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Sea Oak’ by George Saunders Essay

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Updated: Apr 9th, 2020

One of the most notable features of the story Sea Oak by George Saunders, is that many themes and motifs, radiate the spirit of a certain oddness, in the perceptual sense of this word. The reason for this is that, despite the unconventional sounding of the story’s plot line, it appears innately consistent with what happened to be the socially suppressed unconscious anxieties, on the part of readers.

In its turn, this provides us with a rationale to hypothesize that the story’s discursive significance can be well addressed with the methodological framework of post-Freudian psychoanalysis.

After all, the earlier mentioned themes and motifs do promote the idea that the qualitative essence of one’s existential stance, never ceases being reflective of what happened to be the specifics of the concerned individual’s ‘eros’ and ‘thanatos’-related longings. In my paper, I will explore the validity of the articulated hypothesis at length, while illustrating how these longings are being reflected by some of the featured characters’ act.

Probably the main reason why the existence of just about any person can be well discussed as a certain phenomenon, is that while addressing life-challenges, he or she invariably comes to the point of trying to find a rationale-based justification for the process in question. The reason for this is apparent – due to being endowed with consciousness, people are well aware of their own mortality, on one hand, and capable of operating with the utterly abstract subject matters, on the other.

The latter, however, is exactly what causes many individuals to experience the strong sensation of discontent with the very idea they will eventually die. One of the ways to address this inconsistency is people’s tendency to think that their self-identity can be thoroughly admired – even when there are no actual preconditions for this to be the case.

After all, it is specifically one’s self-assumed ‘uniqueness’ (supposedly reflected by the concerned person’s existential identity), which can be well discussed in terms of a ‘path towards semi-immortality’. The reason for this is that, as practice indicates, the more a particular individual is being deemed ‘special’, throughout the course of its life, the better are his or her chances to be remembered post-mortem.

Therefore, there is nothing odd about the fact that people tend to pay an acute attention towards how they are being perceived by others – their mental fixation, in this respect, appears to extrapolate these people’s ‘eros’-mindedness, commonly sublimated in their strive to struggle with the prospect of remaining anonymous. As it was pointed out by the lecturer: “Names make us special… when someone gets your name wrong, it insults your feeling of uniqueness” (Eros and Thanatos 5).

The fact that the above-provided argument is indeed legitimate, can be shown, in regards to the narrator’s preoccupation (resurfaced throughout the story’s entirety) with trying to make sure that his rating with guests at the male strip-bar remains high: “Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker… At least I’m not a Stinker… I’m a solid Honeypie/Adequate” (Saunders 1).

Apparently, the narrator used to derive a certain emotional pleasure out of knowing that, as compared to the rest of his striping ‘colleagues’, he was more than adequate. This is exactly the reason why, even though throughout the story he is being shown suffering from a number of the material hardships, it did not seem to have had a strongly defined negative on his ability to address them.

The reason for this is that the narrator’s ‘eros’-fueled emotional comfortableness with its own self-identity, used to naturally lessen the acuteness of his sensitivity towards poverty – hence, making it possible for him to enjoy life to the best of its ability, despite the seemingly impossible circumstances.

The same, however, cannot be said about the character of Aunt Bernie – at least, prior to the time when she was turned into an ‘undead zombie’. This statement may seem somewhat odd, especially in light of the fact that, as the story implies, throughout most of her life, Aunt Bernie used to be fully content with having to lead the lifestyle of a materially impoverished/socially underprivileged individual: “She never got married… But she’s not bitter.

Sometimes she’s so nonbitter it gets on my nerves” (Saunders 2). Formally speaking, this allows us to draw parallels between the narrator and Aunt Bernie, as there indeed appears to be much similarity between how both of these characters used to position themselves in life. However, the impression of similarity between the two is misleading.

The reason for this is that, whereas, the narrator’s behavioral stoicism can be well referred to as the faculty of ‘eros’, the same psychological trait of Aunt Bernie seem to have been clearly predetermined by her ‘thanatos’-mindedness.

The legitimacy of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the utterly depersonifying nature of what was her professional occupation in Drug Town: “After fifteen years as Cashier she (Aunt Bernie) got demoted to Greeter. People would ask where the cold remedies were and she’d point to some big letters on the wall that said Cold Remedies” (Saunders 5).

