The Ideal Man and the Flawed Pursuit of Perfection
Both Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun and Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved are works that deal predominately with race, but feature vastly different subject matter. Beloved features a group of people haunted by the memory of slavery and learning what it takes to begin to overcome it, while A Raisin in the Sun features a family in the late 1950’s grappling with systemic racism and trying to figure out whether to challenge it, or to submit to it. However, despite their differences in plot, both works deal with the subject of masculinity in the same way. Both Beloved (147-148) and A Raisin in the Sun (108-109) portray the image of the ideal man as a double-edged sword; while the image of the ideal man is well-intentioned as a standard for perfection, the pursuit of that perfection drives men to make decisions and take on character traits that are flawed, and in some cases contradictory, to the very image they are trying to epitomize.
Walter Lee Younger gives his definition of what it means to be an ideal man on pages 108-109 in A Raisin in the Sun. He begins by telling his son “When you ‘bout seventeen years old, I’ll come home pretty tired, you know what I mean, after a long day of conferences and secretaries getting things wrong the way they do…’Cause an executive’s life is hell, man.” (Hansberry 108). Although he describes an executive’s life as being “hell”, it is in fact exactly the sort of life he wants because it includes several elements he perceives as necessary in order to be a man. First and foremost, Walter Lee dreams of coming home “pretty tired”, indicating he has put in a rather difficult day at work. The image of going out, working hard, and coming home tired is reminiscent of the image of men going out to hunt and coming home with food. Although there is nothing wrong with aspiring to work hard, using an image of men that is thousands of years old to define modern men is unhealthy as it puts undue amount pressure on Walter Lee to be the sole provider for his family, and leads him to see Ruth and women in general as being beneath him. His sexist view that women are less capable, which likely stems from the archaic idea of men needing to be the provider, is evident in the line, “secretaries getting things wrong the way they do” (Hansberry 108). Considering the fact that most secretaries were women in the late 1950’s, the line shows that in his ideal world women are less capable than him and more prone to making mistakes. While his ambition to climb to the top of the ladder of success is admirable and gives his life positive direction, the same image that makes him ambitious makes him sexist, and is what ultimately causes him to invest so much money in the liquor store deal, which he did in order to feel fulfilled as a provider. As Walter Lee continues to talk about how his life as an ideal man would be, he reiterates his desire for success as well as his view of the place of women, but he goes a step further when he says, “And I’ll pull the car up on the driveway… just a plain black Chrysler, I think, with white walls—no—black tires. More elegant. Rich people don’t have to be flashy. Though I’ll get something a little sportier for Ruth—Maybe a Cadillac convertible for her to go shopping in” (Hansberry 109). In this line, the reader is introduced to the ostentatious aspect present in the image of the real man. For Walter Lee, it is not enough to only be successful in his work; he has to make sure everybody knows it. He says he would just want a “plain black Chrysler” but the cost of buying a Chrysler in 1959 would be comparable to buying a Camaro in 2015 (adjusted for inflation). He also makes a point of saying he would want the car to show off his wealth in saying “black tires…Rich people don’t have to be flashy.” This sentiment leads the reader to the conclusion that Walter Lee is not only ambitious, but competitive, and that he needs to feel other people are below him before he can feel fulfilled. Furthermore, he comes off as sexist again in saying he would provide Ruth with a car “for her to go shopping in.” Walter Lee’s desire to have nice cars and provide for his family because he wants to be a real man is by no means deplorable; however, the way that desire to be “a real man” manifests itself in his attitude towards women and his need to be better than those around him leads Walter Lee to make poor decisions and makes him a flawed character.
Walter Lee expresses his competitive nature again in discussing having a gardener. Walter Lee says that when he is successful (or feels that he is a man) he will “come up the steps to the house, and the gardener will say, ‘Good evening, Mr. Younger’ And I’ll say ‘Hello, Jefferson, how are you doing this evening?” (Hansberry 109). Walter Lee wanting to have a gardener working around the house is ironic because he works in a similar position as a chauffeur and hates it, but seems to be willing to put someone else in that situation in order to feel fulfilled as a man. Walter Lee having a servant also alludes to the masculine urge to dominate and conquer. Walter Lee’s willingness to “dominate” another person just as he has been, despite his feelings about his own situation shows how powerful the image of the ideal man is and far people can be driven to embody that image. In the last part of the passage in which Walter Lee describes what it means to be a man, he fantasizes about what he will be able to do for his son. Walter Lee tells Travis that on his seventeenth birthday, he will ask Travis “what is it you’ve decided?… Just tell me where you want to go to school and you’ll go. Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it… whatever you want to be—Yessir! You just name it son… and I hand you the world! (Hansberry 109). Walter Lee’s promise to provide Travis with a better life than his is touching. It is the archetypal dream of father’s to want to provide a better life for their children. However, Walter Lee’s promise to give Travis the world is far from only attempting to give Travis the opportunity for a better life. The image of Walter Lee handing his son the world is reminiscent of Zeus forcing Atlas to hold the world on his shoulders, indicating that inheriting “the world” from Walter Lee, i.e. Walter Lee’s hopes, dreams, and accomplishments, would put a heavy burden on Travis, much in the same way Walter’s legacy puts a great burden on Walter Lee. Additionally, the action of giving Travis the world seems to be another act of ostentation for Walter Lee, as “the world” encompasses everything, and while giving Travis the world shows Walter Lee’s devotion to his son, it also shows others that he has a lot to give away. As selfless as the act of “giving the world” to someone sounds, because Walter Lee is doing it to feel more like a man it becomes much more of a selfish act. Throughout A Raisin in the Sun, masculinity is portrayed as being both well-intended and being a corrupting influence. Walter Lee has the best of intentions when he talks about wanting to work hard, wanting to provide for Ruth and Travis, and wanting to be a good role model in order to be a real man. At the same time, in his pursuit of being the ideal man, he becomes more sexist, competitive, condescending, selfish, stubborn, and impulsive than he otherwise would be.
