Representation of the Past in Williams' and Ishiguro's Works: Analytical Essay

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Both Williams and Ishiguro present the past as an escape but also portray different attitudes about the past within their respective texts. They explore themes such as family, relationships and memories but the focus is on the past. Williams, in ‘the memory play’ focuses on Tom, his guilt and regret fuelled past, perhaps wanting to explain his reason for leaving his ‘unmarried and crippled sister’, the same regret Williams felt as he left his sister Rose. And in many ways, it can be argued that Kathy, in ‘Never Let Me Go’ also seeks the same redemption that Tom does, perhaps for being passive, and not being able to appreciate her friends while they were still alive.

For Kathy and to an extent Tom, the past is presented as being an escape. Ishiguro depicts Kathy as being surrounded by an electrified fence, and although we know that “the fences at Hailsham aren’t electrified” it nonetheless suppresses Kathy and the others. The use of setting demonstrates Kathy’s psyche and implies that she and the other clones are trapped and isolated. As a result the past becomes an escape from the grim reality that faces Kathy as she prepares to have her organs harvested ‘ for the good of mankind’. The “fences” are symbolic of the oppression of clones but also Kathy’s own inability to move on from the past as she becomes increasingly isolated with the deaths of Tommy and Ruth. This is to perhaps highlight the same isolation Ishiguro felt as he migrated from Japan to Britain in 1960. Williams also depicts the same isolation, as Tom is isolated and forced to work in a job he hates but his escape is not in the past but in his ambition for the future and the movies.

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However in ‘The Glass Menagerie’, the past is not an escape but rather a way for Tom to appreciate his present life, and having escaped his past, it allows him to look forward to his future. On the other hand, the past is a way for Kathy to escape her present and future, as she finds solace in her memories. These contradicting views of the past mirror that of society on World War Two, as some deemed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as unnecessary and evil, while others held the view that it was a necessary evil, as it demonstrated the destruction and evil that can be caused by nuclear weapons. The same contradicting views of the past are also presented in ‘Never Let Me Go’, this is because the “collection” symbolises childhood, the past, and memories of Hailsham, Kathy keeps her “collection” while Ruth throws it out, evoking the idea that Kathy is unable to let go of the past. Although Ruth throws out her collection, it is only when faced with death that she regrets her decision, as she let go too soon while Kathy held on for too long.

For the past to be dead it would imply that the remembrance of it ceases, and the past is let go. In both texts, that isn’t the case and the past is the main theme and Kathy is unable to let go of the past due to the recent deaths of her close friends, and perhaps the remembrance of her time in hailsham comforts her. Perhaps Kathy’s fixation on the past is a way for her to deal with her lack of a future, seeing her fellow Hailsham peers harvested one by one, paints a grim image of reality and her future as she becomes isolated and alone. The same comfort Kathy gets from her memories can also be extended to Tom in ‘TGM’, perhaps the past reminds him and the audience of his dreadful life helping to explain his reasons as he comes to terms with his decision to abandon his family. Towards the end of the play, Tom instructs Laura to “blow out [her] candles” which symbolises Tom’s departure and connotes a happy atmosphere but that happiness is juxtaposed with the sorrow Laura feels as Amanda “comforts her daughter and she glances a moment at the father’s picture”, both Laura and Amanda abandoned by men whom they placed their trust in. The ‘candle’ represents the time Tom had with his family and the blowing of it connotes change, rebirth and for Tom, freedom and as much as Tom wants to break free from his family he also wants Laura to forget him, perhaps more so out of guilt and shame than love for his sister. This reflects Williams’ later life as he was consumed by alcoholism, depression and loneliness perhaps because he was homosexual in an era unwelcoming of homosexuality and felt abandoned both by his family and society.

Kathy is able to keep the past ‘alive’ by ignoring her present life, as she becomes more and more isolated to the point the past becomes her present, almost like the idea that ‘life flashes before your eyes’, Kathy turns that flash into a long and bright torch that overshadows her present and limited future. Kathy states that “driving around the country now, I still see things that will remind me of Hailsham” which suggests that Kathy is constantly focused on the past, and yearns to go back. Hailsham, at least for Kathy represents more than just a place for clones, for Kathy it is home and the only place she felt safe, secure and comfortable and perhaps she hopes to once again feel safe and comfortable. The adjective “driving” implies Kathy is in full control and so she chooses to seek refuge in her memories and hold onto the only thing she can control. It can be argued that Kathy has what very few humans have, purpose, and perhaps it’s this that limits her future, ambition and dreams, and knowing her purpose, becomes a curse as her ability to dream is taken away, and so she holds onto the past, unlike Tom who is able to dream and escape reality through ‘ the movies’ while Kathy escapes reality through memories. Despite both characters having an ‘escape’ they portray no happiness, Tom is chastised by his mother, and Kathy doesn’t have many happy memories and they are instead arguments and things she has regretted.However, Critic Diane Crimp, believes that “Never Let Me Go” is about how we attempt to run away from the idea of our own mortality” and towards the end of the novel, Ishiguro depicts a sick Miss Emily, in need of a transplant suggesting that the instinct for survival far outweighs the moral implications.

The past is als presented as being full of regret as Tom expresses the guilt of leaving his “unmarried and crippled sister”. The past acts as therapy, and by reliving it, both Kathy and Tom are able to overcome their feelings of the past. The adjective “crippled” suggests that Laura was in need of protection and the same way Tom’s father had failed his family, Tom had achieved his ambition at the expense of his sister, and Tom’s departure meant that as the breadwinner he had crippled his mother as well as his sister. The adjective “unmarried” reminds the reader of the societal expectations of women in Southern America as Amanda’s main goal is to get Laura married and settled. Twentieth century feminist critics would disagree with Amanda as seeks make her daughter a housewife. Tom and his attitudes to his family and the past reflect that of Williams, and Tony Coult suggests that “in one sense, the whole play is a dramatized apology to his sister Laura (and by extension to Rose Williams)”.

For female characters in ‘The Glass Menagerie’, the past is presented as the best of life thus far. Laura often fantasises about Jim and just like Kathy, she is unable to let go and is fixated on the past. Additionally, “Jim, just like Amanda, spends excessive time discussing both the glory days of his past and his dreams for the future”. Williams’ use of the verb “glory” indicates that Amanda is past her peak in terms of looks and age and now amounts to nothing more than a mother. Jim also feels the same, once being revered but now he is just an ordinary worker. Although Tom of his own accord left his family, they are forever in his mind. Critic Nathan Bui suggests that “Amanda has become disillusioned by her husband’s desertion, how Laura has become frail because of her defect, and the impact of Tom’s decision at the end of the play, it is obvious that Tennesse Williams portrays women in The Glass Menagerie as victims of disillusionment and society’s views on gender roles”. Jim’s mispronunciation of “pleurosis” as “blue roses” creates the illusion of romance and makes Laura feel as though she is special. The breaking of the unicorn’s horn symbolises the damage that Jim has caused and demonstrates how powerless Tom was in protecting his sister. This is to perhaps mirror how powerless Williams felt when his sister was lobotomised.

To conclude, to say that there is only one view on the past is too simplistic as there are many attitudes to the past, which are impacted by the author’s life which helps to explain the similarities and differences. Literature often explores the impact of the past on characters and Ishiguro and Williams are no different despite being from different time periods, highlighting the fact that the past is such a vast theme that there is no one attitude, and sometimes opinions overlap, which demonstrates how attitudes to the past haven’t changed, the same way the past changes the characters, it also changes the reader’s perspective and paints both texts in a new light.


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