That is, for the duration of more than fifteen years, Aunt Bernie did not mind existing in the strongly anonymous mode, which in turn allows us to speculate that this character’s seeming contentment with life was nothing but the sublimation of her ‘thanatos’-triggered psychological leanings.

After all, as we well remember from the lectures, the psychoanalytical notion of ‘thanatos’ is essentially synonymous with the discursive notion of ‘anonymity’: “The thanatos feeling of anonymity… is the feeling that you are invisible, no one knows you or cares” (Eros and Thanatos 6).

What it means is that, unlike what it was the case with the narrator, the sheer ease with which Aunt Bernie used to tolerate the seemingly intolerable aspects of her existence, can be best explained by the fact that, as time went on, the concerned character was growing increasingly alienated from life, as a ‘thing in itself’. In its turn, this caused her to adopt an apathetic/fatalist attitude, within the context of how she would go about reacting to the externally induced stimuli.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that ‘eros’ always implies positivity, whereas, ‘thanatos’ always implies negativity: “Neither eros nor thanatos are inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Either can be healthy or unhealthy. It depends on context, timing, and extremity” (Evils of Eros 2). The validity of this suggestion can be exemplified, in relation to what was the psychological effect of Aunt Bernie’s metamorphosis into a ‘zombie’.

The reason for this is that, as it can be well seen in the novel, after having been brought back to life, this character started to act ‘hyper’. It is not only that ‘zombie’ Aunt Bernie was able to revive her interest in sex, but also she became ‘sex hungry’ to an extent of allowing its sexual desire to attain the subtleties of an all-consuming obsession: “Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks! Like in the movies… while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, all hard for me, that’s one damn thing I will guarantee you kids!

Ha ha! You think I’m joking? I ain’t freaking joking” (Saunders 9). This, of course, suggests that there were a number of the clearly defined pathological overtones to the ‘eros’-driven existential stance, on the part of ‘undead’ Aunt Bernie. After all, as it can be inferred from the above-quoted, Aunt Bernie became unhealthily fixated on the thoughts of sex, without considering the possibility that her state of a continual physical decomposition would chase away much desirable male-lovers.

Such our observation correlates with the well-known fact that the ‘eros’-obsessed individuals are quite incapable of thinking in terms of a rationale. There was something even more sinister about ‘undead’ Aunt Bernie – the fact that she could not help uttering profanities, while communicating with her relatives. In its turn, this suggests that, after having been brought back to life, the concerned character ended up being innately predisposed towards violence.

This again can be discussed within the context of what accounted for the actual effects of ‘undead’ Aunt Bernie having been turned into an ‘eros’-minded individual. As the lecturer noted: “If someone associates their life with meaning (eros) – and meaning is, after all, more important than life itself… they are likelier to act violently in perceived self-defense of that meaning” (Evils of Eros 10). Evidently enough, ‘undead’ Aunt Bernie was little too preoccupied to enjoy her life to its fullest, in order to consider this preoccupation’s effects on others.

The fact that it is specifically the varying degree of one’s affiliation with either ‘eros’ or ‘thanatos’ (or both), which reflects the qualitative characteristics of one’s existential identity (and not what happened to his or her formal stance in life), can also be seen, in regards to the character of Father Brian. Having been a ‘servant of God’, Father Brian should have been naturally predisposed towards ‘thanatos’.

This simply could not be otherwise, because the religion of Christianity causes its affiliates to think of their physical existence in terms of a ‘burden’, which one needs to be rid of, in order to be able to reunite with Jesus in the ‘kingdom of heaven’. Yet, this was not quite the case. Despite the character’s professional occupation, he nevertheless never ceased being attracted to specifically ‘eros’ – hence, Father Brian’s apparent violent-mindedness, which exhibits throughout the story’s entirety.

For example, while reflecting on how he felt, in the aftermath of the statue of Saint Mary having been desecrated, Farther Brian stated: “I… thought of catching them (perpetrators) in the act and boinking them in the head with a rock. I also thought of jumping up and down on their backs until something in their spinal column cracked” (Saunders 13). This, of course, implies that one’s stance in life is being rather genetically than environmentally predetermined.

Another mental abnormality, commonly associated with ‘eros’-minded people, is the so-called ‘anal retention’, extrapolated by these people’s unhealthy strive towards perfection – often at the expense of contributing to the acuteness of the already existing tension between the would-be-affected individuals.