asserts that living up to the image of the ideal man is a difficult balancing act between being capable, self-sufficient, and secure, and constantly needing to reassert one’s capabilities in order to feel secure. Toni Morrison expands upon the idea of positive masculinity being difficult to attain on pages 147-148 in Beloved. Faced with consistent sexual abuse and emasculation from Beloved, Paul D reflects on his time at Sweet Home before Schoolteacher took over, before he was imprisoned in Alfred Georgia, and when he felt most like a man. In reminiscing, he thinks, “of all the Blacks in Kentucky, only five of them were men” (Morrison 147). He quickly makes a distinction between being male and being a man, as there were certainly more than five black males in the entire state of Kentucky, while there were only five men. This distinction informs the reader that it is not enough to only be a man physically. Rather, in order to truly be a man one must embody a certain set of special qualities or attributes, which he discusses throughout the rest of the passage. In making manhood a status exclusive to only a select group of males, being a man becomes an idea akin to being beautiful in the sense that they are both nearly unattainable though prescriptive states of being. Paul D goes on to support the idea that ideal masculinity is nearly unattainable when he mentions being “[a]llowed, encouraged to correct Garner, even defy him” made him feel like a man (Morrison 147). Although it granted him some feeling of independence and power, being allowed to defy someone is paradoxical. While Paul D speaks favorably about his feeling of independence under Garner, the fact of the matter is Garner owned him, which created a poisonous albeit peaceful relationship between the two in which Paul D felt that he had some independence and therefore could be a man while Garner knew that he owned Paul D and therefore felt no need to assert his dominance over him. Through this relationship Morrison submits that the idea of manhood is practically unattainable, as the only black males in Kentucky who felt like men never really had the independence that made them feel like men in the first place. As Paul D continues to describe his treatment at Sweet Home under Mr. Garner, he mentions many of the same elements of manhood that Walter Lee does in A Raisin in the Sun, as well as their double-sided nature. Paul D first reflects that he was encouraged “[t]o invent ways of doing things; to see what was needed and attack it without permission (Morrison 147). While the first part of the sentence which pertains to inventing involves production and making a positive contribution to the society at Sweet Home, the second half of the sentence describes “attacking without permission” which is an extremely violent image that draws the mind of the reader to assault and battery. While both invention and attacking without permission stem from capability and independence, which are the elements of masculinity that Paul D longs for throughout the book, one leaves a decidedly positive impact while the other leaves a very negative impact. The inclusion of inventing and attacking consecutively in the same line is Morrison qualifying what it means to be a man as an ideal that has the potential to lead men to do both great and terrible acts.
