King Lear, All My Sons, We Need to Talk About Kevin: a Shortage in Perception as a Common Theme
Parents’ lack of insight into their offspring is integral to ‘King Lear’, ‘All My Sons’, and ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, as the actions of the children affect the fatal outcomes of the texts. In the texts, the fathers’ inabilities to realise the true nature of their children leads to serious misjudgements, and ultimately, the demise of each family. Lear, Joe Keller and Franklin are all metaphorically blind to their situations and their desire to be admired by their children that they fail to see their offspring’s true personalities through false pretences, or, how they may influence their children’s’ behaviour.
Shakespeare presents Lear, the protagonist, as a typical Greek tragic hero whom is left vulnerable as a consequence of his actions. Lear’s lack of insight into the consequences of his actions makes him a tragic hero, with his fall from power being due to poor judgement. Whilst his intentions for dividing the kingdom may have been honourable (“that future strife may be prevented now”), his egotistical need for self-validation is shown in Act 1, where Lear intends to divide the kingdom according to which daughter claims to love him the most. He questions Cordelia, Goneril and Regan with “Which of you shall we say doth love us most…?” The first person plural pronoun, ‘us’, reinforces his egotistical nature. Metaphorically blinded by the ‘importance’ of his children loving him, Lear trusts Goneril and Regan to declare their unconditional love for him, only to be abandoned by them during Act 1. Despite the expectation to love his daughters unconditionally, his conditions for the division of the kingdom exemplify how his lack of insight is responsible for his narcissistic and hubristic nature, which is evident in his desire to love and be loved. By posing this question to his daughters, he is eventually stripped of his powerful and privileged position, and is left physically and mentally frail due to the trials he faces because of his two tyrannical eldest daughters. Furthermore, his decision to pit the sisters against each other also reinforces his lack of insight, as he unknowingly encourages sibling rivalry between them. Critic, Northrop Fyre argues that Lear’s demands for them to display their love for him causes the sisters to “have to be on their guard to stop him from ever having the power to do to them what he’s just done to Cordelia”. Their spontaneous decision to protect themselves is due to Lear’s lack of insight and, therefore, the sisters treat Lear harshly, inverting the natural order. This is shown at the end of Act 1, Scene 1, when Goneril says to Regan “We must do something, and i’ th’ heat” aiming to strike Lear whilst he is in a weakened mental state (which is a result of his lack of insight in banishing Cordelia). Lear’s treatment of his daughters thus means that it is this lack of insight that leads to great repercussions later on in the play.
Additionally, as ‘King Lear’ follows the structure of ‘Freytag’s pyramid’, the evidence of his lack of insight occurs during the exposition and the rising action of the play, emphasising its significance to the plot. The rising action is caused by Lear himself in his decision to split his kingdom, causing Goneril and Regan to fool him into a false sense of admiration, leading to the banishment of Cordelia and also to Lear’s downfall. The climax and falling action of the play focuses on the impact that Lear’s lack of insight into his children has on the family dynamic, as well as the stability of the kingdom, as this lack of judgement is integral to the eventual tragic outcome of the play.
Similarly, the use of Greek tragedy is evident in ‘All My Sons’. From the outset, it is clear that the play adheres to the three classic unities: unity of time, place and action. The events of the play all take place within a 24 hour time period, it is set in the Keller’s’ backyard, and the action is focused on the family’s relationships against the background of the deaths of twenty one pilots. Miller’s use of the unities creates an artificially ‘safe’ environment which appears to protect the Keller family from reality. Joe Keller, who is particularly comfortable in this environment, is distanced from the reality of his involvement in the pilots’ deaths, who became casualties of his decision to export faulty cylinder heads. He therefore convinces himself that he is not responsible for their deaths or for the disappearance of his missing son, Larry. This lack of willingness to accept responsibility is emphasised when Joe says to his older son, Chris in Act 1, “I ignore what I gotta ignore”. Evidence of such a lack of insight suggests that he has always lulled himself into a false sense of security, failing to acknowledge how his actions could affect others, particularly his children. Additionally, Joe conforms to the traditional Greek role of the ‘tragic hero’. Like Lear, Joe’s overwhelming pride and ignorance leads to his failure to recognise the moral implications of his actions and how his lack of insight contributed to the deaths of the twenty one pilots and, inadvertently, his own son.
