposes her parents, but she lives a comparatively less transient lifestyle, routinely lounging “around the house” or going to a shopping plaza with her friend (325).

Though she occasionally leaves home, she doesn’t travel far, and for the most part, she is domestic, conforming to the expectations of the female gender role. During her era, expectations included fulfilling “motherhood” and staying at home to take care of the children (Peters 67). Having been sheltered her whole life, Connie is oblivious to the world outside her house. Other than the occasional quarrels with her family, she has not faced an actual adversary prior to Arnold Friend, and as such, lacks the capacity to react accordingly when she’s in real danger. On the other hand, the unnamed narrator often ventures into unpleasant and dangerous areas, outside the comforts of his home. For instance, he and his friends frequent Greasy Lake, a “fetid and murky” body of water “strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires” (294). The filth and obscurity of the lake serve to heighten their adolescent excitement; they come to Greasy Lake habitually because it seems to go hand-in-hand with being bad and dangerous. His aspirations to become the most ‘bad’ character lead him to go on adventures to treacherous places, but in doing so, also allow him to become more independent. Unlike Connie, who expects to be miraculously rescued, the narrator comes to rely on himself. Whereas the unnamed narrator and his friends are prepared to take a more proactive stance in defending against their adversary, Connie relies on others for help and desperately hopes to be saved, only to surrender herself to her assailant once she believes that all hope is lost. Both characters are violently forced to mature, but ultimately, the unnamed narrator’s aggression and preference for action, characteristics associated with the male gender role during his time, results in his survival, while Connie is doomed to suffer at the hands of Arnold Friend. In both stories, the authors use symbols to represent the act of maturing into an adult as a sudden process that one must be prepared for. In “Greasy Lake,” various items are used to symbolize growing up. The car that the main character and his friends drive to Greasy Lake, for instance, is a symbol of his past self—the simpleminded boy who believed that acting ‘bad’ was the cool and mature thing to do. After the “greasy character” and his companion trash the narrator and his friends’ car, the “ravaged automobile” becomes a symbol of the narrator’s experiences that night (301). Just as the narrator suffered physical and emotional injuries from his confrontation, the automobile becomes heavily damaged, to the point where the car is barely drivable. In one night, the narrator has experienced the reality of adulthood, and the ruined car serves as a reminder of the events that occurred that night. Similarly, in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, Arnold Fiend’s “convertible jalopy” is both the literal and figurative vehicle that will take her to her new life, where she can no longer reside in the safety of her home. Several of the car’s physical features represent aspects of Connie’s forced transition into adulthood. For instance, the expression “MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS” on the front fender of the car forbodes Arnold’s abduction of Connie, who is unprepared and essentially defenseless against him (330). Flying saucers and other UFOs are usually feared because they are strange, foreign objects. Likewise, Arnold himself is a complete stranger, who doesn’t even seem to be from Connie’s town. In addition, the car is “painted so bright” that it hurts Connie’s eyes, even after just a mere glance (330). The car’s flashy gold hue is nearly causes her to momentarily lose vision, representing Connie’s blindness to the reality outside of her home. Prior to encountering Arnold, Connie was unaware of what lied beyond the boundaries of her town.

She constantly daydreamed, naïvely believing that the world was full of happy endings. Rather than approaching her situation logically, Connie concedes to Arnold’s threats, having never been prepared for a such a situation. While the unnamed narrator of “Greasy Lake” learns from his experiences and realizes what it’s truly like to be an adult, Connie is confronted by a dangerous foe, but as a result of being nurtured in a sheltered environment, never gains the insight she needs to combat her assailant and survive the transition into adulthood. As both Oates and Boyle convey in their stories, adulthood is not a simple matter that should be taken lightly. Becoming a full-fledged adult requires understanding essential values, such as responsibility and maturity. Yet, these characters are not given an equal opportunity to develop such characteristics in their respective stories. The unnamed narrator of “Greasy Lake” is free to his own devices for the most part of his story. He is not confined to his home, and develops a sense of independence. When faced with a troublesome opponent, he is prepared for him, and transitions relatively smoothly into adulthood. While Connie yearns for the same independence, she doesn’t get the chance to develop the qualities necessary to be considered an adult. As a female during her time, she is expected to stay at home and away from trouble. The very societal expectations of her gender role, however, render her unready for the dangers of the world. Oates tries to warn us against associating expectations with certain genders in her story, arguing that doing so may result in teenagers like Connie, who are never fully prepared for the adult world.

Works Cited Kenny, X.J., and Dana Gioia. Backpack Literature. 4th ed. Los Angeles: Pearson, 2012. Print. Robbins-Stathas, Lisa. “`Traditional’ and `Non-Traditional’ Married Women: An Analysis of Sex Role Orientation and Gender Identity in 1980s America.” Dissertation Abstracts International 48. (1987). America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

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