Biloxi Blues explores the touching and comic transformation that boys experience as they enter manhood. This theme is reflected in the three lines of dramatic action: the conflict between Arnold and Toomey, Eugene’s quest for love, and his growth as a writer.
The conflict between Arnold and Toomey is a clash of wills and ideals. Toomey represents discipline, obedience, and self-sacrifice; Arnold is reason and individual integrity. Thematically, the two men represent opposing principles: physical versus intellectual strength, one’s animal versus one’s spiritual side, and the natural law of warfare versus the man-made law of the Talmud. Arnold explains his defiance to Toomey: “The army has its logic, I have my own.” They find a common ground in the final confrontation, where Toomey must accept his human weakness and Arnold his dutiful heroism. Both men see their fantasies fulfilled, and each is made complete by the triumph of the other. As extremes, Arnold and Toomey define a range of possibilities for American manhood. True manhood includes both ideals, and as the six soldiers experience the rite of passage called basic training, each finds his own identity as an adult.
Eugene, as the playwright’s mouthpiece and alter ego, provides a window through which the audience experiences this growth. In a sense, he is Everyman, and his journey to emotional maturity is therefore universal and accessible. It takes him from the sheltered virginity of his adolescence through the sham sexual prowess of his encounter with Rowena to the sincere idealism of his passion for Daisy and even beyond, to the more worldly voice of his later recollection. He learns that sex is only a small part of loving.
Eugene’s identity as an aspiring writer defines not only his character but the structure of the play as well. The playgoer is automatically identified with the imagined reader of Eugene’s memoirs and is therefore privileged with secret knowledge. Eugene’s notebook not only figures in the action of the play but also represents his ability to withdraw into silent observation. At one point, he chastises himself for not speaking out against Wykowski’s anti-Semitism. For a writer, such withdrawal is a dangerous temptation. Eugene also learns, after alienating his friends with careless comments and unfounded suspicions, that words are powerful. “People believe whatever they read,” he says, signaling both a stage in his artistic maturity and a subliminal message from playwright to audience about the theatrical medium itself.
Prejudice and Anti-Semitism One of the most important themes in the play is prejudice. Many of the characters show prejudice toward other groups of people. Wykowski is the most obvious, openly expressing his derogatory feelings toward Jews and African-Americans. His prejudice toward Jews is more obvious as Jewish soldiers are in the company, providing Wykowski with an outlet for his feelings. By contrast, in the early 1940s, white and African-American soldiers were segregated, thus there are no African-American privates to incite racial slurs. A brief dialogue points out the segregation of the U.S. military as well as some of the feelings of the privates about it. When Hennesey claims to be ‘‘Half mick, half nigger,’’ Selridge protests, ‘‘You can't be colored. They wouldn't let you in with us.’’ Wykowski, on the other hand, rushes to this opportunity, ‘‘... I guessed it. It was something I couldn't put my finger on but I knew something was wrong with you.’’ Only then does Hennesey reveal that his statement was only a lie to find out Wykowski's true feelings.
Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, haunts the play. Wykowski subscribes to the stereotypes that...
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surround Jews. When Arnold wins Eugene's ‘‘fantasy" game, and thus the prize money, Wykowski responds, ‘‘It never fails. It's always the Jews who end up with the money.'' Wykowski asserts that his name-calling doesn't matter. As he tells Hennesey, ‘‘Where I come from we're all polacks, dagos, niggers and sheenies. That stuff doesn't mean crap to me. You're a mick, what do I care?'' Other army personnel also demonstrate prejudice. The soldiers who refuse to flush the toilets that Arnold has just scrubbed call him a "New York Jew Kike.’’
However, Eugene is also guilty of prejudice. He reveals—though privately—his doubts about Arnold in his notebook. Although Eugene holds Arnold in extremely high regard—calling him "the most complex and fascinating man I've ever met’’— he also is wary of his fellow soldier because he thinks Arnold is gay.
Ironically, the sadistic Toomey demands that his men not express their prejudice while he himself uses stereotypes. He tells the company, "If I hear any more racial slurs from this platoon, some dumb bastard is going to be shoveling cow s—t.... Especially if I hear it from a Polack!''
Jewishness Simon portrays the otherness of Jews in predominantly Christian-American society. In Arnold Epstein, Simon has created a character who fits a common American stereotype of a Jew. Arnold is an intellectual from New York City. He is physically weak and prone to illness. He bemoans his digestion, his health, and the food that is served. The other members of the company, those who do not show open anti-Semitism, demonstrate their lack of familiarity with Jews. As Selridge points out, ‘‘I never met a Jew before the army.’’ This statement emphasizes the true minority status of the American Jew.
Military Life Military life in Biloxi Blues is presented in a largely comedic manner; its difficulties are exaggerated, especially by Sergeant Toomey's sadistic streak. Despite such elements, the play contains real truths about military life and the experience of young soldiers. On a more superficial level, certain details do accurately represent military life, such as the inedible food and the cramped quarters. The privates forge quick bonds that are not necessarily the most lasting. More compelling, however, is the transformation that the privates undergo as they learn about army life. Through their training, Eugene and the others become more mature people.
Rites of Passage For Eugene, army training is his rite of passage into adulthood. Two of the goals he sets for himself foreshadow his transformation. He wants to become a writer, which implies that true development must take place, and he wants to lose his virginity. In the army, Eugene accomplishes both of these goals. He has sex with the prostitute Rowena, and his role in the army ends up being as a journalist for an army newspaper.
In his personal development, Eugene learns about himself and the kind of man he wants to be. For example, he realizes that he is ashamed of himself for not defending Arnold—a fellow Jew— from Wykowski's attacks. His analysis of his bunkmates also indicates a sense of introspection, one that is necessary for a writer, and one that signifies a certain level of growth.