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Powerful Women In The Sweet Hereafter

3287 words (13 pages) Essay in English Literature

02/05/17 English Literature Reference this

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In connection with The Sweet Hereafter, one interpretation is that women play a central role in the story. Only two women survive the accident this fact connects them throughout the story. They are the ones who restore peace in the small community that lost fourteen of its children in a bus accident. The relationship between these two central female characters is investigated with regards to the source of their relationship, the nature of their relationship with other characters and the restoration of peace within the community.

In The Sweet Hereafter, a community faces two problems: losing many of their children and after that, trying to take revenge in a lawsuit. A lawyer visits those concerned in the accident and persuades them with hard work to investigate the case and sue somebody who can be blamed for the damage and can console the families with a lot of money. Yet, not all parents think that this is the right solution for coping with a small community’s loss: Billy Ansel is the major mourning parent who refuses to take part in the lawsuit. He unsuccessfully tries to talk the only surviving child’s father into resigning from the lawsuit. Even though he would provide financial compensation by sacrificing all his family’s money, the surviving girl’s father does not accept it. The key figure in this story, hence, is somebody who has the opportunity and the power to stop Sam Burnell from the lawsuit, and this very person is his own daughter who was sexually abused by him many times and who is now paralysed as a result of the accident. Having had no control over her fate and now not having control over her body, Nicole opposes her father and helps the small town move on.

The problem of the protagonist

Atom Egoyan’s movies usually focus on human relationships and serious changes in point of view are encountered by the viewer on many points. Just as one’s understanding of the relationship between Ani and Raffi changes in Ararat or Francis develops from a perverted paedophile into a mourning father in one’s eyes in Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter also surprises the viewers in terms of human relationships and the power relations in a small community. This problem is especially interesting from the feminist point of view; therefore, the main characters of analysis in this paper are Nicole Burnell and Dolores Driscoll.

In The Sweet Hereafter, there is not only one main character, although the viewers have the impression that in the movie, Stephens, the lawyer (Meyer 144) or Nicole, the paralysed victim (Dziedzic 73, May & Ferri 131) is the central character of the story. However, it is not only Nicole who is the protagonist of this movie, but also Dolores. The basis for this assumption is that in Sarat’s view, it is incest and the accident that are central to the story because they are threatening the children of the town (21). Children can only be the victims of these phenomena: they are subject to sexual abuse or a bus accident. In the movie, only Dolores is shown as a person who shares the victim experience due to the bus accident; thus, this experience connects her to the consensually central character, Nicole.

Dolores is also a victim by being the culprit of the accident and it also connects her to Nicole. Nicole makes Dolores responsible for the accident when she commits herself. Nicole’s only opportunity to take revenge on her incestuous father is when she lies in her deposition and this way she makes it impossible for her father to get money in a lawsuit. Her father seeks to sue the company that manufactured the bus that caused the accident and for that it is necessary to prove that the accident was caused by the malfunctioning of the bus. Yet, Nicole lies that it was Dolores’ fault that the accident happened and there is no need for trial. As a result, Dolores and Nicole are the both victims of the accident; one of them being paralysed, the other being accused for the accident and being the only person to regret what had happened.

There is another way to prove that Nicole and Dolores are both central characters in the movie: the choice of the main characters in this story depends on one’s focus. In the movie, the story of a fatal accident is recited, based on a true story in an ‘Egoyani’ way. This means that the plot is complex and hard to follow because the viewer gets to meet the residents of a small town as the lawyer visits the families; hence, the story of the accident is learnt in this unlinear, episodic way. The encounter with each member of the community creates a sense of belonging from the viewer’s part to the community depicted in the movie: a sense of belonging to a small community where everybody knows other people’s lives and secrets. Since the viewer knows the residents of the town just as well as he would know residents of his own small town, placing focus on the characters is up to the viewer’s choice.

Accident and incest

According to Sarat, “[b]oth the suit and the seduction, the film seems to suggest, pose a danger to the town and its children” (21). The accident made the ‘outer world’ to pay attention to the town by attracting a lawyer to help grieving relatives sue somebody because of the accident. As far as seduction and incest is concerned, in the small community, people already maintain a very close relationship and maybe this closeness blurs the line between family as a natural and as a social construct: some members are added, some are erased from it in this movie.

