The rajahs of the western worl

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The Rajahs of the Western World My mother, who grew up in Sri Lanka, was shocked to hear the way I dealt with my boyfriend on the telephone. She proceeded to give me a talk on how a woman should achieve what she wants through womanly means and that it is imperative for every relationship that the stereotypical gender roles are at least superficially preserved. Indeed, she told me that this was the only way a relationship could survive. This fluttering around men is something every female does starting with the father and the brothers and later the husband - in Sri Lanka, at least twenty years ago, every man is a rajah, a prince, in his house. Having lived in Austria I would have said this is not the case here, however, when one takes time to study people it becomes clear that although both legal and social rules may be liberal, there are still many relationships that are based on the concept of spoiling the man.

The reason I am addressing this topic is because it features very prominently in both Ibsen's The Wild Duck and Miller's Death of a Salesman; although both plays centre around Hialmar Ekdal and Willy Loman respectively, it is not their strength that their families rely on. Although both fancy themselves as the successful breadwinners it is their wives who make ends meet - yet all is done so that Hialmar and Willy can believe and live in their dreams: they are the mollified husbands.

Although Hialmar was spoilt by his aunts who took care of him, it seems that both he and Willy got used to being mollified by their wives. The personality of Gina and Linda are much the same. They both love their husbands and try to manage their affairs so that they do not worry the men. Gina and Linda both do the accounts in the house remembering payments and loans and try to make the money they have last for as long as possible, even if this means denying themselves something; as Hedvig says to her mother when they are talking about saving "but then you and I didn't need anything hot for dinner as father was out". Of the two wives, Gina has to do more as Hialmar does not even work himself but lets Gina or Hedvig 'help him' while he works on his invention.

The invention of Hialmar can be compared to the dreams of Willy to be successful; it is built on false hopes but it is something to look forward to. Happy tells Biff that Willy is at his happiest when looking forward to something and this is true of Hialmar too - Gina listens to Hialmar talk about the great invention he is working on and Linda dreams with Willy about opening his own business 'someday'. This seems to be a key word in both their lives as the present reality is transformed by their wives and children for them into what they want to see.

Gina and Linda not only run the house smoothly they also motivate their husbands by listening to them and telling him how wonderful they are. When Hialmar relates how Werle's dinner was he changes the facts so that he is presented in a good light; he claims to have had a discourse about a fine wine and then goes on to air his views on this wine (his views being a repetition of those he heard that night), Gina congratulates him on his cleverness and quick wit. In the same way when Willy boasts how much money he made and then admits he made less than half that amount Linda tells him "but you're doing wonderful, dear. You're making seventy to a hundred dollars a week". Furthermore Linda makes excuses if Willy does something wrong. When Willy complains he could not drive properly Linda quickly suggests "maybe it was the steering again" and after Willy deters and repeats that it was his fault she still thinks "maybe it's your glasses. You never went for your new glasses".

Thus Hialmar and Willy never have to face reality and are constantly supported physically and emotionally. It is not as though Gina and Linda are submissive, in fact they treat Hialmar and Willy like children. Gina asks her daughter if she is glad when she has good news to tell her father when he comes home and she replies "yes; for then we have a pleasanter evening" and Gina realises that "there's something in that", she knows that Hialmar is displeased if anything contrary to his wishes and ideas is done and that he consequently will ruin the atmosphere at home. The same is true of Linda; she quickly corrects herself and tells Willy that Biff will ask Bill Oliver for fifteen thousand dollars and not ten thousand as she knows this is the amount he thinks Biff should ask for - one example of her letting Willy live an illusion even for a little while. She too knows Willy's faults and talks about him trying to commit suicide to the boys; although she is begging of them to humour their father her tone of voice implies that she really does see Willy as a child.

Just because Linda and Gina see through their husbands does not mean that they do not love them. In fact they seem to endure emotional and verbal abuse from their husbands without any protest. Gina does not defend herself when Hialmar finds out she slept with Werle before their marriage but admits her guilt. When she asks him "but would you have married me all the same?" and he replies "how can you suppose so?" she ignores the implications of this comment and tries to make it all better again. Linda too does not say a word as Willy screams at her for no reason and when Biff consequently fights with Willy over his treatment of Linda she takes Willy's side and reproaches Biff: "what'd you have to start that for? You see how sweet he was as soon as you talked hopefully".

To create a comfortable home life the mothers must have the co-operation of the children as well, in Gina's case this is not difficult. Hedvig obviously adores her father and his constantly bringing him things and offering to do things for him. She listens to his stories with wide eyes and believes all that he says. Hialmar often disappoints Hedvig though he seems to love her, for example, he forgets to bring her something from Werle's dinner and even mentions shooting her beloved wild duck, but Hedvig still worships her father. When Hialmar leaves the house and says he will never come back because of Hedvig's not being his child she cries "oh, this will kill me! What have I done to him? Mother, you must fetch him home again".

The children of Willy, Biff and Happy, have a different attitude towards their father, although it can be said that they both love him, Biff always fights with him and Happy is embarrassed by him. This is probably due to their age. When they were children one can see that they too worshipped their father; even if Willy's memory of him returning from a trip and the boys telling him they were lonesome for him and missed him every minute may be an idealistic view of the past, I am inclined to agree with Linda when she says that "few men are idolised by their children the way" Willy was. One can see how much Willy's philosophies influenced them; Biff was well on his way to becoming a mollified husband what with both girls and boys doing things for him and his father telling him that he could virtually get away with anything (like stealing a football from school) because of his charm and personality. Willy's living in this perfect dream world of 'someday...' affected the way the whole family thinks. As Biff realises how much his mother has aged by her grey hair he asks her to "dye it again, will ya? I don't want my pal looking old", once again Biff is deluding himself and trying to see things as he wants to just like Willy.

One would think that Hialmar and Willy would get a hard slap every time they ventured out of their front door but surprisingly, people got used to humouring them as they are easier to handle that way. Relling is the one who gets Hialmar interested with his invention and Willy's former boss always made vague promises about how Willy would share the firm someday but never made any concrete proposal as he knew Willy would be satisfied by this kind of friendly contract.

After having looked at the two mollified husbands, is this the way families should work? I have to say it depends very much on the people involved. Hialmar and his family were happy until the truth about Gina and Hedvig came out - it was only through the drastic suicide of Hedvig that Hialmar could again build up an illusion and the role of the grieving father for him to play. However, it may have been better for Willy had he recognised the truth earlier in life and had learned to cope with it as his suicide was, just as his life an illusion of heroism. In this modern world where illusions are plentiful it is better not to create a rajah as rajahs nourish themselves through dreams and there is no shop that sells those.