The Subjectively Certain Nature of an Individual¡¦s Value System


This theme is prominent in 'A View from the Bridge' by Arthur Miller where we conflict between two main value systems. Firstly, there is the judicial system of codified law from Manhattan, which is socially accepted and is portrayed as being safe but boring. In contrast there is the 'eye for an eye', emotional, proud, and honorable value system from Sicily, which has been imported to America by the immigrants living in Brooklyn. To the residents of Red Hook, the importance of the honour code seems obvious and adhering to it is almost second nature, as we can see by the way in which Eddie immediately dismisses the idea of reporting Marco and Rodolpho to the Immigration Bureau when Alfieri suggests it or in the way that Catherine is shocked when she hears about the way in which Vinny Bolzano betrayed his family.


In the case of 'Equus' by Peter Shaffer, we see that the main value systems of the story are Alan¡¦s beliefs in Equus which are contrasted with the value system of a ¡¥normal¡¦, functional society. As a result of his treatment of Alan, Dysart begins to doubt himself, the value of ¡¥the Normal¡¦ and he starts to wonder whether or not his own value system is correct. This theme is significant because it highlights how different people how their own unique value system which might seem wrong to a different audience, and how we can never objectively know if a value system is right or wrong. Ultimately, the play reveals the different value/belief systems of a number of individuals (often representative of larger groups: Christians, Socialists, Jill as the sexually permissive younger generation of the 1970s), and the fact that they all exist on an equal footing and that each system seems so certain and justified to its believes makes us question whether our faith in our own value system (presumably some version of ¡¥The Normal¡¦) is really all that well founded.






¡§FRANK: You sit in front of that thing long enough, you¡¦ll become stupid for life - like most of the population. [TO ALAN.] The thing is, it¡¦s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it¡¦s taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. That¡¦s a true swiz, do you see? I don¡¦t want to sound like a spoilsport, old chum - but there really is no substitute for reading. What¡¦s the matter; don¡¦t you like it?¡¨


¡§Actually, it¡¦s a disgrace when you come to think of it. You the son of a printer, and never opening a book!¡¨


Frank has his own set of values that makes sense to him, a printer, and even though Dora does not agree with his beliefs, they are still valid to Frank himself and he continues to believe in them strongly. The length of this speech shows his dedication and the certainty with which he holds these opinions and his confident tone suggests that he is trying to convince His conviction is underscored by the way in which he tries to make Alan feel guilty by calling Alan¡¦s failure to share his values a ¡§disgrace¡¨.


Ironically, Frank criticizes Dora for imposing her religious values on Alan and his hypocrisy here suggests how the correctness of Frank¡¦s value system is so obvious to him that he cannot see how, by attempting to convince Alan to share his views, he is doing exactly the same thing for which he criticized Dora.


¡§DORA: I told him the biological facts. But I also told him what I believed. That sex is not just a biological matter, but spiritual as well. That if God willed, he would fall in love one day. That his task was to prepare himself for the most important happening of his life. And after that, if he was lucky, he might come to know a higher love still...¡¨

Dora talks about how she explained sex to Alan, and tries to balance her argument by stating that she has told him the biological facts as well as religious views. However, seems more passionate about the religious side of explaining sex as that portion of the speech is longer than the biological portion, which is merely a short sentence. The length of the religious part of this explanation perhaps suggests the degree to which our beliefs can influence us subconsciously, although the fact that Dora does talk about the biological realities of sex suggests that she is more aware of the need for balance than Frank.



¡§ALAN [kneeling]: And Legwus begat Neckwus. And Neckwus begat Fleckwus, the King of Spit. And Fleckwus spoke out of his chinkle-chankle! [He bows himself to the ground.]¡¨

In Alan¡¦s chanting, he uses words that do not make any sense to outsiders, such as Frank, and yet he continues to chant such words with great passion, because it all makes sense in his mind. The religious nature of the chant, for example the listing of genealogies as in the Old Testament, also echoes the way in which religious believers can be convinced of their faith even though their beliefs may be questionable to those who do not share their point of view. This is further perpetuated by the use of parallel action in this scene, where the sterile, clinical conversation between Dysart and Frank juxtaposes with and thus emphasizes Alan¡¦s evident devotion.