The instances where one sees that this line between biological and chosen family is blurred are in connection with Nicole. First of all, she tells a bedtime story to the children of another family, and as she is seemingly alone with the children, it creates the illusion that they really are a family, the two children being Nicole’s siblings. The way she treats them (and by this, the goodnight kiss is meant) also shows close bonds between the Ansel twins and her. The other family-related issue is between Nicole and her father because they are lovers in secret. This is also depicted in the movie in an ambiguous way and people are quite surprised and wonder what is going on. It is apparent from the plot that Nicole and Sam are daughter and father, but they are shown in two situations that do not depict a normal father-daughter relationship. One of these scenes is after the rehearsal when Nicole and Sam walk and chitchat like two high school students. The other scene is the scene when they prepare for and engage in sexual intercourse. At that point, what one notes is Nicole’s reluctant attitude and then agreement to join her father to the “beautiful stage [lit] with nothing but candles” [1] .

Because of the closeness, human relationships are inevitably incestuous on the macro level, but there appears incest on the micro level in the community. Incest is not only a sin (New King James Bible, Leviticus 18:6-18): it causes serious psychological disorders [2] from low self-esteem to for instance mistrust and prejudice in relationships. These symptoms of distorted emotions have already appeared in the community before the accident, for instance, Dolores shows this symptom as will be explained in the following. This ill balance is upset by the accident where all but one children of the small town die because an intruder (the lawyer Mitchell Stephens) makes the pain of loss even worse by reminding the mourning families of the accident.

As mentioned previously, Dolores shows the symptom of the incestuous community, but this is overwritten by mourning. She reveals both of these facts during her discussion with Mitchell Stephens. When it comes to speaking about the victims of the accident, she mentions the Ottos, who she first describes as hippies, but then she corrects herself and claims that the Ottos are in fact good people, and she outweighs the remark by plenty of examples.

Dolores: The Ottos […] I guess they’re what you might call hippies.

[Mitchell asks Dolores twice what she means by ‘hippies’ but receives no useful answer.]

Mitchell: What do you mean by ‘hippies’?

Dolores: I mean, the way they look. Their hair and clothing… […] The Ottos are what I’d call model citizens. They’re regular at town meetings. They give their opinions in a respectful way. They always help out at various fund-raising bazaars in town, though they aren’t church goers.

Mitchell: And they loved Bear.

Dolores: Oh yes. Like I said, they always came out together to see him off to school. It’s like he was their little treasure. He was such a beautiful boy. That’s a picture of him on the wall there, behind Abbott. [3] 

The first utterance reveals her original, prejudiced perception of the Ottos because the overtone of the word ‘hippie’ seems fairly negative, Mitchell Stephens first associates hippies with drugs, which Dolores denies. Yet, the first, negative description probably comes from their incestuous closeness, which causes her to see them with exaggerated prejudice.

Providing a stigmatised description of the Otto family is inappropriate because this way Dolores calls their deceased son, Bear a hippie as well. For this reason she takes some time to correct her gut reaction as she seems to feel guilty about her prejudiced utterance. The extensive correction (the Ottos being model citizens, respectful, generous, etc.) is probably initiated by her grief. Hence, one sees that Dolores has ambiguous emotions and these are probably caused by the ‘incestuously’ close relations within the community and the fatal accident that contributes to the need to change her attitude towards the community. However, Dolores is anxious, broken and confused: she does not seem ready to move on before the lawsuit is arranged in some way.

Dolores and the Pied Piper of Hamelin

The motif of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has an actual and an abstract relevance to the movie: on the one hand, Nicole reads out the story to the Ansel twins, on the other hand, Dolores is seen as the Pied Piper because she causes the children to drown in the cold water. In spite of this straightforward connection between Dolores and the Pied Piper of Hamelin, it is not Dolores but Nicole who can be identified with him.

Dolores is innocent in the accident, but she still feels bad about it. Some people might give explanation to this guilty conscience by arguing that Dolores is like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. She collects the children of the town and this time ‘leads’ them into the water and drowns them. However, calling her the Pied Piper is not the right interpretation of the state of affairs: she is not only far from being like the Pied Piper, she is just the opposite of that identity.

Although Dolores takes away the children from their homes without returning them, she is not like the Pied Piper. She takes away and brings back the children of the town every day, her purpose is exactly what she does on the day of the accident. The Pied Piper, on the other hand, does not come to Hamelin to deal with the children but to kill rats. Therefore, Dolores is not like the Pied Piper because her purpose is to look after the children of the town every day.

In addition, Dolores is not a stranger who comes to the town for a one‑time work: she is a member of the community and seems to have no reason to take revenge. She is on very good terms with the children because she has their pictures on the wall. Whether she put their pictures on the wall before or after the accident is redundant. The pictures on the wall may be interpreted by the viewer either as cherishing the memory of the children or reducing her guilty conscience, the bond between Dolores and the dead children is there and such a bond is inexistent between the Pied Piper and the children who he kills.

