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When examining the characteristics of a matriarch and the type of woman one might consider proper for the role, the many first ladies of the United States over the past two centuries come to mind. A matriarch will guide her family throughout decades providing unwavering strength and support during the most celebrated times, and she will stand firm with her loved ones during the most difficult of times. First ladies certainly do fit the profile. Most matriarchs do not experience the same level of notoriety and exposure as a first lady, nor do they desire such. Nevertheless, the role of matriarch is relatively the same for each woman who holds the unofficial title. Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch in The Glass Menagerie, takes the responsibility quite seriously and very annoyingly attempts to instruct her two grown children at every turn. Linda Loman, the matriarch in Death of a Salesman, is another personality altogether. The only female in her family of four, Linda joyfully strives to keep the peace between her unpredictable husband and her two grown sons. While both Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and Linda in Death of a Salesman depict a matriarch who is attempting to hold a household together, they each possess vast differences in how they speak to their family, their actions and behaviors toward the people they care for most, and their motives in attempting to guide their loved ones. By comparing and contrasting these two characters, the viewers of the respective plays discern the differing motivations of the two women, that understanding the motivation of the two mothers helps the viewer have a better understanding of each of these characters, and in turn the plays.
Amanda is the most dynamic character in the drama, The Glass Menagerie. She exudes, quite effortlessly, an annoying and charismatic caricature of herself who dominates most of the conversations with her children, Tom and Laura. More often than not, Tom and Laura simply sit quietly allowing their mother to ramble on with her nonsensical lectures. Although Amanda’s intent is to guide and instruct her children, her manner of speaking to them is increasingly intrusive, controlling, and in many instances, unnecessary: “Honey, don’t push with your fingers. If you have to push with something, the thing to push with is a crust of bread. And chew !chew!” (Williams 1383, sc. 1). A mother instructing her grown son how to properly eat as if he were a small child is simply absurd. The language Amanda uses throughout the drama reflects her sometimes ridiculous and unrealistic expectations of her children. When Laura stands to help clear the dinner table Amanda stops her and says, “Resume your seat, little sister, I want you to stay fresh and pretty for gentlemen callers” (1383, sc. 1). When Laura reluctantly informs Amanda that she will not be having any gentlemen callers, the viewer must be wondering if the mother and daughter have ever spoken about such things. Amanda, before she even broaches the subject, knows there will be no gentlemen calling on Laura. Nevertheless, Laura’s predictable revelation certainly provides an opportunity for Amanda to tell, yet again, the age old story of her own busy schedule with gentlemen callers when she was young. Amanda’s continuous reminiscing about her popularity as a young girl could be viewed as boasting and insensitive to Laura who, at twenty-three years of age, has never had a gentleman caller. One might also consider it thoughtless for Amanda to verbally compare her own positive experiences to Laura’s inexperience. Amanda’s dialogue with Tom and Laura is maddening to the viewer. L. Elisabeth Beattie concurs in her perception of the conversation: “Instead of acknowledging her children as individuals both gifted and flawed, she subconsciously denies them their humanity by insisting on their perfection” (Beattie, par. 10). Perhaps Amanda’s intent in retelling the story is to illustrate the importance of having a man as a means of support and a secure future, or maybe Amanda is simply careless with her words and gets carried away when recalling her past. Whatever the intent, Laura is clearly hurt by her mother’s words.
How it works
Linda Loman is certainly not the most dynamic character in Death of a Salesman. However, she is definitely the most loyal and patient person in her family. Linda’s optimism shines through in most of her dialogue throughout the drama. With intelligent reasoning and in obvious contrast to Amanda, Linda chooses her words very carefully when speaking to Willy and her sons. An example is in Robert C. Evans’ examination of the play wherein he relates,
Linda almost always manages to mix reason with kindness, wisdom with love. But sometimes her love can be tough love: “You’re such a boy! You think you can go away for a year and…” (194). Here she is judgmental but also restrained and even affectionate (imagine the difference if she had said “You’re always so stupid”). By calling Biff a “boy” she rebukes him fairly gently.
Linda speaks to her sons firmly but in truth and always with their father’s honor in mind. She is respectful in her language when speaking to her sons about Willy, who by the most liberal of standards and considering his behavior toward Linda, does not appear to deserve such respect. Biff’s attitude toward his flawed father is such that he merely tolerates being in Willy’s presence, and Linda is clearly disturbed by the notion: “No. You can’t just come to see me, because I love him. He’s the dearest man in the world to me, and I won’t have anyone making him feel unwanted and low and blue” (1203). Although Linda is aware of Willy’s many imperfections and undesirable character traits, she certainly will not stand for Biff to speak ill of his father. Not only does she defend Willy’s honor, she will go on to defend her sons’ questionable actions and decisions to Willy. Linda is the perpetual peacemaker.
