The Socially Defined Self in "The Alchemist"

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In The Alchemist, Ben Johnson's treatment of the self works to maintain a conservative worldview where identity is intimately tied to one's social standing. The permanence of the self is shown to be dependant upon both continued performance and ongoing social reinforcement. Character traits are treated as stubbornly enduring coping strategies rather than as signs of a coherent, internally unified self. Johnson's treatment of his characters' fantasies as vices to be exploited rejects the idea of an internally created self where fantasy is the impetus for change and self-improvement. The allegorical effect of The Alchemist presents an anti-existentialist treatment of the self that privileges knowledge of one's social role and standing above introspection and self-contemplation. In The Alchemist the unity of the self is provisional, dependant upon continuous social reinforcement. The characters who are successfully gulled are the ones who lose sight of their socially reinforced identities as they play out their fantasy ideal selves. Mammon and Surly are prime examples of characters who are punished by the narrative for indulging in fantasies that are not supported by their social positions. Though both characters are polar-opposites they are gulled in the same way; by being baited into playing out identities that their circumstances do not support. Mammon, a minor knight of modest means, has been gulled into sponsoring Subtle the (fake) alchemist's efforts to produce the philosopher's stone. Mammon's fantasy is to live a life worthy of song, a life where his philanthropy as well as his boozing, whoring and gluttony are of mythic proportions. He is able to live out his fantasy with the social support of Face, Subtle ... ... middle of paper ... establish dramatic tension between Face and Subtle and Dol. Whereas the gulls are given the opportunity to display their ambitions and anxieties through their fantasies and Face and Lovewit address the audience directly Subtle and Dol are treated as little more than the machinery necessary to sustain the narrative. In the world of The Alchemist the self is a permanent construct that relies on, and cannot escape, the role-defining power of the social world. Johnson's troubling morality negates the self-defining power of the individual. Implicit in this treatment is the idea that the only way to gain definitive power over the self is to change one's material circumstances. Upward social mobility is restricted to those who have the means to change their social world robbing all but the elite of the power to dictate the terms of their own social identities.

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