Morrison then describes some of the terrible acts men have the potential to do in greater detail as Paul D lists a few more freedoms he had under Garner, which include the ability “to buy a Mother, choose a horse or a wife, handle guns…” (Morrison 147). Paul D’s statement that the ability to “buy a Mother” made him feel more like a man not only shows that he shares Walter Lee’s sexist view that men are dominant over women, but it also points to how the institution of slavery impacted Paul D’s perception of what it means to be a man. The image of the ideal man suggests that men must always be in control of their lives. In the case of slavery, the only model of control that Paul D has to work with is the slave owner, Garner. In watching Garner buying and selling people, Paul D conflates the idea of being in control with having the ability to buy and sell people, causing him to think the ability to “buy a Mother” makes him more like a man. While normally gaining control of one’s life is an important part of the maturation process, it is here shown to be a corrupted virtue that negatively impacts Paul D’s worldview. His corrupted view of control is shown again in the next line, in which he says he enjoyed the ability to “choose a horse or a wife” (Morrison 147). Again, he has been convinced that he should see livestock and women as products to be bought and sold because Garner, the “real man”, sees them that way. He finishes the line with remembering being allowed to “handle guns” which brings the idea of men using war and destruction in order to assert their dominance the scene. Morrison demonstrates that the ideals that make up the ideal man can be distorted at an individual level and lead people who want to live up to that image astray. In the next section of the passage, Paul D begins to wonder whether or not he was really a man with Garner as he asks himself “Is that it? Was that where manhood lay? In the naming done by a whiteman who was supposed to know? Who gave them the privilege not of working but of deciding how to?” It is at this point at Paul D realizes that his idea of what a man is has been entirely based on Garner’s definition of what a man is. He wonders if, because Garner is a “whiteman” and a slave owner, he actually does know what it means to be a man. However, despite all the questions that Paul D raises, he brushes them aside when he maintains that “No. In their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believed and trusted, but most of all they were listened to (Morrison 147). Paul D expresses the basic need for men to feel as if they matter. Because Garner believed, trusted, and listened to Paul D, Paul D is convinced that Garner saw him as a man. However, by using the word “metal” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as being “[u]sually as a mass, noun. Hard, shiny, malleable material of the kind originally represented by gold, silver, copper, etc., esp. as used in the manufacture of objects, artefacts, and utensils” (Metal), Morrison suggests that Garner’s relationship with Paul D was one that appeared to be strong but was actually based in value, easily shapeable, and important to productivity. From this definition of metal the reader can deduce that Garner used the image of the ideal man to manipulate his slaves, and that by stroking their ego, feeding their pride, and making them feel like men, he was able to get more out of them, for if he really saw his slaves as men he would have likely set them free. This is another example of the image of the ideal man having a negative impact on Paul D, as his pursuit of it allowed Garner to easily take advantage of him.
Paul D recalls the day he realized that the man he thought he was only existed on Sweet Home. He says that for he and the other workers at Sweet Home, “One step off that ground and they [would be] trespassers among the human race. Watchdogs without teeth; steer bulls without horns; gelded work horses whose neigh and whinny could not be translated into a language responsible humans spoke” (Morrison 148). Having realized that his manhood was simply handed to him out of convenience, Paul D felt as if it was not really a part of him, and immediately thought of himself as less of a person, which is another dangerous aspect about the image of the ideal man. It does not exist on a spectrum; either someone is or someone is not a man. In this case, Paul D feels that he cannot be the ideal man in the outside world, so he identifies more with an animal than a person, specifically a farm animal, and more specifically, a farm animal that has been rendered useless. Through this sentence, Morrison asserts that although having a standard for men to strive for is good, that same standard makes men feel useless for not being perfect, which is not good. As Paul D returns to thinking about the constant sexual abuse and emasculation he faces from Beloved, he becomes enraged. He recalls everything he had been through at Sweet Home, Alfred, Georgia, and on his journey northward and is ashamed that he feels so defeated now at 124. He recounts that it was he who had “eaten raw meat barely dead, who under plum trees bursting with blossoms had crunched through a dove’s breast before its heart stopped beating. Because he was a man and a man could do what he would” (Morrison 148). In these lines, Morrison uses the image of man eating raw meat to evoke images of the hunt, and ties it into man killing the peace dove to perfectly illustrate the duality present in masculinity. While it promises capability and independence, it can also carry a mercilessly destructive element. Morrison concludes the passage on Paul D’s masculinity with the reason for the ideal man’s duality, and what is arguably the most alluring yet terrifying aspect of the ideal masculinity: “Because he was a man and a man could do what he would.” Paul D longs for the freedom to do what he wants associated with “being a man” but tragically, as Morrison points out, the ideal man Paul D wants to be may not exist.
Both Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry approach the idea of the ideal man as a conceptually good idea that has the potentially devastating consequences for both the man aspiring to be ideal and those around him. Walter and Paul D both want to be providers, they both want to work hard, they both want purpose, and they both want to be people who are in control of their own destiny, independent, and capable. However, trying to live up to that image causes both Paul D and Walter to adopt unhealthy attitudes towards women, and to become at times more aggressive, egotistical, controlling and helplessly fragile, as their struggle to become men tears both of them apart. While their goal is not morally reprehensible, they become characters who at times are morally reprehensible because of how difficult society’s dream of masculinity is to realize. If being a man did not necessarily mean having to be a perfect man, it is possible that Walter Lee would not have made the same bad decisions he did with Mama’s money, and that Paul D would not have to feel so ashamed of himself. However, they both feel such pressure to live up to the standard of the ideal man in order to qualify as a man at all that they are led to make poor choices they do not want to make and put in situations they do not want to be in. Morrison and Hansberry suggest that when men are allowed to be flawed, and when they can accept that they are flawed, they will likely come closer to being the men they want to be than ever before.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1959. Print. “Metal, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, November 2015. Web. 23 November 2015. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print.
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