Grace Nichols

Discuss the use of nature in all three texts: “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys and “The Fat Black Woman's Poems” by Grace Nichols.

Nature plays an important role in all three texts; reflecting character emotions, change, culture and era. Nature is used to portray freedom, confinement, alienation and belonging.

This essay sets out to examine how this theme is shown in the three different texts; a poem, a novel and a play. In addition to this I will compare and contrast how nature is used as a different imperative in each of the texts.

Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman” is set in 1940's capitalist America. The American Dream, being the principle theme, lays the foundations for a play about a middle aged , travelling salesman, Willy Loman, who is a complete convert to this ideal.

In the stage directions we are given a description of his house “on all sides [are]… towering angular shapes behind it… we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home”. As an audience, we get the feeling the house is out of place, dislocated from its industrial surroundings, vulnerable and trapped. This is a reflection of Willy's feelings as he does not feel that he completely belongs “they don't need me in New York. I'm the New England man. I'm vital in New England”. (page 10). Subconsciously, Willy is aware he will never survive in the city which leads to his downfall. So, he tries to escape from reality, albeit by having an affair, exploring the freedom of the road, and creating a small garden amongst the big City.

Willy depersonalises his car in the same way we later see him depersonalise himself “the car kept going off on the shoulder” (page 9). He detaches himself from the car, an industrial object, distorting reality. This is a common trait of his as we are told an “air of dream clings” to his house.

This idea of Willy being dislocated from the world and seeing comfort in nature is cleverly shown by Miller through flashbacks. Willy's dreams are beyond reach as he is “lost in reveries about the beautiful countryside and the past”. Both are idealised and captured when as an audience we catch glimpses of Willy's past. We see him use nature – the countryside – and other people as a way of getting ahead in life, to buy into the “American Dream” of consumerism. All of this, however, fails leaving Willy's story ending not idyllic, as he dreamed, but as a loss of control; mirrored when he is driving through the countryside. “Many of Willy's activities can be seen as highly symbolic. He plants seeds just as he plants false hopes: both will die and never come into fruition, largely because the house has become too hemmed in by the city” (Brenda Murphy & Susan C. W. Abbotson, Understanding of Death of a Salesman…..) His dreams never become a reality, either for his sons, his wife or with his brother. Nature soon becomes a symbol of lost hope as he never joins his brother in the jungle to claim his fortune and argues “the grass don't grow anymore” (p12)

As nature dies, so does Willy, he feels his life is stagnant and nothing is alive any more, “they boxed us in here. Windows and bricks. Windows and bricks.” There is no appeal to the senses, no life, he is confined. Ironically, Willy kills himself in his car, a representation that industrial, material America killed him; an idea we also see in other American novels such as “The Great Gatsby.” He dies in a small space, in the structure of his car despite his frustration about being “boxed in” at home where he felt trapped. The very tragedy is not that Willy Loman didn't achieve his dreams, but that he became a commodity of Capitalist America, finding that in “purely financial terms he is worth more dead than alive” (York notes). He dehumanises himself, becoming part of the very structures that oppressed him, perhaps to free his family. Willy Loman was finally “at one” with Nature.

The idea of alienation and displacement in one's surroundings is also a major feature of Jean Rhys's novel “Wide Sargasso Sea”. It is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's “Jane Eyre” (published in 1847) and was first published 119 years later in 1966. It is important to remember this as we can see how nature depicts the character Antoinette Cosway through until she is known as Bertha Mason in “Jane Eyre”.

Similarly to “Death of a Salesman”, the opening description gives a sense of isolation, but appeals to the senses giving a feeling of movement rather than stagnancy “empty, shutters banging in the wind”. We are introduced to Antoinette's garden, which was once a plantation before slavery was abolished. Antoinette seeks solace in her garden and with nature, “A very important early set piece is Antoinette's description of the garden at Coulibri, where she was a child, a garden which was probably based on Rhys's memories of her mother's family estate at Geneva. It marks childhood as taking place in a damaged Eden”. (Elaine Savory, Jean Rhys). The garden is very important when considering how Rhys uses nature to aid the development of Antoinette's character. “Our garden was large… I never went near it” (p4)

The use of the possessive pronoun at the start of the paragraph sets out the very basis of many of Antoinette's problems; it should feel like her home, but it does not. This feeling is found also in ‘Death of a Salesman' and ‘The Fat Black Women's Poems'.

The biblical references refer to a garden that can be beautiful but also harbours potential for evil, like all nature does as Mr Rochester finds out. The “beauty” has “gone wild”, it has lost control and is menacing, yet is free and unrestrained; an aspect of nature which is picked up on in all three texts. The mixture of the “living” and the “dead” smell of the flowers, reflects a time of change, from old to new. This could be a reference to the abolition of slavery and the loss of innocence as Antoinette is thrusted into an adult world. The use of personification when talking about the orchids could be a metaphor for Antoinette's character in relation to the other characters. They are beautiful, yet frightening, once innocent but grow to be threatening and wild. Animal imagery is used to highlight this “snaky looking…like an octopus…tentacles bare of leaves”. This distortion echoes Antoinette's displacement and mirrors Willy's distortion of reality. Antoinette seems to be simultaneously intoxicated and repelled by the garden, being drawn to the orchid but never going close to it. This contradictory attitude is also shown between her and the other characters, as her emotions are confused. “The picture we now have of Rhys and her theories is that of a passive, impotent, self-victimised schizoid who, comfortable with failure, wields her helplessness like a weapon – all as natural as being female” (Jan Curtis, ‘The Secret of Wide Sargasso Sea'). Willy Lowman also displays this ambivalent attitude as his flitters between his wife and mistress, showing volatile behaviour with his sons and other characters. The personas taken in ‘The Fat Black Women's Poem's' takes a different stance, almost completely the opposite; she is strong, defiant and never ‘self-victimised'. She strives to be independent, as we will see, and prides herself into beating any restrains society puts on her refusing to be a failure.

