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What Does it Mean to Be a Man Through the Ages?Essay

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¶ … Real Men Explored through Literature

Manhood means different things to different people. Throughout life, maturity often changes our ideas of what it means to be a man. Circumstance, too, becomes an important factor in manhood as boys will be influenced by their fathers one way or another. Some fathers affect their sons with a positive influence while others do not. Manhood, like personhood, also changes with those with whom we choose to surround ourselves. From fathers to wives, manhood becomes complicated because everyone sees it differently. Authors explore this notion, looking behind the causes and consequences associated with being a man. Richard Wright, James Joyce, John Updike, William Faulkner, Bel Kaufman and James Thurber present us with characters having different notions of manhood, forcing us to consider how the notion changes over the years. Undoubtedly, the idea of being a man changes over time, moving from weak to tough with only the strongest surviving.

Manhood faces complications because it cannot be directly related to one particular person or event. It is literally different with each person and their life experience. Boys will grow up emulating what the male role models taught them. This is not always a good thing and then it is up to the boys to determine if their role models were poor examples of manhood or not. Making this decision requires clarity and common sense. Boys with difficult fathers face extraordinary difficulties when reaching for manhood because they must look elsewhere for guidance. Two stories illustrating these difficulties are "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" and "Barn Burning." In "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," published in 1960, we see how the young man is attempting to reach beyond racial dividing lines. Dave wants be a man and he associates being a man with owning gun. We read, "One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they can't talk to him as though he were a little boy" (1788). Here we see how Dave thinks others will see him as a man if he carries a gun. Dave is so convinced his image will improve he begs Mr. Joe in desperation for a catalog. Mr. Joe says, "You ain't nothing but a boy. You don't need a gun" (1788). Dave's mother agrees Dave is too young to own a gun but he rejects this idea, saying, "But Ma, we needs gun. Pa ain got no gun. We needa gun in the house. Yuh kin never tell whut might happen" (1790). Dave is sincere in his belief that having a gun will change him but he mistakenly believes a gun will transform him. Sarah Hardy points out, "Armed with a gun, Dave believes that he will no longer be scared. He will be powerful and respected" (Hardy). He believes manhood comes equipped with a weapon. He is undoubtedly defining manhood by the wrong measure. In "Barn Burning," published in 1928, Sarty looks for manhood as well but he looks for it in a different direction. Along with his familial influence, Sarty is also dealing with what it means to be a black man in a white man's world. Sarty lives in conflict with his father because of how his father behaves. Sarty does not understand his father and he wants his family to have a normal home and life and he wants this life to begin at the de Spain residence. An older Sarty realizes this new life was a dream, saying, "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again" (477). Faulkner touches on realizations we all experience with age and how they can bring purpose to our lives if we are willing to be open and learn. Karl Zender says these moments are "best be understood privatively" (Zender) and this is how Sarty attempts to work all of these issues. Sarty is self-controlled because he does not want to be like his dad but this could lead to denial. Susan Yunis suggests Sarty may not know he is angry. Sarty will not accept his father's way of life. It is interesting to note that he is the only one of the family who is able to act on his own conscience. Sarty and Dave are in similar situations because they are reaching for manhood. They have contrasting views of what it means to be a man and this stems from their father's behavior.

Manhood is often romanticized by men and women alike. Boys often fantasize about what it is like being a man and this includes making brave and noble gestures. In "Araby," published in 1914, the young man's catalyst for becoming a man is Mangan. The young boy is becoming a man at the turn of the century. He lives in Ireland where Joyce intimates things can get quite dull. The boy needs something to look forward to and he is entering puberty, so a girl is just what the proverbial doctor ordered. In the beginning of the story, he is in love with a charming girl but by the end of the tale, he sees the truth. This story reflects upon a romanticized notion of what it means to be a man because they boy is infatuated and believes in the magical quality of love between two people. It is reminiscent of the days of chivalry where the young boy wants to capture the young girl's heart and live happily ever after. The boy thinks of the girl "in places most hostile to romance" (Joyce 691), which is an indication of infatuation. Time reveals the truth, however, as the girl becomes more real at the bazaar. The bazaar is not the romantic rendezvous he hopes for at all. In fact, reality is a tough blow because it destroys the image of the girl and the image of love at the same time. When the boy realizes his foolishness, he thinks he is a "creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger" (694). In this tale becoming a man means swallowing a certain amount of pride and facing reality. In "A and P," published in 1961, we see a similar kind of infatuation with Sammy. He, too, wants to be some kind of hero in his little world and he is living in a society that is all about freedom of expression. America in the 1950s was safe and secure for the most part. While he does not have a single source of infatuation like the boy in "Araby," he has the same kind of romantic notion with impressing women. He hopes standing up to his boss will bring him some kind of glory. Ronald MacFarland believes Sammy achieves a "certain degree of heroism not so much by his gesture, which initially appears to be selfishly motivated rather than a defense of principle, but by his insistence upon going through with it even after the girls have left" (MacFarland). This is true to an extent because Sammy keeps moving even though he knows the consequences are steep. Sammy becomes closer to becoming a man. He wants to teach his boss a lesson but he also learns one. Corey Thompson says that Sammy does not become the kind of hero he wants to be. Quitting "offers him the perfect opportunity to free himself from his dead-end job" (Thompson) and while this does not make him a man, it allows him to take advantage of an "opportunity to free himself from the responsibility-filled life that he desperately wants to avoid" (Thompson). Sammy is willing to learn from his actions and he readily accepts the consequences because he does beg Lengel for another chance., Sammy is impulsive because he hopes to impress the girls and be their "unsuspected hero" (Updike 1420). Sammy learns that things rarely work out as planned and the best thing a man can do when this happens is walk with his head held high. Sammy learns being a man comes in small doses, with each experience different from the one before.

Manly strength is an idea proving to be difficult to harness because it can be defined in so many different ways. All men want to be perceived as strong but achieving this is not easy as we see with Walter in James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," published in 1939, and Morton in Bel Kaufman's "Sunday at the Park," published in 1985. Some men are too strong and become domineering types or bullies. Other men are not strong enough. There is no clear-cut definition of what it means to be strong is a healthy sense, as different societies will have different definitions. In addition, men and women will often have differing viewpoints about this topic. One thing is clear: when women begin to dictate to the men in their lives their strengths and weaknesses, there is trouble. Men who are not strong enough to confront domineering women are… [END OF PREVIEW]

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