Emotional Damage to the Three Weston Daughters in August: Osage County

In Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County, each of the Weston daughters—Barb, Ivy, and Karen—shows evidence of deeply rooted emotional damage. A large amount of the emotional damage the girls have can be attributed to their upbringing, and being treated so harshly by their mother, Violet. Although all three daughters experience emotional damage at the hands of their mother, each reacts differently to it, and the repercussions of the emotional damage manifests themselves in varying ways in each daughter.

The youngest of the Weston daughters, Karen, displays emotional damage because of the lack of attention she received from Violet as a child. Violet’s neglect of Karen appears multiple times during the dinner scene. The first time occurs when Violet mentions the sideboard in her dining room. She initially addresses Barb, asking, “you have any interest in that?” (Letts 86). When Barb does not express interest, Violet turns to Ivy, who says the same thing. Throughout the conversation, Karen intermittently says that she thinks the sideboard is “really pretty” (Letts 86). However, she receives no acknowledgment and is passed over by her mother. This interaction shows Karen’s underlying need to be noticed by her mother, because of the lack of attention she has received her entire life. Another instance of Karen’s emotional distress occurs in Act III, when Violet tells the girls the story about the boots. Karen dotes on her mother when, “Violet sits, exhales. Karen picks up a hand cream from the bedside table, rubs it on her hands” (Letts 106). This action shows that Karen is still trying get on her mother’s good side, even as a grown woman. Later on in the same scene, Violet tells the girls that, “my momma was a nasty, mean old lady. I suppose that’s where I get it from” (Letts 107). Karen sweetly replies, “You’re not nasty-mean. You’re our mother an we love you” (Letts 107). Karen’s deep-seated emotional damage is present here because although Violet had spent the afternoon verbally eviscerating each member of the family, Karen still tells her mother she is not nasty —however untrue that may be— to get on good terms with her. The emotional damage Violet inflicted upon Karen in her childhood is also evident in Karen’s past love life. Karen speaks of a man named Andrew, with whom she used to be involved. He would verbally berate her and cheat on her, but Karen would tell herself, “No, you love him, you love him forever, and here’s an opportunity to make an adjustment in the way you view the world” (Letts 59). Andrew almost directly mirrors Violet and how she acts towards Karen, and because Karen tries so desperately to be loved by her mother regardless of her abusive tendencies, she does not understand that that is not how one should be treated by another human. Steve then enters Karen’s life afterwards, and is yet another mistake. Karen seems to be drawn to cruel people as a repercussion of her chasing her cruel mother’s love her entire life. Violet’s neglect of Karen rooted emotional damage deep within her psyche, and ultimately altered Karen into a co-dependent and spineless woman.

Ivy—the middle Weston daughter—experiences her own type of emotional damage at the hands of Violet, but in a contradictory way to Karen, and yields different consequences as well. Ivy is the only daughter that stays in Oklahoma to take care of her parents, and because of this, she has much more face-to-face contact with her mother. Contrary to Karen’s lack of attention from her mother, Ivy gets the majority of her mother’s attention because she stayed close to home. The overexposure to Violet that Ivy is exposed to creates a very subdued exterior in Ivy. In Act I, Violet begins to interrogate Ivy about Barb and her side of the family. Ivy replies in very succinct, necessary words, not giving any extra information than what is needed. Violet then begins to berate Ivy, calling her “hopeless” and a “schlub” (Letts 25). Violet’s volatile temperament is directed towards Ivy so often that it begins to wear her self-image down. Constantly being called names and having her appearance bashed takes its toll on Ivy, though not as obviously as would have been thought. Later on in the play, it is shown that Ivy is a very passionate and caring woman when her relationship with Little Charles is introduced. Ivy’s subdued exterior comes from the emotional damage of years of Violet’s harsh words. Ivy has learned to remain calm and she does not try to defend herself or question her mother, because she knows that that will only spur her mother’s wrath on further. Violet has inflicted so much emotional damage on Ivy that it has turned her presence from a passionate and lively woman to a quiet and reclusive one. Ivy also seems to absorb some of the disdain her mother aims at her. In the beginning of Act III, Ivy makes it very clear to her sisters that she does not “feel that [sisterly] connection very keenly,” and only considers them to be “accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more” (Letts 102). Ivy’s emotional distance from her sisters is due to underlying anger, because she “resents the responsibility she’s had to take for watching over the horror of her parents’ latter years” (Isherwood). Violet’s neglect of Karen may have turned her into a more out-spoken and dependent person, but Ivy suffered overexposure to Violet, and in the end became a shell of herself.