Similarly, Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ contains elements of traditional Greek tragedy, which enhances the importance of lack of insight. For example, Kevin’s actions are not completely dissimilar to the tragic Greek hero, Oedipus’. Like Oedipus, Kevin kills his father (and sister), before going on to commit a massacre at his high school. However, unlike Oedipus (who had no realisation that the people involved were his parents), Kevin knows exactly who he is hurting. As a result, Franklin’s complete lack of insight into how his son would eventually go on to shoot him with the present he bought for him emphasises how he underestimated what his son could do. Similar to Oedipus’s father, King Laius, Franklin becomes the ‘tragic hero’ of the novel as, despite his best efforts to raise Kevin as the typical ‘happy-go-lucky’ American son, he becomes subject to his own ignorance by failing to acknowledge Kevin’s true nature during his childhood, meaning that he fails to anticipate the by-product of this willingness to turn a blind eye.
Additionally, Franklin is ‘metaphorically blind’, and therefore lacks insight into Kevin’s behaviour. He strongly insists on Kevin being an innocent, loving child, whilst accusing Eva of being a bad mother to Kevin, as she continually argues that Kevin intentionally causes harm to himself and others. Franklin strives for the ‘American Dream’, obsessed with the idea of being a family man so much that he is therefore completely blind to the realities of what his son is capable. His liberal attitude to parenting means that whenever Eva (who has a much more conservative approach) insinuates that anything is wrong, he lashes out at her, insisting that she is the problem, not Kevin. This evident lack of insight into Kevin’s personality clearly contributes to his son’s high school massacre. By purchasing a bow and arrow for his Christmas present, Franklin, both physically and metaphorically, armed his son with a weapon that he would ironically later use to murder the person who gave it to him. Additionally, by choosing not to acknowledge any misbehaviour from his son as a serious issue, Kevin’s manipulative and destructive behaviour is condoned and reinforced by Franklin’s support and dismissal of Eva’s warnings. Zoë Green; a critic of the text, supports this, arguing that in some ways, “Franklin’s continued optimism in the face of the obvious is more sinister than Kevin’s devious destructiveness.” It is this ‘deliberate blindness’ that prevents Kevin’s misbehaviour from being taken seriously, again highlighting Franklin’s complete lack of insight into how his actions pave the way for Kevin to commit the atrocities that take place at the end of the play.
However, lack of insight can also be seen from Eva too, as she made it clear through her behaviour whilst pregnant, that she was not ready to become a mother. For instance, activities such as listening to Psycho Killer by Talking Heads, suggest Eva was ‘feeding Kevin bad thoughts’, without thinking of the repercussions on her unborn child. Also, the reader is only subjected to Eva’s point of view through Shriver’s use of an epistolary structure and, with a lack of any other narrative perspective, we are unable to know whether we are reading a biased account of Franklin’s influence on Kevin’s actions. Franklin may be unfairly represented in the novel, meaning that from Eva’s point of view, she may have had a lack of insight into how Franklin could have been trying to rectify Kevin’s behaviour by using a more liberal approach towards him. As Eva herself said “The whole time I was pregnant with Kevin I was battling the idea of Kevin”; therefore, it is obvious that Eva never bonded with her son and therefore was harsher towards him, meaning that Franklin’s influence in Kevin’s upbringing provided some balance. This lack of parental love towards Kevin could also be a product of Eva’s lack of insight into the effects of not forming a proper bond with her child. This lack of a bond is also emphasised by the fact that Eva only agreed to have Kevin to keep Franklin happy and their marriage on track, therefore meaning that she does not truly know what is feels like to be a mother as she has not had the ‘full experience’ of preparing for a baby, again showing her lack of insight into the potential consequences of having a child.
