Analyze the toxic patterns in the Berger Family in Awake and Sing!

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The relationships among the members of the Berger family are all shaped to some extent by the poverty and limited opportunities for advancement that constrained so many families during the Great Depression. The son and daughter, Ralph and Hennie, are both frustrated by the disconnection between their ambitions and dreams, which were forged as children in the Twenties, and the harsh realities of daily life. Even though they are young adults, they must live at home and contribute to the family’s income. A contrast is presented between Ralph, who—although resentful—continues to show obedience to his parents’ wishes and Hennie, who ultimately decides that her mother’s domination is not to be endured.

The fear of poverty underlies the incessant preoccupation that their mother, Bessie, has with financial matters. However, her deeper concern over respectability is the lever that finally breaks the family apart. Hennie becomes pregnant after having a sexual liaison with a man she barely knows. She resists but then acquiesces to her mother’s demand that she get married to another man for the sake of respectability. One reason for her hesitation is the example of her parents’ marriage, as Bessie controls her husband so totally that he has lost his drive and self-respect. Her own sham marriage and living with her family becomes so unbearable that she runs off with another man, even though he had sexually assaulted her in the past.

The situation grows even more dire when Bessie attacks her father, Jacob, who tries to stay out of the family’s conflicts. After Jacob ends his life by suicide, Ralph learns that he has inherited a huge sum of life insurance. Trying to take a principled stand, Ralph refuses this legacy and, he hopes, retains his integrity.

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