Barbara, or Barb, is the oldest Weston daughter, and displays her emotional damage in ways completely unique to those of her two sisters. In Act II, Bill describes Barb, telling her, “You’re thoughtful, Barbara, but you’re not open. You’re passionate but you’re hard. You’re a good, decent, funny, wonderful woman…but you’re a pain in the ass” (Letts 77). However harsh, such descriptors can only be expected of Barb, given her status as oldest child. Barb undoubtedly shouldered the burden of being the oldest child, and was expected to act as a role model to her younger sisters, especially when Violet had her fits. Barb’s emotional damage runs deeper than it does in her sisters, and manifests itself as a power complex. The most evident example of Barb’s power complex occurs at the tail end of Act II, when Barb physically tears a pill bottle from her crying mother’s hands and screams at her, “I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!” (Letts 97). This quote may seem straight-forward in meaning, but the underlying connotation is much heavier. In the context of the scene, this line denotes that power has shifted from Violet to Barb, ultimately transforming Barb into a newer version of her mother. This tone shift at the end of Act II sets up the subsequent events in the rest of the play. A more disguised example of Barb’s need for power happens directly after Steve is found harassing Jean in the middle of the night. When Barb and Bill approach the scene, they are distraught about what happened and immediately begin asking Jean what is going on. Jean repeatedly tells them that nothing happened, and asks, “what’s the big deal?” (Letts 120). When Bill tells her that her only being fourteen is the big deal, she replies with, “Which is only a few years younger than you like them” (Letts 120). Barbara slaps Jean for this comment, sending her daughter crying into the house. Although Jean said nothing derogatory to Barb, and was, in a deluded way, standing up for her mother, Jean’s comment is interpreted as a blow to Barb’s inability to keep Bill from cheating on her. Barb cannot stand that she looks ridiculous because Bill is involved with another woman, and tries to shut down Jean’s ridicule of her. Barb’s reaction further proves that the emotional damage she suffered as a child and as a grown woman has caused her to develop a strong power complex.

Each Weston daughter suffers severe emotional damage, whether it be at the hands of their mother Violet, or by the people that came into their lives later on. Karen’s lack of attention morphed her into a very dependent woman who always needs a man in her life. Ivy’s over-exposure to her mother and her verbal assaults transformed Ivy from a passionate and happy woman into a subdued and cautious one. Barb’s pressure of being the oldest daughter in the Weston family caused her to develop a deep power complex, one that appears to gradually grow throughout the play. In Act III, Ivy says to Barb: “Well…that’s not true. You weren’t [Beverly’s] favorite. I was. You’re mom’s favorite” (Letts 104). This quote perfectly exemplifies the unbalanced dynamic between the Weston girls and their mother, the most hurtful and heartbreaking factor in the emotional damage each daughter carries.

Comparison of Settings between The Glass Menagerie and August: Osage County

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and August: Osage County by Tracy Letts are two emotionally-charged plays about dysfunctional families in the 20th century. While the plays take place in very different settings and time periods, both households are affected similarly by their settings. In both plays, the setting seems boring and hopeless to some characters, causing them to escape by any means possible – both physically and emotionally.