In part two we learn of Antoinette and Mr Rochester's honeymoon. The description begins with war-like imagery “advance and retreat” as both partners are on the defensive, despite being newly married. We are introduced to a new narrator, Mr Rochester, who feels there is “too much blue, too much purple, too much green”, the triad of colours shows he is overwhelmed by the scenery much like the situation he has found himself in. The triadic device is used throughout the novel with descriptions of nature and the very fact that the novel is split into three sections. “The settings form a triangle that traps the characters, much like the Bermuda Triangle within the Sargasso Sea” (Macmillan CXC study companions Debbie Jacob). Antoinette, however, is overjoyed to be in Coulibri “a sacred space where Antoinette hugs to herself the secret hidden in Coulibri” (Jan Curtis ‘The Secret of the Wide Sargasso Sea). Things are never as they seem, the nature nor the characters. Hidden in layers of secrets, covered by a beautiful yet isolating landscape; this makes nature vital to the text.

Quoted at length is a section from a critique of “The Wide Sargasso Sea” as it depicts many of the literary devices used in the novel.

“As long as Antoinette can remember and order the events of her memories into a temporal or causal sequence, create even an illusion of sequence and maintain a measure sense of space and time, then she can hold her life and her self together. Her act of narration becomes an act of affirmation and cohesion, a nod to the world and its conventions, an attempt to prevent herself from dissolving. When, in Part Three, Antoinette lies encaged in Thornfield Hall's dark, cold attic, the threads that hold her to the reality that the world perceives as sanity finally break. These threads are the elements of conventional narrative: linear chronology, sequence, narratorial lucidity, distance. She herself admits at this point that ‘time has no meaning'; sequence disintegrates into a confusion of present and past and ultimately into a dream which narrates her future.” (Kathy Mezei, ‘And It Kept It's Secret: Narration, Memory, and Madness in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea')

Nature is used by Rhys as a pool to show Antoinette's loss of identity through time and different spaces. From each section there is a mental leap where time and scenery have changed, and as a reader we have to keep up as though it were poetry. Like ‘Fat Black Women's Poems' we are challenged to understand and keep up as we move through different geographies and time. Letters and speeches help fill the narrative gap while strong images, like nature, are used to enhance this connection. As Antoinette loses all sense of person and time, so does her connection with nature ‘there is one window up high – you cannot see out of it'. Unlike Willy, and more commonly to the personas in “Fat Black Woman's Poems”, Antoinette's character remains closely associated with nature despite being alienated and dislocated from others and even nature itself throughout her life. This is climaxed when Antoinette foresees herself jumping off the house at the end of “Wide Sargasso Sea” which is an exact narrative link to ‘Jane Eyre'. In contrast to Willy who dies in the very grips of what constrained him, Antoinette dives into nature, her old life and the sea of chaos which carried her throughout her life. “'If you are buried under a flamboyant tree,' I said, ‘your soul is lifted up when it flowers. Everyone wants that'”. In spite of Antoinette losing all identity, even becoming ‘Bertha', she never loses her desire to be connected with freedom, and most importantly, her desire to be free.

Grace Nichols's collection of verse was published in 1984, making it the most recent text. It also uses nature to provoke emotions and tell stories. She grew up in Guyana where she spent her formative years, but then moved to England where she has worked ever since. The impact of such widely different cultures and traditions on her is evident in her poetry. “Her poems frequently acknowledge the alien climate, geography, and culture of England's cities” (James Acheson & Romana Huk, Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism). She challenges the stereotypical ideas of western beauty and seeks to set a new agenda for what is meant by beauty and belonging, often with reference to nature and natural images.

Nichols often uses modern free verse reflecting the freedom of nature but sustains the rhythmic structure and thought through enjamblement. In “beauty” we see that the beauty is vexed but nature is organic and free. She uses syntactic parallelism to repeat “Beauty is a fat black woman”, she is defiant and strong; a trait we didn't see often in the other two texts. The poet makes references to her home land “hibiscus” and talks of the sea “hug(ging) her shape”. She personifies nature as though she and it are one and the same. The verses are free and flowing with little punctuation, echoing nature and showing the fat black woman is in tune with and at one with the natural world. This idea is also used in “thoughts drifting through the fat black woman's head while having a full bubble bath”. Again, syntactic parallelism is used “Steatopygous sky, Steatopygous sea, Steatopygous waves, Steatopygous me”. “Steatopygous” is defined as “an excessive development of fat on the buttocks that occurs chiefly among women of some African peoples” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The poet is combining the physical self with nature, as though the two are fused together. It is a technique to challenge the western ideals of stick-thin beauty as unnatural, whereas the fat black woman with her enormous buttocks is the very essence of nature. Rhys refuses to adhere to the position or status given to her; she refuses to follow the ‘status quo', an attribute Willy and Antoinette lack.

The juxtaposition of the physical self and physical world in both poems presents a sense of unity in comparison to the volatile connections in “Death of a Salesman” and “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

Nature is a focus and driving force behind each of the three texts through natural imagery and techniques such as “pathetic fallacy”, where nature is given human traits e.g. Steatopygous sea, America's ‘angry orange' sky and Antoinette's England where ‘everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it' . The use of nature to influence mood, symbolise important themes and generate atmosphere is vital to each text, even though they represent three different genres. Nature is a positive, benevolent force in the poems but a powerful, dangerous force in Wide Sargasso Sea and Death of a Salesman. It is used to communicate an understanding of the characters and personas in a way that cannot be understated.

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