Literary Depictions of Mendacity
Below is my first ever Classical Reception essay. It is dull. I had to write it for school. Why am I posting this then? Because content.
Lying is a universal phenomenon. As children, we quickly discover that we can often get what we want by lying; though usually blissfully unaware of the complex moral issues inherent in the act. It therefore comes as no surprise that the idea of mendacity is ubiquitously discussed in folklore and literature. Throughout this article I shall discuss the role of mendacity in various literary works and plays: Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, and Virgil’s The Aeneid. By studying their use of mendacity, we familiarize ourselves with each author’s interpretation of morality, and see how they attempt answer questions about why humans so often resort to lying.
There perhaps is no other play that better explores the topic of mendacity than Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Set on a Southern family’s estate in Mississippi, the play dramatically depicts the gradual buildup of tension within a family, until the dramatic denouement at the end; a melodramatic confrontation of lies and mortality. The son, Brick, becomes an alcoholic following the death of his friend Skipper; with whom he cannot admit he had gay feelings for. Maggie, Brick’s wife, feels both a lust for Brick’s attention romantically and sexually, and a yearn for acquiring the family estate that they might be given after the death of the estate’s owner, Big Papa; Brick’s father. Big Papa gets cancer, and though the tests come back negative, the rest of the family—other than Big Mama—knows that he actually still has cancer. Big Mama, wife of Big Papa, lies to herself about Big Papa loving her, choosing not to confront his offensive insulting jokes and distancing of her by finding constant distractions from the pain. Gooper, the other son of Big Papa, comes back to the estate with his wife Mae in order to try to gain the estate of land as well. Mae and Gooper constantly jab at Maggie and Brick for not having children, and lie to Big Mama and Big Papa in order to try to get what they want. At the end of the play, the characters come forward with the harsh truths about Big Papa’s cancer, Brick’s alcoholism, and the superficiality polluting the entire estate.
Mendacity is viewed to the characters as a necessary means of getting what they want, but rarely, if ever, ends up satisfying the happiness of the characters. For the majority of the characters, lying acts as a crutch (one of the symbols used by Brick throughout the play), granting each of them the ability to continue living the veneer lie of a life that they feel they must present to other people. All of the characters are portrayed as humanly close to real people as possible, just under a certain personal stress that compels them to lie. Each character is aware that their lying is morally wrong, yet continue to do so out of a very human fear of being genuine and personal about death, homosexuality, being emotionally hurt, or confronting their own superficiality.
John Cariani also visits mendacity frequently in the play Almost, Maine in one vignette titled: “Sad & Glad”. Cariani presents the emotionally shallow Jimmy sitting alone in a bar, hearing the jubilant sounds of bridesmaids cheer in the background. When Sandrine, Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend, walks past him, they see each other for the first time in 8 months since she left him. Jimmy tries to put up the veneer of happiness, lying through his self-expression that he was never really hurt by her leaving, and trying to coax her into hanging out or getting back together with him. Sandrine wants—almost desperately—to get away from him, and lies in order to do so. Eventually, Sandrine confesses that she’s at her Bachelorette party and that she’s marrying the handsome Martin Laferriere. Jimmy is visibly deeply hurt by this, but still attempts to put up his veneer. After an embarrassing display of emotion, he confesses that she had a large impact on his life, asking if he could kiss her. Sandrine rejects this, but offers hope to Jimmy that he can move past her. Jimmy coincidentally meets another girl at the bar in an event representative of fate, and stares hopefully off stage into the blackout. Throughout the piece, Cariani cleverly exposes the subtle lies we tell ourselves to keep going, and represents their harmful effects to us in the form of a character so visibly pathetic yet unaware of his faults. Cariani also presents how not finding closure in truths (Sandrine left Jimmy in the night, and didn’t tell him that she was getting married) actually harms others by allowing them to live in ignorance of the truth. Again, we see the main characters being led on by ignorance, eventually being hurt by the painful truths the others have neglected to say out of fear.
Virgil presents the idea of lying in two different forms: the malicious character “Sinon” in the Trojan War, and through irony in Jupiter’s speech. In the Trojan War, the villainous character of Sinon lies to the Greeks, telling them the Trojan horse is a gift for winning the Trojan War. In lying, Sinon is committing horrible treachery against the Greeks, ‘proving’ that even though the Trojans ended up winning the war, they could only have done so out of deceit. Sinon is treated as a traitor—presented in Dante’s Inferno as one of the three men being chewed by Satan himself for the worst crimes—, with his actions echoing throughout history as unforgivably immoral. Virgil’s propaganda is a form of lying in and of itself, as Sinon was not the sole cause for the downfall of the Greeks.
Virgil also uses irony as a form of lying against Augustus. The emperor Augustus, known for his demonstrations of power and propaganda, did not take too kindly to criticisms of his government, and commissioned poets and writers to only write of his triumphs. Virgil was stuck here, and thus used irony cleverly throughout his work in order to appear as though he loved Augustus, while conveying his criticisms of the emperor to anyone smart enough to understand his text. The best example of this occurs in Jupiter’s speech, also in the Aeneid. Jupiter prophesied that the Greek remnants of the war would go on to rule a great empire (Rome). Virgil, using the voice of Jupiter, describes the nature of a leader very similar to Augustus, but with words with double-entendres that counteract their initial definitions. By doing this, Virgil is using a form of lie against the power of tyranny in order to reveal the truth to people of the future. Virgil both condemns the act of lying as immoral, yet does so himself for the better of his republic.
These depictions of lies aid to reveal fundamental truths about human nature. All of us are inclined to lie, both to ourselves and to others. However, the morality of these lies can be bent depending upon the purpose of the lie, and how drastically it harms others. A white lie may have indirect consequences that would lead others to be harmed, while another lie may present truths about tyrannical government. When taking apart these texts, we discover not that “lying is bad”, but that lying is a natural phenomenon that we should constantly be aware of, for it could end up profoundly affecting the people and societies around us.