People make decisions all the time. Do you want steak or chicken for dinner? Should you go to work or stay at home? While some decisions don’t have any long-term consequences, others may change the course of your life. The decision to have steak today may mean you are having a rare treat, a good meal or you’re breaking your diet completely. The decision to go to work or stay at home might be a wise choice that is keeping your co-workers healthy while you recover from illness, it might be necessary to get in that all-important doctor visit or it might be a sign that you’re opting to be very irresponsible. What these examples show is that there are times when one decision is harmless, times when it is the right decision to move your future-forward, and times when the same decision can be disastrous. These concepts are a part of being human and, like many other common human conditions, are often incorporated into the various forms of imaginative literature. This can be seen when one examines the texts of literature in poetry, short stories and plays. How one simple decision can function to make or break a person can be seen in poems such as Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool”, short stories like William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and plays such as Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman.”
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In her poem “We Real Cool”, Brooks is talking about the teenagers that she saw running wild through the mid-1900s Chicago streets. They would get together in gangs and do nothing with their lives but hang out on street corners causing trouble and getting involved in crime. This, of course, leads to them participating in small crimes, beginning with lurking late and then learning to ‘strike straight.’
the poem to indicate how the boys then begin to associate sin with their inner selves, drinking and partying until they die an early death as a result of their actions. At the time Brooks wrote her poem, jazz was in full swing in the urban north and black people were finding their own voices in an increasingly receptive modern public. The brevity of language associated with the modern literary movement as well as the jazzy rhythms of the Chicago city scene can be found within her lines. The way in which Brooks separates the stanzas of her poem allows for a progression of thought through the very simple statements presented. The lines “We real cool. We left school” (1-2) talk about the way in which the boys would leave the time-wasting efforts of the school in the city in order to hang out and display their ‘cool’ on the street corners. The way in which she presents the poem thus illustrates how the self-indulgent decisions of the teenagers are destructive to themselves as well as to the black community as a whole. They drag themselves down and encourage others to join them in the streets instead of working hard to achieve something better at the same time that they commit crimes and make the community unsafe for others. However, the way she chooses to tell the story gives it a great deal of sarcastic expression in discussing the ‘cool’ status of the boys. She makes them seem ridiculous and sad in their behavior while she emphasizes the intelligence, creativity, and self-awareness of the rest of the community as they watch these boys make their disastrous choice.
William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” opens with the young boy Sartoris in a crowded and angry courtroom where his father is on trial for allegedly burning down a barn. As he struggles with the need to choose between telling the truth as he would be sworn to do and remaining loyal to his family, Sartoris is rescued at the last minute and the family barely makes it out of town intact. While they make their way to yet another small subsistence farm, though, Sartoris’ father and brother know what Sarty was about, to tell the truth. Throughout most of the action of the story, Sartoris has little option but to follow his quietly menacing father as he tries to understand the dynamics taking place around him. Hints about the father’s character are provided by the narrator, but they remain detached and relatively limited as in the night the family spends by the campfire: “older still, he [Sartoris] might have divined the true reason [for the small fire]: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or powder spoke to other men, like the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion” (1623). As he begins to understand more and more about his father, Sartoris does begin to understand that it has been the decisions made by his father that has forced the family to continue moving and continue living at such a low subsistence level. As he watches his father deliberately destroy the wealthy man’s rug, first by dragging his dirty boots across it and then giving it to Sarty’s incompetent older sisters to clean, Sarty begins to distance himself from the family.
Finally understanding that his father intends to burn down de Spain’s barn in revenge for the justified, and tempered, a penalty imposed by de Spain over the carpet, Sarty’s individuality bursts through as he decides to warn de Spain and run away from his family.
Throughout Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman,” Willy continues to make decisions based on a faulty vision of the important things in life. He has already decided to dedicate most of his life to pay off the house he and his family live in, but this provides him with very little satisfaction in the end as he tells his wife, “Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it” (4). This statement reveals the emptiness Willy has found in the accomplishment of providing his family with a home of their own as his sons prepare to leave again.
As Linda tries to soothe him, he reminds her “some people accomplish something” (4) indicating that simply owning a home and raising a family isn’t enough to give him the sense of satisfaction he’d thought he’d have at this point in his life. As he drifts in and out of his memories, Willy slowly reveals that while he had a vague notion of what he wanted as including the house and kids, there was also a significant element of something beyond this that equaled ‘success’ to him and that he always sought. It can be seen that Willy’s ideas are flawed as he talks with his boys in several memorable scenes in which he is seen to be attempting to inflate his own importance and the prestige of his job, “they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car on any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own” (18). As a result of his boasting, a great deal of what his family knows about Willy is based upon the image he feels he must portray of himself in order to bring himself in line with his fuzzy notion of what he should be.
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As a result of his decisions, Willy reveals how his impression of successful people lies in the degree to which he can impress others rather than anything tangible or helpful for society and fails as a result.
In all three of these works, one can see how the characters’ lives are shaped by the decisions they make.
The kids in Brooks’ poem limit their options in life by choosing to skip school and hang out on the corner instead.
Because they don’t want to work and they can’t find a job with no education, their only option for supporting themselves is to steal from others and bring the neighborhood down. By choosing to express herself the way she does, though, Brooks highlights the fact that it is only a small proportion of the population that is choosing this lifestyle. In Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” Sartoris discovers through close observation of the events occurring around him that while his father has reason to be angry with the world, it is as a result of the father’s actions that the family is never able to get a better position in life. Sartoris finally reaches a point at which he must decide whether to side with his father or with society and chooses to follow his own sense of fairness and justice. It is more difficult to see how Willy’s decisions have led him to where he is in life in Arthur Miller’s play because of the length of time covered. However, Willy is seen throughout the play to have always decided to place his faith in the strength of his connections as security for his future, but these connections proved shallow because they were invested in business contacts rather than bonds of love and affection. In each case, it is the decisions these characters make in their lives that determine whether they will live happily ever after or suffer life or empty delusion and disappointment.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. 3rd Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann & Robert O’Clair (eds.). New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003: 145.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4td Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989, pp. 1621-1633.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking Press, 1949.