The mentioned abnormality’s counter-productiveness is concerned with the fact that, as the lecturer pointed out: “Perfection cannot be realistically attained. And so anal people tend to be far more anxious than is healthy, and in turn they make the people around them anxious” (Evils of Eros 10). In Sea Oak, there are a number of examples of how some of the story’s characters go about extrapolating their ‘anal’ anxieties upon others.

The scene, in which the characters of Min, Freddie and Ma are having lunch at the restaurant, while talking to each other, is probably the most illustrative, in this respect: “’I’d like to kill that fuck that killed her (Aunt Bernie),’ says Min. ‘How about let’s don’t say fuck at lunch,’ says Ma. ‘It’s just a word, Ma, right?’ says Min… ‘Well, shit’s just a word too,’ says Freddie. ‘But we don’t say it at lunch.’” (Saunders 6).

As it can be well seen from the quoted conversation, Ma’s remark was essentially a well-meaning one – Ma simply wanted to prevent this conversation from being affected by profanities. However, it would be so much better if she refrained from doing this, as the ultimate consequence of Ma’s ‘anal’ intrusion was the conversation’s rapid deterioration.

It only took a few seconds, after Ma came up with her moralistic suggestion, for the mentioned characters to begin hating each other. This once again suggests that, despite the Implicational positivity of the psychoanalytical notion of ‘Eros’, one’s endowment with a little too much of it, cannot be considered beneficiary to the concerned individual’s mental well-being.

The story Sea Oak also contains the examples of what can be interpreted as the indications of some of the featured characters’ having been ‘bipolar’, in the sense of being simultaneously predisposed towards ‘eros’, on one hand, and ‘thanatos’, on the other. The discursive soundness of this suggestion can be explored, in regards to the characters of Min and Jade. As it appears from the story, Min and Jade did have what it takes to apply a will-powered effort, as the main prerequisite for them to be able to attain a social prominence.

Hence, these characters’ preoccupation with trying to obtain a GED-certificate: “Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs” (Saunders 2). Evidently enough, this cannot be interpreted in any other way, but as such that confirms the fact that both of the mentioned characters were ‘eros’-motivated – hence, their desire to remain on the path of a continual self-improvement.

Essentially the same can be said about the psychoanalytical significance of Min and Jade’s tendency to exhibit the indications of their willingness to indulge in violence: “’Yo, chick!’ Min shouts at the top of her lungs. ‘I’m sure you’re slapping me? And then you knock over the freaking TV? Don’t you care?’. ‘I care!’ Jade shouts back.

‘You’re the slut who nearly pulled off her own kid’s finger for no freaking reason, man!’” (Saunders 2). After all, as it was mentioned earlier, one’s violent-mindedness extrapolates the concerned person’s endowment with the excessive amount of ‘eros’.

Nevertheless, the story also implies that, along with having been attracted to ‘eros’, Min and Jade were simultaneously attracted to ‘thanatos’. The fact that both of these characters are represented as cigarette-smokers, exemplifies the validity of the earlier suggestion perfectly well. The reason for this is quite apparent – smoking can be discussed in terms of a ‘slow suicide’.

As the lecturer noted: “Slow suicide – doing things you know will end your life sooner than it would otherwise end… the thanatos-minded person starts to feel so ambivalent about living, they stop caring about how they eat, about whether they exercise, and so on” (Thanatos 3).

The characters’ ‘Thanatos’-mindedness can also be illustrated, in regards to their unconscious preoccupation with contemplating the death-related subject matters, sublimated in the Min and Jade’s taste for watching the depression-inducing shows on TV: “After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream… and we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could” (Saunders 7).

In its turn, this can be interpreted as having been indicative of the concerned characters’ unconscious strive to be exposed to the suffering of others (even if only hypothetical), as the mean of becoming less sensitive to their own death-related anxieties. Thus, there is indeed a good reason to refer to the characters of Min and Jade, as being reflective of what the psychoanalytical notion of ‘bipolarity’ stands for.

I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, concerning the significance of the motifs of ‘eros’ and ‘thanatos’ in George Saunders’s story Sea Oak, is thoroughly consistent with the paper’s initial hypothesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to think of the novel’s characters, discussed earlier, as such that illustrate the legitimacy of post-Freudian psychoanalysis, as the instrument of receiving an in-depth insight into the actual nature of what appears to be the clear indication of a particular person acting neurotically.

Works Cited

“Eros and Thanatos” – lecture.

“Evils of Eros” – lecture.

“Thanatos” – lecture.

Saunders, George “Sea Oak”.

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