The extended metaphor of metaphorical blindness also runs throughout ‘King Lear’. Lear is ‘blinded’ by his daughters’ false declarations of love as he is taken advantage of them. Shakespeare’s use of imagery related to sight is apparent through the opening scenes of ‘King Lear’. The irony of most of these references being used by Lear himself, such as “Out of my sight!” in Act 1, are used by Shakespeare to represent how Lear is unable to see the truth of the situation, as what he can’t or won’t see ends up destroying him. Kent’s attempts to advise him of his daughters’ true intentions (“Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least”) falls on deaf ears, Lear believing that his daughters would never betray him, expecting them to be dutiful to him as women, daughters and his royal subjects. Goneril and Regan thus subvert the traditional obedient roles of daughters expected of them at the time the play was written (est. 1606), and even more so considering the time setting of the play (8th century BC). By telling Lear to “See better”, Kent vocalises the audience’s thoughts as the dramatic irony of Lear’s lack of insight demonstrates that he cannot see the truth of Goneril and Regan’s actions. Cordelia’s failure to flatter Lear causes him humiliation and, therefore, her disobedience is punished by banishment. Additionally, Lear’s refusal to accept imperatives and advice from individuals of lower status highlights his lack of insight as his hubristic nature makes him view himself as an omnipotent monarch. Consequently, this leads to tragic events later in the play, showing the importance of insight, or a lack of it, when one is in a position of authority.
Metaphorical blindness is also prevalent in ‘All My Sons’. Joe Keller convinces himself that he is not at fault for the deaths of the twenty one pilots by lying to himself and his family, lies which is convinced is the truth. His exoneration causes his son, Chris, to admire him, calling him “Joe McGuts”, reinforcing Joe’s lack of insight as he does not realise the false impression of perfection he creates for his Chris. Subsequently, this perpetuates the pressure for him to sustain this image. Additionally, for three and a half years, Joe places the blame for the shipment of faulty parts on his former partner, Steven Deever, whilst distancing himself from the event, as emphasised by Chris: “You have such a talent for ignoring things”, to which Joe answers, “I ignore what I gotta ignore”. Here, it is clear that Joe only acknowledges what he wants to, therefore rejecting any responsibility for the deaths, as long as he can justify the end result, which is providing for his family. Chris’ quotation could be an attempt to force Joe to confront his conscious ignorance but, as Joe ignores this too, his lack of insight into his children is clearly evident. As previously mentioned, Joe does not consider how his actions affect others, such as the reasons behind Larry’s disappearance, until it is too late. The shock from his realisation of the impacts of his actions at the end of Act 3 overwhelms him, and Joe commits suicide. His lack of insight has a great impact on his relationship with his family and is the reason for Larry’s death and Steven’s incarceration before the play begins. It also creates false impressions of Joe for other characters such as Chris, and eventually leads to a tragic ending. Critic, Masahiro Oikawa, describes Joe and Chris as being the character of Oedipus split in two, contrasting Shriver’s use of Kevin as a modern-day Oedipus. He subverts the typical view of the audience of Joe representing the antagonist, instead focusing on him as a protagonist who has “continued to conquer all difficulties during World War II.” This view suggests that Joe does not have a lack of insight, but rather that he did what was necessary to struggle through 1940s war-time conditions; a sacrifice of his morals was essential in a time where it was ‘every man for himself’.
Another way in which parents’ lack of insight is shown in ‘King Lear’ is through Shakespeare’s reversal of the traditional natural order between parent and child. Lear’s daughters exert power over their father after taking control of everything that originally gave him authority, as opposed to Lear having dominance over them, due to the hierarchy and time of setting. This is best shown by the Fool in Act 1 Scene 4, where he says to Lear “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” This metaphor represents how the natural parent-child relationship has been inverted, with the ‘cart’ now drawing the ‘horse’. Goneril and Regan challenge societal expectations of women by becoming independent and dominant over Lear. Lear’s failure to recognise how his position of authority is undermined through devolving complete power to his daughters shows his belief in the patriarchal society and women’s’ expected behaviour. As a result, his lack of insight into his offspring and their motives in professing their love dishonestly as shown in Act 1 Scene 1 is emphasised. Also, Lear has a lack of insight into how his own behaviour may have influenced his daughters. For instance, with no maternal influence, Gorneril and Regan’s ruthlessness could have been inadvertently taught by Lear.