By depicting Alan¡¦s devout belief in this elaborate but obviously false religious construct, Shaffer invites us to reflect upon the validity of the constructs or systems that we involve ourselves in.



¡§DYSART: Instead, she sits beside our salmon-pink, glazed brick fireplace, and knits things for orphans in a home she helps with. And I sit opposite, turning the pages of art books on Ancient Greece.¡¨

Dysart portrays Margaret¡¦s behaviours as ridiculous and petty in contrast to his own grandly romantic dreams of  Classical Greece. In this way Dysart too seems to be  unable to appreciate the value system of another suggesting once again that worldviews like this are only convincing on a subjective level (that is, they only really have force for those who are already committed to them) as we can imagine that, from Margaret¡¦s perspective, her attempts to help orphaned children are a meaningful gesture of kindness. Dysart¡¦s dismissal of his own wife¡¦s lifestyle shows how self-involved people can be when they have their own beliefs and this echoes the relationship between Frank and Dora. However, Dysart is more aware of this than any of the other characters in the play as we see towards the end when he actually mocks his own fascination with Ancient Greece and ridicules himself as failure as a ¡¥pagan¡¦.



¡§HESTHER: Restore him, surely?

DYSART: To what?

HESTHER: A normal life.¡¨

In contrast to Dysart, Hester still seems to have faith in ¡¥the Normal¡¦ and the work that Dysart¡¦s is doing as a psychiatrist, hence the positive connotations of ¡¥restored¡¦. However, the high esteem in which Dysart holds her prevents us from dismissing her as merely conventional and so in some ways Hesther can be read as representing the ¡¥voice of reason¡¦ in the play, a voice that to some degree undercuts Dysart¡¦s belief that a life of personal conviction and abnormal passion is the highest form of existence. This ultimately leaves Dysart and the audience in an uncertain position as we wonder who is right. Obviously Dysart makes a convincing case for passion but it is also difficult not to heed Hesther¡¦s simple logic that ¡¥children [come] before adults ¡K that sort of thing¡¦.



¡§DYSART: The Normal is the good smile in a child's eyes: alright. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills-like a god. It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal.¡¨

Towards the end of the play, Dysart is used to explicitly present Alan¡¦s behavior in a sympathetic light, implying that normality is over-rated and that, in fact, the idea that we all need to adhere to some kind of ¡¥Normal¡¦ is ultimately destructive and debilitating.


However, Dysart is nonetheless able to also see the advantages of ¡¥The Normal¡¦ admitting that it can be seen as ¡¥the good smile in a child¡¦s eyes¡¦ and something that ¡¥sustains¡¦ life. Alan¡¦s abnormal life of conviction and passion is painful, dangerous and has resulted in him being cut off from the love and support of those around him. This ambivalence ultimately leaves the audience with questions rather than clear cut answers about the value of normality.



¡§DORA: But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil... I only know he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came.¡¨

As a firm believer in Christianity, Dora¡¦s clearly evident faith here suggests that she has complete faith in the Biblical explanation of good and evil and that this makes subjective sense to her. It is significant that she is says ¡¥If you knew God ¡K¡¦, rather than ¡¥If you believed ¡K¡¦ because while ¡¥believed¡¦ may suggest some room for doubt, ¡¥know¡¦ is far more certain.



¡§JILL: It¡¦s all right...It¡¦s all right...Don¡¦t worry about it. It often happens - honest..¡¨

Although this particular line is spoken by Jill to console Alan for being unable to carrying out intercourse with her, it reflects the larger set of sexual values present in the play. The casual way in which Jill sleeps with boys is perhaps suggestive of the sexually permissive values of the younger generation of the 1970s, which directly contrasts with the strict values of Dora and Frank, representing the older generation.