In the complex world of contemporary relationships, alienation occurs when empathy and caring are replaced by self interest, distancing, and misunderstanding. The inabilities to adapt to the needs of intolerance for differences, and the unwillingness to see the world from someone else’s point of view are among the reasons for modern alienation. The authors of “My Singular Irene” and “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” use this theme as a springboard for stories of magical realism. The characters of Irene and the Very Old Man are alienated in different ways–Irene through an inhibited marriage, the Very Old Man because he is an unexplained oddity in a world that needs traditional answers–yet both characters triumph over their dilemma through fantasy–specifically, the technique of flight. The fantasy of flying allows the characters to transcend restraints and free themselves into their own individuality. Misunderstood and antagonized to the point of alienation for their differences from the mainstream, Irene and the Very Old Man opt to escape through the fantastic–their freedom and self-dignity being more important than anything else, demonstrating that freedom awaits those liberate themselves.
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Irene (“My Singular Irene”) is alienated because she is in a male-dominated marriage, living with someone who expects her to conform to a middle class role and stick to his rules (which include no unauthorized socializing)–all in exchange for a nice but unhappy lifestyle. In the opinion of her husband, the narrator, Irene should be grateful for “the comfort of her house,”(8) which he reminds us requires “walk(ing) a clear and straight path”(8). Having worked hard for their lifestyle, he is proud of the image it has given him: “an honorable citizen.” But Irene’s husband seems to be more concerned about status in life than having an equitable marriage, with mutual respect and empathy. He’s not a monster, but he treats his wife like a secondary person, instead of a partner. With her married life like a prison. Irene needs something more–social images and materialism are just not enough. The house he has provided her with has been more of a jail more than home, sweet, home. Indeed, for all his attraction to her, we realize his attention may be superficial. He also puts her down, referring to her as whimsical, stupid, and an idiot at times. She is pushed into becoming more of a stereotype than a human being with needs.
Because of his sexist attitude towards women in general, Irene’s husband acts like the master of the house, and not just because he is the breadwinner. His air of rational superiority and intolerance for negotiation further alienates him from Irene. For her, life should be spontaneous, impulsive, at risk; for him, life must be carefully planned. The problem is, Irene’s husband wants to lay down the law, suppress her individuality and social needs: “I was not going to permit my wife to run around as if she had no one to protect her”(9). Sure, it seems like he wants to ensure her safety, but she wants to do that for herself. She doesn’t necessarily want to be safe: she wants to grow! Her husband’s plan was to keep power unequal and segregated, an old-fashioned marriage. All she has to do is be “prepared to go with me to the end of the world”(9)–but this type of relationship is too repressive. A butterfly needing to emerge from its cocoon, Irene has little use for a traditional, conventional marriage. The more he tries to restrain Irene, the more she spins away, distancing herself from his fear of women who “invent things” and “plot”(10). To her, the trip to the country is an escape, a chance to unravel the bonds of an inhibited marriage. She can throw away the rules and liberate herself. Symbolically, she throws away her clothes. He thinks she is going crazy. This is emancipating to her; to her husband, it is overtly sensual, another sexist view of her as a woman. Irene strips away everything, running towards the freedom of nature, like she was stepping back into a Garden of Eden, while he dismisses her as “stupid”(10). Naked, she starts to emerge from the cocoon of her previous lifestyle and project into the butterfly of her new life. She doesn’t need the protection of her husband anymore. She is metamorphosing into the independent creature she wants to be. Befuddled, her husband is fixed on how bizarre the whole scene is, this rising up of invading insects against him–but even to that she is indifferent. Instead, her mind is focused on going through a primal transformation, opening up an ancient bond between her and nature. To her husband, the butterflies are “seducers”(12), but to Irene they are like ” an old friend” (12). As she transcends from reality to fantasy in the final scene in a ritualistic bonding with nature, she sheds the skin of married life, transforming into a butterfly–her potential realized, capable of flight through fantasy, gone from her husband’s life forever.
“The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a different story of alienation. The Very Old Man is a fantasy creature who finds himself lost on Earth, a visitor from somewhere else whose new home is a village full of the curious, uneducated, and the religious. He is an oddity: a human-like creature with wings, not quite man, not quite supernatural. More freak of nature than act of God, he alienates because he doesn’t quite fit in: he is neither the ideal of an angel nor the proof of a demon. He reminds us of the physically deformed, yet he is a complete mystery: no one knows his identity nor purpose. Speculation about his meaning runs wild but his captors settle for just treating him like a circus side show while the Very Old Man just languishes amidst their discrimination. Ironically, even though this winged creature is disgusting to some, their human response to him is equally disgusting, like a mirror of vices and values, as well as being the author’s commentary on how we inhumanely respond to what is innocently alien and non-conforming. Some of these villagers want to kill the Very Old Man outright; others want to make money off of him. Few recognize that he is sensitive, can feel pain (just like them), cry; his physical and supernatural differences alienate him from the outside world. Disgusting the outside world with his appearance, challenging it to look beyond what they see, all the very Old Man can do is be patient–wait until his wings are strong enough to give him freedom and make him ” an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea”(40). He cannot get respect on this Earth: let him defy it.
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Alienation and the triumph over alienation are the themes of “My Singular Irene” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The stories speak of characters who are either repressed or lost and suffer alienation because they are misunderstood and/or nonconformist. Irene has waited in her unelaborated marriage until she has the opportunity to free herself. The Very Old Man waits patiently in his captivity until he is also strong enough to free himself. Both use the technique of flight, cloaked in magical realism, to achieve their purpose. Fantasy is their liberation, the supernatural their route to freedom from alienation. To be truly broken from their prison, they must be freed from the sources of alienation: discrimination, stereotyping, and misunderstanding. Escape doesn’t solve the deeper problem, but it celebrates the power of the individual.
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