Similarly, in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, there is a complete reversal of traditional family roles, with Kevin being the dominant figure in his relationship with his parents. He is able to influence his mother’s actions; for example, from Eva’s point of view, he deliberately soils his nappies, leading to Eva eventually having an outburst and throwing him against a wall. Eva then assumes that Kevin lies about how his arm was broken, using her guilt to his advantage, with Eva acknowledging “I owed him one. He knew I owed him one. And I would owe him one for a very long time.” The use of enumeration emphasises Eva’s lack of control over her life due to Kevin. Additionally, this long-lasting hold of power over his mother is reminiscent of a binding deal made between the devil and one’s soul, referenced by Eva when she explains “I had ransomed my soul to a six-year old.” This implies, through religious imagery, that Kevin is a human embodiment of the devil, using his captor (Eva) as and when he likes. This shows the reversal of parent-child roles, as Kevin is able to exert full control over his mother, even at six-years old. Lack of insight on Eva’s part is therefore shown, as by becoming pregnant, Eva did not consider the consequences of giving birth, and what that would mean for her life as an independent career woman, in that she would have to give up her freedom for a life controlled by a devious six-year old.
Whilst not showing a complete reversal of parent-child relationships, as shown in ‘King Lear’ and ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, ‘All My Sons’ does show children taking on stereotypically ‘parent-like’ traits. Chris, in some respects, is more mature than his father; he has a more ‘worldly’ view on life and is not as narrow-minded. By fighting in World War II, Chris was not confined to the ‘safe-haven’ of the Keller home and so developed a sense of responsibility to others, due to his fellow team members sacrificing themselves for his survival. As he grew up at a time when the American Dream was idealised, Joe focuses on material wealth and providing for his family. Chris, however, is not materialistic, highlighted when he says to Ann Deever in Act 1 “I felt wrong… to open the bank-book… drive the new car… when you drive that car you’ve got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, you’ve got to be a little better because of that. Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there’s blood on it.” This shows Chris’s appreciation for his fellow comrades, who sacrificed themselves in the war so that he could return to his comfortable lifestyle. Chris, therefore, takes on more responsibility than his father, suggesting that if Joe had done so, the deaths of Larry and the twenty-one pilots would not have occurred, as he would have accepted blame for the faulty parts and they would never have been exported. However, Chris may have inherited a lack of insight from his father as he fails to acknowledge Joe’s artificial exterior and, ignoring his suspicions, chooses to believe Joe’s lies, due to the pedestal he has held his father on throughout his life. This reinforces how Joe’s lack of insight into the way his actions could affect his children has caused a lack of insight in them as well, regarding who their father really is. Larry cannot handle his realisation of the truth and takes his own life. When Chris finds out, there is a dramatic confrontation that leads to the truth behind Larry’s death being revealed and, as a result, Joe also commits suicide.
Conclusively, although parents’ lack of insight into their offspring is a key feature of all three texts, it could be argued that the children’s response to their parents’ lack of insight is also an essential factor in the tragic outcomes of the texts. In ‘King Lear’, Goneril and Regan are manipulative in convincing Lear of their love for him, protecting themselves from the newly-emerging uncertainty of their futures. As a result, he puts his trust into them, dividing his kingdom, thus leading to Goneril and Regan creating a tyrannous kingdom where innocents are pursued, tortured or die. Lear is therefore forced to accept what he has caused and, with this insight, along with the deaths of his three daughters and the near ruin of the kingdom, can no longer survive. From this perspecive, it is Lear’s lack of insight that is the catalyst to all of the tragic events which follow.
In reaction to Joe’s lack of insight, Joe’s son’s responses contribute to the tragic end of ‘All My Sons’. Chris confronts his father about his lies, his anger heightened by his self-loathing at his similarities to his father, and becoming “yellow” because of a lack of response to his suspicions. He also learns the truth about Larry, who, being unable to face what his father has done, kills himself, without thinking of the repercussions that this course of action may have on his family, as a result. Comparatively, Joe commits suicide, also unable to cope with the responsibility of having contributed to the deaths of the pilots and disappointing his sons, thus shattering his children’s allusion of him.
‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ also features the consequences of children’s reactions to their parents’ lack of insight. Kevin manipulates his father and falsely panders to his stereotypical expectation of a father/son relationship, only to brutally murder him and his sister, ironically with the weapon Franklin bought him due to Kevin’s interest in ‘sport’, which is what all sons stereotypically should be interested in. The impact of a lack of insight on the children’s response forces each parent to gain some insight into what they did, albeit it too late to prevent their own and others’ deaths. To conclude, parents’ lack of insight into their offspring through different means such as metaphorical blindness, the reversal of natural order and children’s reactions to their parents’ lack of insight shows how crucial it is in determining the outcomes of the texts.
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