Comparison of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and American Beauty

Revised Response #4

World Literature II

April 27, 2004

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 family.

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