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Family issues have always been the leading theme of works of different authors. Human life does not stop testing the necessity and appropriateness of this social institution, and, as a result, more and more literary works dealing with various family issues appear. The current paper is concerned with two of them: Julia Alvarez’s novel YO! (first published in 1997) and Marvin Neil Simon’s play Lost in Yonkers (1991). Both works draw on the author’s life experiences, but cannot be considered as completely autobiographical.
After reading the two works the first thing that came into my mind was an old Chinese proverb that states that a hundred men may make an encampment, but it takes a woman to take a home. Though this proverb sounds a bit feministic, it admits the real role that a woman plays in keeping the home fires burning. It so happens that both works under consideration in this way or another focus on a woman’s role in family.
This point is one among others in the wide range of family issues that the novel and the play are concerned with. Though Lost in Yonkers and Yo! both address family problems, the play and the novel differ in their approaching them due to the following points: the way the women and their roles in the family are depicted; perspectives through which the family issues are disclosed and the author’s messages as far as the family problems are concerned.
Starting the analysis with Lost in Younkers I should say that the author depicts three types of women here: iron-clad Grandma Kurnitz, slightly simple in the head Aunt Bella and Aunt Gert, who talks when she breathes in. All the three characters are skillfully depicted by the author, but Grandma Kurnitz interests the reader most of all.
With the firsts lines of the play she gets the author’s description that cannot but fascinate the reader: all members of her family are trembling with fear when they see or even think of her, Jay confesses that once he draw a picture of her and called it “Frankenstein’s Grandma”. The boy says that she used to have a look as if she was going to kill somebody. Jay and Arty agree that they hate kissing their Grandma as she is a cold woman.
Throughout the play Simon resorts to various devices to characterize this woman’s iron character. Though most of them make the reader smile at the depiction, the author manages to unravel such a serious problem as this woman’s drive and its emotional toll on her and her family. Grandma Kurnitz’s character was hardened by the events in her life she had to endure: she had a difficult childhood in Germany, than she became a young widow with six children (from which only four survived) in a foreign country.
Her life taught her to be strong, hard and cold to resist the difficulties she came across. None of her children is close to her; she does not know her grandchildren and does not want them to live in her house. When this happens because her son leaves the town, Grandma Kurnitz rules with an iron hand and terrifies her grandchildren.
Another aspect of Grandma’s depiction is her relationship with her daughter Bella. Jay and Arty say that “she’s a little […] closed for repairs”, “she’s got marbles rolling around up there” (Simon 4). When Bella was a child Grandma kept beating her when she did something wrong and now she continues to exact a truly terrible authority over her. The presence of the boys seems to encourage her for rebellion: if she does not get love from her mother, she seeks for it from her nephews and other people around:
…I’ll never stop wanting what I don’t have…It’s too late to go back for me…Maybe I’m still a child but now there’s just enough woman in me to make me miserable. We have to learn to deal with that somehow, you and me…And it can never be the same anymore… (She gets up) I’ll put my things away…I think we’ve both said enough for today…don’t you? (Simon 114)
I suppose that Bella’s rebellion can ruin the atmosphere of fear that reigns in the family. Extremely difficult woman is responsible for this atmosphere and an extremely simple woman is expected to change the relationships within the family. Fear and constant sufferings that the members of the family inflict upon one another prevent any family from living a happy life. In his play Simon depicted one of thousands of American families of this type paying special attention to the influence that women can have on the relationships within it.
A difficult mother-daughter relationship is one of the subjects that Alvarez’s novel focuses on. When the family emigrated to the USA the most difficult thing for them was that the mother and Yolanda could not avoid each other:
Back on the island we lived as a clan, not what is called here the nuclear family, which already the name should be a hint that you’re asking for trouble cooping up related tempers in the small explosive chambers of each other’s attention. The girls used to run with their gang of cousins, supervised — if you can call it that — by a whole bunch of aunts and nanny-maids who had wiped our bottoms when we were babies and now were wiping the drool of the old people who had hired them a half a century ago. There was never any reason to clash with anyone (Alvarez 14).
The main reason for quarrels in Yo’s family was that she used her literary skills to describe her family. The members of the family were not ready to have their actions, events, feelings and emotions revealed in front of the public. But Yo keeps writing about what she knows – her family. In the opening chapters one of her sister says:
I always was a reader, but now, whenever I open a book, even if it’s something by someone dead, all I can do is shake my head and think oh my god, I wonder what their family thought of this story (Alvarez 7).
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Throughout the novel we observe how poisonous for others one’s writing might be. The question arises: if it caused so many problems within one family – wasn’t it a sufficient reason for the writer to stop depicting her family? In fact, the novel shows that the answer is no. May be, to give Yo’s characters an opportunity to take some revenge of her, Alvarez makes them speak about the writer. The reader gets to know about what kind of person Yo was through different perspectives that the narrators choose to disclose. We never find a word of Yo about herself – it is always someone else who talks of her. But still, the reader is suggested a lot of details from Yo’s life that create an image of her as of an intelligent, passionate, strong will and determined at the beginning and self-doubting and insecure at the end woman. At her 33 Yo is lonely, twice divorced, childless woman striving to find her personal identity.
Along with Yo’s character Alvarez also depicts other feminine characters; their fully nuanced portraits contribute to the general picture of the family described.
When I analyze the perspectives through which the family issues are disclosed, I observe that in Simon’s play setting of the World War II influences the whole family’s life. As the author published his play when America was entering the Gulf War in the Middle East, the importance of one’s family and family survival appeared to be the leading themes in the narration. Actually, these themes remain burning issues during any military conflict.
As for Alvarez’s work, the family issues are discovered through art perspective. The author tries to answer the question of where the borderline between the public and the personal is and whether the writer was morally empowered to reveal the intricate details from her family life. What I liked in this work most of all is that the author made me think of the problem of correlation between art and family issues. Never before I have thought of it – and it turned out that one’s art can become a problem for people it focuses on.
I am inclined to think that in both works under consideration the authors succeeded in rendering their messages as far as the family problem is concerned. In the play’s case it was the author’s appeal to learn to care of one’s family and to appreciate its unity. According to Simon, there is no place for fear in a happy family; its members willingly share their feelings and emotions with each other without fearing of being beaten or shouted down.
Alvarez’s novel stresses on the importance of a person’s ability to combine one’s own preferences and caring of the interests of other people. I believe it is really difficult to retain one’s personal identity and to take care of others without hurting them. To my mind, the author tried to persuade the reader that though difficult, it is possible.
In conclusion, I should say the two authors made professional attempts to understand a concept of family in its different dimensions. Though they differ in the perspectives through which the problem is disclosed and the emphases made in their depiction, both the play and the novel focus on the importance of family in one’s life and efforts that one should make to have it friendly. The role of women in family happiness is emphasized. The reader is encouraged to reconsider one’s attitude to his or her family and do his/her best to make it really happy.
Alvarez, Julia. !YO! Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1997.
Simon, Neil. Lost in Yonkers. Plume, 1993.