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Ah, Freud, the perennial favorite of old-school literature professors. Unabashed Willie serves as a prime example of what Freud called the id, otherwise known as the "I'll do what I want when I want to whomever I want" part of our nature. According to Freud, it's the only part of our personality that we are born with, which seems fitting for a character that is metaphorically reborn from his hole.
The id is exclusively and singularly concerned with our needs and urges. It's sort of like a hedonistic wild child, which pretty much describes Willie to a T. For example, remember when we first meet Willie? What's the first thing that Winnie has to tell him?
Slip on your drawers, dear, before you get singed. (1.1)
Willie, unlike most people, doesn't feel like he needs to follow the rules society has set out. He does what he wants, when he wants. If he feels like ogling at a postcard that is "genuine pure filth" then that's what he does—much to his wife's chagrin. If he wants to pick his nose and eat his pickings then that's what he does. Willie simply does what he wants. He has the gift Winnie desperately desires, that of not caring "for anything" and of "no interest—in life" (1.1).
Silence from Willie is exercised to exhaustion in the second act, where Willie only gets one (barely audible) line, "Win" (2.3). However, it's not as if Willie's been a loquacious presence throughout the play. In fact, the extent to which Willie actually engages in a conversation with Winnie is questionable. Many times it seems as if Willie is repeating random phrases, such as "opening for smart youth" (1.4) or "wanted bright boy" (1.6) for the sake of repetition, or to fill the void of silence.
Overall, he's a pretty useless character. As the mysterious Mr. Cooker (or is it Mr. Shower) said,
What good is he to her like that? (1.31)
Which leads us to our next question, what does Willie actually do? As a husband, he doesn't contribute much to the relationship… if we can even call what Winnie and Willie have "a relationship."
In reality, one of the phrases that Willie utters, "castrated male swine" (1.32), serves as a fitting description of his role in the play. He lives like an animal and according to Winnie lacks a "zest for life" (1.1) and "jizz" (2.2), terms that can be interpreted as euphemisms for semen. But the question remains, does Willie redeem himself in the end? Does he remain silent at the end of the play or does he literally go out with a bang?
It's true that Willie doesn't say much, but still we haven't asked ourselves why that might be the case. Although Winnie attempts to engage Willie in a conversation, it seems equally true that she simply wants someone there to listen to her and not necessarily join in the conversation, "to know you are there within hearing and conceivably on the semi-alert is…. er… paradise enow" (1.29).
A large part of the time, Winnie doesn't actually talk to Willie but rather at Willie, and when Willie does respond she simply uses his response as a springboard to talk about a memory or an anecdote of hers. It's clear that Willie is time and time again overshadowed by Winnie's presence. Imagine living that way, year after year after year. After a while, you (like Willie) might just stop speaking. You might ask yourself, what's the point?
To make matters worse, Willie is constantly emasculated by Winnie, she tells him what to do ("slip on your drawers, dear, before you get singed" (1.1)), how to do it ("not head first, stupid, how are you going to turn?" (1.9)), and when he doesn't listen she blames it on his lack of "zest" (1.1). Willie spends most of the play being told what to do—it could even be argued that their relationship mirrors a mother and child relationship more than a marriage.
And, if we look at it from our old pal, Freud's, perspective, Winnie definitely wears the pants around the mound. In fact, from the beginning of the play the gender roles seemed to be reversed. Winnie sits erect in a mound while Willie lies inside his hole.
What's more, many of the objects Winnie carries are phallic in nature (umbrella, gun). Winnie is also the keeper of the object that can wreak the most havoc: the gun. Apparently, at some point in their relationship Willie ceded power of the gun and Winnie's been taking care of it ever since:
Remember Brownie, Willie? Remember how you used to keep on at me to take it away from you? Take it away, Winnie, take it away, before I put myself out of my misery. (1.29)
Oh, and what about the physical abuse. Seriously Winnie, did you really forget that Willie was behind the mound when you threw the medicine bottle his way? Come on…