Wesker’s Roots: Change and Resistance
In his play Roots, Arnold Wesker wants to give the reader the message of the need for “change” in a changing society. Wesker aims to portray the contrast between keeping in-touch with the transformations in the society and maintaining allegiance to time-held traditions and beliefs, specifically on the part of Norfolk people whose character is to instinctively hold-back and resist the things which could result to several changes (Goodman).
The core message of Wesker’s play revolves around the life and struggles of Beatie Bryant whose socialist influence from her lover, Ronnie Kahn, appears to try to penetrate the ideals of Beatie’s family. In order to understand the larger picture of the message of “change” in the play and the resistance of Norfolk people in particular towards any change, it should first be noted that Beatie Bryant herself came from a family whose ideals are fixed firmly on the ‘status quo’.
Beatie’s family is largely resistant to anything that can alter their ways of living and is strongly attached to and contented with their present conditions. However, given the facts that Beatie stayed in London for quite a time and has lived with her Socialist intellectual lover, Ronnie Kahn, Beatie herself has experienced changes in her life and in her perception of the world in that foreign soil. Having been able to travel far and experience first-hand the living conditions in London, Beatie realized the needed changes back home.
That perception has all the while been reinforced by her lover’s thoughts as viewers of the play will realize after seeing Beatie get back home. Returning home, it can be said that Beatie was yet again able to experience her ‘old’ life, the one which she grew-up in and shaped her personality during her younger years. During the time when she got back home, however, she did not immediately return to her ‘old’ ways.
Rather, it can be seen that she brought with her the lessons from her experiences in London along with the thoughts ingrained upon her mind by Ronnie. Back home, it was as if it was not Beatie speaking; it appeared that Ronnie’s voice was the one speaking through her mouth as she went on to argue with her family about the little things that she thought need some changes. However, the Bryant family did not easily take the suggestions of Beatie hook, line and sinker. On the contrary, they were strongly hesitant to accept any proposed changes coming from Beatie.
The reason behind that reaction from Beatie’s family can be understood from the fact that they had benefits in the past with their way of life. Through the years they were stuck to the same-old traditions and culture passed on to them from the generations that came and went before their time. As a result, it can be said that her family and Norfolk people in general do not easily give-up their time-honoured beliefs and practices for the sake of accepting changes which, for all they know, might not give them any benefits in the end.
It is the part where Wesker’s puts emphasis on the culture of Norfolk people, that anything that is new to them is not easily accepted and that their preference strongly rests on whatever it is that they have believed in for so long (McKinney). It is also important to note that the play’s setting was the middle part of the twentieth century which was a time when ‘women’s liberation’ was not yet devalued by the very overuse of the phrase. Norfolk during the late 1950’s was also largely preoccupied with farming where most of the families living in the county have a large dependence on agriculture.
Thus, even if it was already the post-war era and that much of the world has already changed during that time, Norfolk has remained in the borders of their old lifestyles. As far as Beatie is concerned, it can be said that her exposure to the people in London away from the reaches of Norfolk culture was a ‘liberating’ experience for her as it opened her mind to many other things she never knew would have been possible had she not ventured beyond the confines of her Norfolk residence.
From that point of view, Wesker is trying to highlight the idea that in order to change the perception of Norfolk people, especially women in particular, they should have a first-hand experience to the more ‘modern’ ways of living. Moreover, Wesker is also trying to send the message that without having been able to experience first-hand the more ‘modern’ ways of living there can hardly be any change in the perception of the individual. This is evident in the ways in which Beatie’s family has been resisting her new suggestions.
It was not enough for Beatie to simply hand-over to her family by word of mouth all the things she has experienced in London in the hopes of changing her family’s habits and values. It was not enough for Beatie to simply echo to her family the things that she has learned from her lover back in London, even though she did it with little to no hard feelings so that her family would take her suggestions lightly and without offending them.
None of the things she did appeared to work just to bring change to the household—this is perhaps the most telling sign that Wesker is trying to send the message that change can only commence through a direct experience of things that are new; a mere restatement or narration of such new things is not enough to convince others, especially those who have held to their old customs since time immemorial, to embrace a new set of values and beliefs.
Given the fact that Beatie was once a person who also cherished and upheld her Norfolk customs, it can be said that the time she got back home she was a new person, a quite different one at that. Yet it can also be said that Wesker might be trying to make the impression that it was not Beatie herself who came home, it was Ronnie Kahn. Through the days when Beatie and her family waited for the arrival of Ronnie, Beatie acted as if she was Ronnie, voicing-out the things that Ronnie taught her and made her well-aware of.
In a sense, Ronnie was physically absent in the Bryant household but was ‘mentally present’ in the mind of Beatie. The words she spoke by the time she got home were not originally her own words; they were Ronnie’s words. The thoughts about ‘change’ that crossed her mind by the time she was already home were not originally her own thought; they were Ronnie’s thoughts. Those things made Beatie’s family accept her suggestions hard all the more. The Beatie who came home after a time of being away was not same Beatie that the Bryant family knew.
Here was a daughter of farm labourers who spoke of foreign thoughts and words which were entirely knew to the household. Wesker’s portrayal of Beatie as a ‘changed’ person after she returned home in Norfolk suggests another idea concerning the image of Norfolk women and women in general during the 1950s. From the standpoint of Roots, women during the post-war era are prone to the external influences surrounding them, especially on foreign territory.
Women are seen as individuals who can be transformed once they are brought to places filled with somewhat ‘radical’ perceptions—radical in the sense that such perceptions are entirely new as they challenge the status quo. The time of the 1950s was a time when women were on the verge of truly liberating themselves from the bondage of the patriarchal society. Beatie Bryant is one of the many women in the world who were portrayed has having been able to get a taste of what it is and how it feels to be liberated in some other region with the extensive influence of her Socialist intellectual lover.
From such an observation dwells the irony—women wanted to be liberated in all senses of the word during the post-war era but eventually find their selves engrossed over a new way of thinking, enslaved in thoughts and deeds by the same thinking. In the case of Beatie, Wesker portrays her just as that—a women returning home from what she thinks to be a ‘liberating’ experience only to end up being encapsulated within the fences of socialist thinking, to the point of wanting to force it into the mouths of her household, so to speak. To a certain degree, she succeeded in overcoming the hurdles of the old ways which her family wanted to maintain.
Nevertheless, she failed in the end to transform the Bryant household, suggesting that anything that is new does not necessarily amount to being easily acceptable especially if the status quo is ruled by time-honoured customs and beliefs. In the third act of the play, the huge family gathering staged before the presumed arrival of Ronnie in the Bryant household invites the idea that Beatie wanted to show Ronnie that her family was not small-minded. Apparently, Ronnie did not show-up on that Saturday afternoon and instead a letter from Ronnie arrives saying that their relationship will not work.
That section in Roots further highlights Wesker’s message that women during that time were easily made to believe in the things that they would want to believe in, especially if they have come fact-to-face with those things. Beatie believed in Ronnie’s socialist principles after getting a firsthand experience of those principles in much the same way that she believed Ronnie will come to their house and introduce himself to her family. Indeed, it can hardly be doubted that Wesker is trying to send the message that “change” comes at a price, sometimes the price being one which cannot be easily accepted completely.
Wesker wants to hammer the point that the boundaries between the old and the new can be transcended, but that transcending is not enough to convince others either to follow the lead or to abandon that which is old and embrace all the things new. More importantly, transcending old values and accepting new ones in their place may mean that the person has changed. However, it does not necessarily mean that the same person has changed for the better and for the benefit of others.