Subtitle: For us the best day is always yesterday. Nostalgia beckons, every time we try to move into the future or face the realties of the present. We always end up with the same eerie feeling that yesterday had more opportunity, more happiness and love than today. The future is in the backdrop; the past is in the foreground, and nearly everything we do for ourselves in trying to live the American Dream fades in the face of yesterday.
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The main protagonist in the play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is depicted in many scenes of the play as having been an ambitious man in his younger days. We are inclined to believe in the viability of his plans for the future when he is a young man and the future is an open field. This is varied by the realization that what we are seeing are merely flashbacks and still, he is stuck in the past. He has refused to let go of what he though was the embodiment of the American Dream. Even in the present, he still has somewhat of a superficial notion of what the American dream is and his endless idolization of David Singleman, a salesman with his fair share of problems.
Biff Loman is the superficially the ideal son, he plays football and has good looks. Willy passes the notion of what the American Dream is to his son. He too joins the nostalgic bandwagon because he flanks math and he can’t make it to college. He becomes a hoodlum and he sinks into then sinks into the sea of regret. His brother, Happy, is the classic sadist. He watches as his brother and father sink deeper and deeper into nostalgia and depression. He even encourages his brother’s false ego by telling him to borrow because he is famous.
The play tries to depict the downfall of an ordinary man, as opposed to the classic and conventional stories of downfall of great men. The time shifts are pregnant with nostalgia to the point where Willy is hallucinating conversations with his brother Ben. This dementia is unexplained to the other characters. It goes to show that nostalgia is infectious. The fact that it is subjective as opposed to being objective is a clear demonstration of this. It depicts a one-sided view of the past, the fantasies of a man who still thinks he can achieve the goals he set when he was young.
This lack of objectivity construes the actual meaning of a flashback. The subjectivity in memory is a result of nostalgic fantasies. Willy eventually deteriorates mentally, and the nostalgic memories cease to be a part of his imagination as he starts living in two parallel worlds. One, the real world where the play is set and two, the parallel world that exists only in his mind. This retrogressive hold on reality is a warning sign of course the mind takes when subjected to regret and nostalgia.
Miller uses the story to imply that while Willy’s hold on the past is voluntary, the thoughts and notions are implanted by the capitalist mentality. The very basis of the American Dream is the idea that it is possible to achieve anything. Where this does not happen like in Willy’s case, the results are chronic nostalgia and a sense of regret. Uncontrolled, this can lead to mental deterioration and a loss of sense of time and reality.
The setting of the play is also meant to convey this theme of nostalgia. When the theme is set in the present, the cast must use only the imaginary stage door to the left. When the characters slip into nostalgia, they openly move through walls. This is meant to imply the door to the present is reality and it cannot be ignored. Where the scenes focus on flashbacks, the moving through walls is a symbol of the limitlessness of nostalgia and imagination. It symbolizes life in an ideal world where one can move through walls which symbolises an imaginary ability to move through the hurdles presented by reality. We see Willy Loman as the embodiment of this message; he prefers to dwell on the past he cannot control because he feels it keeps him alive. This, eventually, becomes his parallel life and he fails to separate reality from fantasy.
The 1879 play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is another story that embodies this concept. The main character Nora is disadvantaged due to her gender. The play paints a scenario of women emancipating themselves. The main depiction of a lack of reality is Trovald; he lives in his own ideal world where everyone plays by his rules. To him, such things as social class and image are more important than happiness. He is obsessed about guarding the name of the family as he views it as his obligation. His repeated deficiency of a sense of reality makes his life and his family a living hell. It causes excess emotional problems for his family. Krogstard can not even call him by his first name again because he viewed it as disrespect.
Ibsen’s use of middle class characters is similar to Miller’s approach, they both use middle-class characters to show how the past can have an effect on the present. The main protagonists are used to show how nostalgia can harm relationships and mental health.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien are an epitome of how reality can be blended with the past.The author is the main protagonist and he prefers to use fiction to tell the story. His firsthand experiences in the Vietnam War are the cause of nostalgia. In The Things They Carried, lieutenant jimmy Cross refuses to accept that he was turned down by Martha because she does not like him. He refuses to accept this reality and it leads to obsession. This metamorphoses into dementia when he believes that his infatuation led to the demise of Ted Lavender.
The whole collection is full of stories of nostalgia and loss of reality. Norman Bower, for example, refuses to believe that it is not his fault that Kiowa died. In real life, he killed himself because he never accepted the realities of Kiowa’s death. Bob Kiley enjoys comics but he reaches his breaking point and dementia sets in and he succumbs. His hold on time and reality is incapacitated and he ends up shooting himself in the foot. Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose as and a charm for good luck. He refuses to get rid of it even after she dumps him. His hold onto her is nostalgia mixed with superstition.
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Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen are the main characters of ‘Enemies and Friends’. They are bound by a pact where they promised to murder each other if either is incapacitated. Strunk steps on a live mine, loses is right leg and he has to beg Jensen not to kill him. This are the regrets of war; pacts made without much thought or consideration.
The 1983 play Fences by August Wilson also has a plot with a blend of nostalgia and regret. The main characters son Cory returns from war and he has not forgiven his father. It is many years after their fight and the fact that both of them still hold to the past is the epitome of the detached reality and nostalgia. Troy loves his son, but he views apologizing as a sign of weakness that a father should not in any way show a son.
In the novel The Company of Women (1981) by Mary Catherine Gordon, another feature of nostalgia is depicted. It is the regret of things done by Felicitas in the Columbia University. She becomes involved with a professor who impregnates her and bolts. She then marries for convenience and not for love. In her confessions when she returns to the company of women are interesting; she seems to regret most of what she has done but unlike other characters such as Willy’s she accepts her fate and adjusts to it.
The Mule Bone by Hughes and Hurston shows the contrast, a lack of regret based on religious misconceptions. Jim admits to hitting Dave but refuses to acknowledge that he broke the law. He results to citing scripture as defense. This lack of regret is buoyed by the euphoric nature of his church’s supporters who even segregate themselves from Dave’s supporters. The lack of remorse or regret in this case shows a concrete detachment from reality. The nostalgia that Jim experiences when he is banished even makes him doubt whether Daisy still loves him. This play is different in that it has a happy ending. The two men are reconciled and they both lose interest in Daisy, their main bone of contention.
Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin’s Brigadir (1769) centered on ridiculing the assimilation into French mannerisms. The author tried to create a scenario where the Russian audience would view the story for its comic worth, but would also realize the risks of adapting foreign culture.
M.F.K Fisher’s 1971 classic Among Friends is an attempt by the writer to put her own nostalgia in words. She focuses on her early life when she was unsuccessful and had raw talent. She uses the realties of her life to create a positive nostalgia in the mind of the reader, but it also bears a sense of regret. The latter is caused by the realization that she dent know who her friends are anymore.
No play embodies the realities of nostalgia like the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. The main character in the play, Willie Loman, is a man in his sixties whose life is filled with flashbacks of days gone. The bulk of the play is in flashbacks and everything, including the setting and the imaginary walls, speak of the mentality we all have for the past. The Loman clan is a sad tale of people who live in the past and some, like Biff, who are stuck in what they presume reality to be.
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