Finally, Dolores cannot be the Pied Piper in this story because it is Nicole who can be interpreted as the Pied Piper. She takes revenge on her father by taking advantage of the tragedy. Her connection to the figure of the Pied Piper is hence created in more ways. First of all, when she reads the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, she legitimates the revenge of the Pied Piper:

Mason: Nicole, did the Pied Piper take the children away because he was mad that the town didn’t pay him?

Nicole: That’s right.

Mason: Well, if he knew magic, if he could get the kids into the mountain, why couldn’t he use his magic pipe to make the people pay him for getting rid of the rats?

Nicole: Because… he wanted them to be punished.

Mason: So he was mean?

Nicole: No, not mean, just… very angry. [4] 

Nicole is as angry as the Pied Piper of Hamelin because she does not get what she wants. She is influenced and repressed by her father, who sexually abuses her. Yet, Nicole does not defend herself because she hopes for some kind of reward from her father, that being a rock star career. She is a subject in her father’s imagination where she is a rock star, but she thinks that she cannot realise her dream without her father. She is conditioned to think that there is connection between her subordination to men and the success in her dream career. This is reinforced by her father, who acts the way those managers do who usually convince female stars that without them they are worth nothing. This persuasion is based on the woman’s low self‑esteem and the paternalist social construction.

Nicole as a powerful woman

Nicole is dependent on her father, but this relationship is reversed by the end of the story and Nicole consolidates her power. When she says “I’m a wheelchair girl now” [5] , she does not only mean she is not attractive anymore. By admitting her loss, she establishes her individual, powerful identity and in the meantime she distances herself from her father. This utterance is later supported by her deposition, which makes it impossible for her father to gain money in the lawsuit against the person who is responsible for the accident of the school bus.

Before the accident, Nicole has a powerful and a powerless identity. She first appears as a powerful woman in her wider social settings. She tells the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin to Billy Ansel’s twins, Jessica and Mason before they fall asleep; hence, she assumes an adult or a parent-like role. In addition, she also appears as an individualized person when she is a rock star singing on the stage. But at the same time, Nicole is the subject of her father’s imagination, he seems to create her rock star identity, it is through his eyes and imagination that Nicole sees herself as a singer. Therefore, Nicole is also a powerless identity due to her father’s power over her.

After the accident, there is a turning point in Nicole’s understanding of her own life. The night before the deposition, Billy Ansel visits her parents and she hears that many people from the town want peace and not this long-winded lawsuit. They want to leave the painful memories behind and go on with their lives. Billy cannot convince Sam to give up the work with their lawyer. He even offers his money to compensate for the damage that was made to the Burnells in the accident, but Sam refuses it. This generous offer and the conversation is overheard by Nicole, who probably discovers at that point what she could do for herself and for the community.

Contemplating later, Nicole enumerates the things she has lost and whom she should blame for that. In her words, first her father robbed her of something that her sister still has (and it is more than her innocence), then the accident robber her of her body. [6] These thoughts lead the viewer to the next scene where she gives her deposition. Her father listens to what she says and sees her lie that Dolores was speeding and so there is no need for a trial. This is probably the most painful way to take revenge on her father and show her power. She deprives her father of hundreds of thousands of dollars by blaming Dolores for the accident. The wounds caused by the incest are healed by this act.

By preventing the lawsuit, however, Nicole also eliminates the accident from her and from the community’s life. The lawsuit would take way too much time before parents and victims could stop reviving, reliving what happened on the day of the accident. This way Nicole becomes the guardian angel of the whole community, who saves people from suffering.

Towards a better future

As a result of her untruthful deposition, Nicole restores the equilibrium in the town. Although it is a different town after the accident and the appearance of the lawyer in the town (as Nicole’s voiceover explains it at the end of the movie), everybody has found their place, and they are not under the influence of the accident anymore. As the viewers see, Dolores is a driver of another bus, she has not been made responsible for the accident neither legally nor morally. Mitchell Stephens now minds his own business and does not bother people with the lawsuit, he only stares into Dolores’ eyes as he passes her by. The viewer also sees as the school bus is also being taken away from the town. Nicole thinks of good days she spent with the children. The accident does not any longer haunt the town, even though its consequences are irreversible and people are inconsolable.

In addition to restoring the equilibrium in the town, Nicole also ensures that she is an individual. Her body may be numb, but her psyche has become more open to the world. She had to turn to her inner world and find herself within and not through her father’s eyes and through her father’s touch. This is a triumph where she releases herself from the influence of her father and this fact gives a purpose to the accident: Nicole becomes aware of her worth.

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