Revised Response #4
Dr. Mary Kuhlman
World Literature II
April 27, 2004
Comparison of Blake’s “The Sick Rose”
and American Beauty
Sex and politics have proved to be two very popular themes that have
survived throughout centuries of literature, poetry, drama, and most
recently, cinema. As one of the touchiest subjects to expose to the
public, the sex theme has proven time and time again to be not only a
controversial tool for artists and authors, but also a topic that can be as
thought provoking as any other. Politics, on the other hand, can be just as
controversial. By criticizing modern society and analyzing culture, one
suggests the option to question our superiors. This is a dangerous and
intriguing proposal. It isn’t surprising then, that poets such as William
Blake would utilize these two particular concepts and capture their violent
possibilities in verse. More recently, directors such as Sam Mendez have
exposed the raw cruelty of sexual anxiety and of corrupt politics on the
silver screen. In this paper, I will compare Mendez’s movie American Beauty
and Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose” and show how they each utilize the
concepts of sexual immorality and political corruption.
Mendez’s movie, American Beauty attempts to depict the sexual
desperation of an older, middle-aged man lusting after a young girl. Not
unlike Blake’s poem, “The Sick Rose,” Mendez’s movie contains numerous
objects of symbolism, the prominent one being a scarlet rose. In this
paper, I will point out similarities in these two particular works of Blake
and Mendez and show how the theme of sexual tension and its devastating
effects is represented in both.
American Beauty is a stark artistic piece representing individual
torment and family calamity situated around the central character of Lester
Burnham. Lester is a middle-aged, suburban-dwelling desk worker who
suddenly finds himself in an experience similar to a mid-life crisis after
falling in love with his daughter’s beautiful high school friend, Angela
Hayes. The infatuation develops into an unhealthy sexual obsession fueled
by Angela’s provocative implications. Angela is like the rose in Blake’s
piece because she is the object of desire. The movie is riddled with
Lester’s daydreams and nighttime fantasies of Angela, and each time, her
naked body is covered with scarlet rose petals, a traditional symbol of
feminine sex appeal. Like Blake’s rose, Angela is sick with an unnatural
and unhealthy need for the attention of a much older man. The only
difference between the two objects of desire is Blake’s rose is sick after
it has been violated, Angela is sick before.
Lester Burnham is like Blake’s “invisible worm.” A phallic symbol of
manhood, the worm seeks to devirginize the rose. Much the same, Lester
anticipates deflowering the young Angela. Also, as the worm is “invisible”
in the night, Lester’s love for Angela is kept a secret from his wife and
As the disturbing relationship between Lester and Angela approaches
its climax, they find themselves in a room together sipping a beer and
listening to music. Soon Lester is seen slowly pulling Angela’s jeans to
her ankles. As in Blake’s poem, a storm rages just outside the Burnham’s
French doors. The “howling storm” in the poem is the setting of violation,
and in the movie, it is a parallel to the uncontrollable calamity occurring
inside the house.
Each piece embraces a contrast between innocence and the lack thereof.
In both the movie and the poem, a “life is destroyed” and purity is sadly
lost forever. Both focus on two central themes, one of violent sexual
infatuation. Each creator succeeds in representing the devastating effects
of sexual desire.
On the other hand, Blake’s poem has been interpreted as something
other than just a poem about sexual desire and loss of innocence. Many
believe that “The Sick Rose” was a political statement about the injustices
of society. He wrote the poem at the start of the Industrial Revolution and
it was rumored that he opposed the monotonous, materialized society that
began to overrun his native England.
Blake could have used the sick rose to symbolize the beauty of England
which had been stealthily corrupted by the oppression of what he saw as an
unseen cancer. The worm in the poem could have been meant to illustrate the
avarice and exploitation of the industrial revolution. The “howling storm”
could have been a metaphor for the sound of machinery and the “bed of
crimson joy” could be Blake’s interpretation of England’s countryside.
In American Beauty, Mendez also utilizes an underlying theme of
political objection. The movie is not only a cry for help but also a call
for change. It exposes the ugly face of dysfunctional family life commonly
hidden behind the mask that is American suburbia. Each character is stuck
in his or her own personal prison of social norms, parental expectations,
rules, reputation, and even marriage. The movie is a stand against what the
“American Dream” has become. Those who envision the big house, the nice
car, the beautiful wife, and the well-paying job are convinced that’s all
one needs to be happy in America. But they are ignorant to the monotony and
meaninglessness of that sort of lifestyle.
“American Beauty” is also a challenge to the typical set of American
values. In the movie, Carolyn Burnham is more focused keeping their “four
thousand dollar sofa” clean than fixing her loveless failing marriage.
Lester Burnham is more engrossed in a beautiful young woman than having an
actual conversation with his daughter. Frank Fitts is too busy making sure
his son isn’t gay to face his own homosexual issues. Angela Hayes is too
preoccupied in “not being ordinary” to recognize her severe self-image
American Beauty is about the importance of family and appreciating
those who share your life. It’s also about holding on to the values of
youth and avoiding getting caught up in “The American Dream.” To Mendez,
that dream had become like Blake’s industrial revolution; an unseen cancer
spreading across our beautiful country.
These two pieces are not only beautiful works of art and
entertainment. They succeed in rendering not only the horrible
possibilities of sexual immorality, but also the justifiable fear of
political corruption. They expose the truth to people that have been
blinded by their superiors and made ignorant by society. These works of art
may not in themselves spark a revolution, but they create discussion that
may eventually invoke change.