Amanda’s actions in the drama reveal that she is choosing not to live in the reality of her present status as an abandoned wife whose lifestyle is somewhat meager compared to that of her youth as a southern belle with material benefits. Amanda recalls often her youthful memories which could be viewed an escape from her grim financial and social situation. She insists on living in a dream world where a stable home life with security for Laura is within reach. Most of Amanda’s actions revolve around that dream. In fact, after Tom is finally able to secure a gentleman caller for Laura, Amanda’s peculiar actions in preparation for the upcoming event prove to be quite telling: ‘“Amanda dresses and acts as if the gentleman is calling for her: “She wears a girlish frock of yellowed voile with a blue silk sash. She carries a bunch of jonquils—the legend of her youth is nearly revived”’ (Domina, par. 5). Amanda’s excitement is expected, but her behavior is that of a woman who is thinking more of herself and not what is best for her daughter. It is also interesting that a portrait of the man who abandoned his family still hangs on the wall of Amanda’s home. Amanda apparently made the decision long ago for the portrait to remain in sight serving as a constant reminder of the importance of a husband.
Linda’s actions in the drama reveal she is more concerned with her husband’s feelings of self-worth than her own feelings of being lied to and trampled on. It is apparent that Willy lies; he not only omits the information about his affair with another woman, but he exaggerates his sales commission. After revealing his commission is somewhat less than the $212.00 he stated moments earlier, Linda dismisses the fib so as not to hurt her husband’s pride: “Well, it makes seventy dollars and some pennies. That’s very good (1194). Linda’s selfless deed for the sake of Willy’s pride is at the very least commendable. Linda continues to disregard Willy’s “little white lies” and exaggerations and is content to appear naïve and clueless rather than express to her husband that she is aware of his exasperating behavior. Linda does, however, deliver an unexpected and harsh lecture to Biff and Happy when she scolds them for carelessly leaving Willy alone at the restaurant: “Linda eventually responds to her sons with scathing disrespect…because she assumes they chose to accompany prostitutes rather than fulfill their dinner plans with their father (Domina, par. 9). Again, it is apparent that Linda’s main concern while speaking to the other characters in the drama is Willy’s self-esteem and his emotional wellbeing.
A character’s motivation in a drama is reflected in the speech and actions that are used to convey the character’s thoughts and intentions. Williams created a character in Amanda whose motivation, above all, is to make sure her shy daughter Laura is well taken care of. This seems to be the driving force throughout the entire drama. Olivera Kusovac and Jelena Pralas in their collaborative review of the drama agree, “Amanda obsessively resorts to finding Laura a husband as her last hope (par. 23). Although Amanda is not aware of Tom’s imminent plans to leave home, she does know that he is not happy. She also realizes that it is only a matter of time before Tom will execute his plans for a future that does not involve living at home with his mother and sister. So Amanda feels she must encourage Tom to enlist gentlemen callers for Laura so that her future is secured. L.M. Domina in her analysis of the play also agrees, “Amanda … longs for a stable family structure, that is, a stable means of support for her daughter…Amanda desires that Laura find a suitable husband, one who will not drink excessively, who will find excitement enough in a conventional career and family” (par. 3).
Amanda is concerned about Tom’s future and encourages him to do better for himself, but she offers no specific desires for his future except insisting that he not drink alcohol and become like his father.
Linda’s motivation throughout the entire play is to demonstrate loyalty and respect to Willy and be the peacemaker between her husband and sons. She does wish for a more stable, independent life for her sons, but in reality, it is all about Willy: “Linda believes that if her sons become successful then Willy’s fragile psyche will heal itself. She…believes her sons (Biff in particular) are the only hope for Willy’s sanity (Bradford, par. 9). Williams formed the character of Linda into a selfless, insightful matriarch who has more of a grasp on the meaning of true humanism than any of the other characters in the drama.
Amanda in The Glass Menagerie is driven by a desire to secure a future for her awkward grown daughter; although she means well, her tactless language and her eccentric actions prove to be emotionally hurtful to both Tom and Laura. In contrast, Linda in Death of a Salesman does not speak harshly to anyone except to defend her husband’s honor. She is intentionally optimistic throughout much of the drama and displays self-sacrificing actions for the sake of her husband. Both Amanda and Linda feel a great sense of responsibility for maintaining the family, but each has significant differences in their approach in fulfilling that obligation.
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