Revised Response #4Dr. Mary Kuhlman World Literature IIApril 27, 2004Comparison of Blake’s “The Sick Rose”and American BeautySex and politics have proved to be two very popular themes that havesurvived throughout centuries of literature, poetry, drama, and mostrecently, cinema. As one of the touchiest subjects to expose to thepublic, the sex theme has proven time and time again to be not only acontroversial tool for artists and authors, but also a topic that can be asthought provoking as any other. Politics, on the other hand, can be just ascontroversial. By criticizing modern society and analyzing culture, onesuggests the option to question our superiors. This is a dangerous andintriguing proposal. It isn’t surprising then, that poets such as WilliamBlake would utilize these two particular concepts and capture their violentpossibilities in verse. More recently, directors such as Sam Mendez haveexposed the raw cruelty of sexual anxiety and of corrupt politics on thesilver screen. In this paper, I will compare Mendez’s movie American Beautyand Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose” and show how they each utilize theconcepts of sexual immorality and political corruption.
Mendez’s movie, American Beauty attempts to depict the sexualdesperation of an older, middle-aged man lusting after a young girl. Notunlike Blake’s poem, “The Sick Rose,” Mendez’s movie contains numerousobjects of symbolism, the prominent one being a scarlet rose. In thispaper, I will point out similarities in these two particular works of Blakeand Mendez and show how the theme of sexual tension and its devastatingeffects is represented in both.
American Beauty is a stark artistic piece representing individualtorment and family calamity situated around the central character of LesterBurnham. Lester is a middle-aged, suburban-dwelling desk worker whosuddenly finds himself in an experience similar to a mid-life crisis afterfalling in love with his daughter’s beautiful high school friend, AngelaHayes. The infatuation develops into an unhealthy sexual obsession fueledby Angela’s provocative implications. Angela is like the rose in Blake’spiece because she is the object of desire. The movie is riddled withLester’s daydreams and nighttime fantasies of Angela, and each time, hernaked body is covered with scarlet rose petals, a traditional symbol offeminine sex appeal. Like Blake’s rose, Angela is sick with an unnaturaland unhealthy need for the attention of a much older man. The onlydifference between the two objects of desire is Blake’s rose is sick afterit has been violated, Angela is sick before.
Lester Burnham is like Blake’s “invisible worm.” A phallic symbol ofmanhood, the worm seeks to devirginize the rose. Much the same, Lesteranticipates deflowering the young Angela. Also, as the worm is “invisible”in the night, Lester’s love for Angela is kept a secret from his wife andfamily.
As the disturbing relationship between Lester and Angela approachesits climax, they find themselves in a room together sipping a beer andlistening to music. Soon Lester is seen slowly pulling Angela’s jeans toher ankles. As in Blake’s poem, a storm rages just outside the Burnham’sFrench doors. The “howling storm” in the poem is the setting of violation,and in the movie, it is a parallel to the uncontrollable calamity occurringinside the house.
Each piece embraces a contrast between innocence and the lack thereof.
In both the movie and the poem, a “life is destroyed” and purity is sadlylost forever. Both focus on two central themes, one of violent sexualinfatuation. Each creator succeeds in representing the devastating effectsof sexual desire.
On the other hand, Blake’s poem has been interpreted as somethingother than just a poem about sexual desire and loss of innocence. Manybelieve that “The Sick Rose” was a political statement about the injusticesof society. He wrote the poem at the start of the Industrial Revolution andit was rumored that he opposed the monotonous, materialized society thatbegan to overrun his native England.
Blake could have used the sick rose to symbolize the beauty of Englandwhich had been stealthily corrupted by the oppression of what he saw as anunseen cancer. The worm in the poem could have been meant to illustrate theavarice and exploitation of the industrial revolution. The “howling storm”could have been a metaphor for the sound of machinery and the “bed ofcrimson joy” could be Blake’s interpretation of England’s countryside.
In American Beauty, Mendez also utilizes an underlying theme ofpolitical objection. The movie is not only a cry for help but also a callfor change. It exposes the ugly face of dysfunctional family life commonlyhidden behind the mask that is American suburbia. Each character is stuckin his or her own personal prison of social norms, parental expectations,rules, reputation, and even marriage. The movie is a stand against what the”American Dream” has become. Those who envision the big house, the nicecar, the beautiful wife, and the well-paying job are convinced that’s allone needs to be happy in America. But they are ignorant to the monotony andmeaninglessness of that sort of lifestyle.
“American Beauty” is also a challenge to the typical set of Americanvalues. In the movie, Carolyn Burnham is more focused keeping their “fourthousand dollar sofa” clean than fixing her loveless failing marriage.
Lester Burnham is more engrossed in a beautiful young woman than having anactual conversation with his daughter. Frank Fitts is too busy making surehis son isn’t gay to face his own homosexual issues. Angela Hayes is toopreoccupied in “not being ordinary” to recognize her severe self-imageproblems.
American Beauty is about the importance of family and appreciatingthose who share your life. It’s also about holding on to the values ofyouth and avoiding getting caught up in “The American Dream.” To Mendez,that dream had become like Blake’s industrial revolution; an unseen cancerspreading across our beautiful country.
These two pieces are not only beautiful works of art andentertainment. They succeed in rendering not only the horriblepossibilities of sexual immorality, but also the justifiable fear ofpolitical corruption. They expose the truth to people that have beenblinded by their superiors and made ignorant by society. These works of artmay not in themselves spark a revolution, but they create discussion thatmay eventually invoke change.