Literature is a lens through which one can see the reflection of the culture wherein it was written. Books that portray struggle often reflect the sentiments of the time and stories about identity mirror the inner conflict that is present. However many of the themes present in literature remain constant throughout time and culture because they represent universal sentiments that are felt by people across time. Some of these themes include love, relationships, truth, inner-conflict, friendship and power. Through the work of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, one can look at the theme of men who seek power and reflect on how this theme repeats itself in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.
In Hwang's M. Butterfly, Rene Gallimard voices his frustration when he says:
"So if I'm a guy with a small one. I'm going to build a really big building to take over a really big piece of land or write a really long book so the other mend don't know, right? But it never really works, that's the problem, I mean, you conquer the country, or whatever, but you're still wearing clothes, so there's no way to prove absolutely whose is bigger or smaller. And that's what we call civilized society."(Hwang).
In this quote one can clearly see the struggle that Gallimard has as a man looking for power. The inner turmoil he experiences in the competition against other men for a piece of power is portrayed as his basic motivation. It represents the idea that if he had some power or a glimpse of power, he could feel like more of a man. Set in contrast to his pending dilemma of having relations with a man who he though to be a woman, it reinforces the idea that being a man is about having power, and not so much about outward appearances. To Gallimard, being a man means having power.
This theme is present yet again in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick states that, "There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn,"(Shakespeare, Act V. Scene 4. 125). Although obscured in euphemism, this quote is referring to a man's genitalia, namely his penis. It is the idea that being a man, or having a penis (staff), is the highest form of power or reverence one can have. Unlike Hwang's perception that manliness lays in having power, Shakespeare's point is that power lies in being a man. This reiterates the point that manliness is intrinsically linked with power. Shakespeare is saying that there is no greater way to have power than to be a real man.
E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News sees this theme once again. In this novel, Billy tells Quoyle something that his father told him. That "there were four women in every man's heart. The Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, The Stouthearted Woman, the Tall and Quiet Woman,"(Proulx). Here Billy's conflict about women reflects his lack of both power and masculinity. Billy never marries and never really understands what his father told him about women nor does he come to terms with the women in his life. This lack of power over the women around him subsequently results in his lack of masculinity as a character.
Men have always sought power as a way of defining their manhood and this theme is reflected in literary works throughout time. Whether it is a power that gives them a sense of masculinity or the physical characteristics of being a man that lends them a sense of power, both seem to be linked. Literature reflects this idea that throughout time, men are constantly compromising between power and manliness, finding ways to attain both.
Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly (Penguin Plays & Screenplays). London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1989.
Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1994.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado about Nothing (Cambridge School Shakespeare). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.