The Glass Menagerie revolves around three main characters living in New Orleans – Tom, the warehouse worker protagonist who wants desperately to escape his overbearing household and find adventure; Laura, his ‘crippled’ sister who emotionally escapes by collecting glass animals and listening to old records; and Amanda, their seemingly overbearing mother. Amanda’s attempts to push her children towards success usually backfire, leading to Laura’s typing school failure and ‘gentleman caller’ who turned out to already be engaged. For most of the play, Tom drinks and sees movies as forms of escape. By the end, he leaves and joins the Merchant Marines – similar to his father, who abruptly abandoned the family when Tom and Laura were children.

August: Osage County takes place in rural Osage County, Oklahoma. When Beverly, the patriarch of the household, disappears and commits suicide, his wife (Violet) gathers the entire family to sort out her problems while their Native American maid takes care of the house. Violet is unkind to her family and very unstable, especially while she abuses prescription opioids. Her only daughter to stay in Osage County is Ivy, who feels neglected and eventually runs away with her half-brother and love affair, Little Charles (who she believes to be her cousin until Violet reveals it to her). Mattie Fay, Violet’s sister and the wife of Charles Sr., gradually takes charge of the family in a power struggle with Violet. Other characters include Karen, who is engaged to Steve; Barbara, who is married to Bill; and Jean, a rebellious teenager and the daughter of Barbara and Bill. By the end of the play, everyone has abandoned Violet for various reasons, leaving her alone with Johnna, her Native American caretaker.

The setting of The Glass Menagerie does not seem particularly isolated, since the Wingfield family lives in the city of New Orleans. Instead, it is the characters’ actions and attitudes that make the apartment feel isolated. Amanda seems to remain stuck in the past throughout the play, recounting her glory days to her children: “One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain – your mother received – seventeen – gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all” (Williams 8). Laura seems to have isolated herself with her own avoidant behavior. Amanda tells Laura about her avoidance: “I don’t understand you, Laura. You couldn’t be satisfied with just sitting home, and yet whenever I try to arrange something for you, you seem to resist it” (Williams 52). Meanwhile, Tom often describes his boredom and feelings that he’s wasting his life: “You could see them kissing behind ash pits and telephone poles. This was compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure. Adventure and change were imminent this year” (Williams 39).

In August: Osage County, the setting is geographically isolated and somewhat desolate. It can be inferred that the boring area is why Karen and Barbara moved far away when they grew up. However, it seems that Violet and Beverly isolated themselves over the years while abusing their drugs of choice: “Mattie Fae pulls back a set of drapes, finds the light is blocked by shades sealed with tape. MATTIE FAE (CONT’D) ‘Ivy, when did this start? This business with taping the shades?’ IVY ‘Been a couple of years now.’ Mattie Fae starts peeling off the tape. MATTIE FAE ‘Is it that long since we’ve been here?’ CHARLIE ‘Do you know its purpose? You can’t tell if it’s night or day.’ IVY ‘I think that’s the purpose’” (Letts 17-18). Meanwhile, the author uses imagery that describes and emphasizes the household’s isolation from the outside world: “And now we see the full beauty of the land, the distant horizon, the high cumulus clouds, the endless blue sky. Barb and Violet two dots, lost in the unforgiving prairie” (Letts 106).

While both plays focus on drama and turmoil within families caused by isolation within the household, they use different types of isolation in their settings. In The Glass Menagerie, the main characters are isolated psychologically despite living in the middle of a major city. While Tom escapes at the end by leaving his family (taking after his father), he spent most of the play ‘escaping’ by drinking and staying out all night at the movies. Similarly, Laura and Amanda use coping mechanisms such as collecting glass animals and telling stories from the glory days, respectively. Meanwhile in August: Osage County, the characters are primarily isolated by geography and internal conflict. Violet and Beverly resign themselves to drinking and abusing opioids, but the rest of the family gradually abandons Violet because of various conflicts. It can be inferred that the reason the family abandons the household in August is because of geographic isolation leading to petty argument and conflict. The Glass Menagerie pits its characters against one another in a similar manner, but the setting of New Orleans is less physically isolating and more behaviorally isolating.