The Prisoner of Second Avenue

by Neil Simon

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Male and Female Roles
Simon characterizes Mel as a traditional man who is devastated when he loses his job because that is what defines him. He has tolerated all of the irritations of daily city life for six years until he is fired, which causes him to feel worthless. His wife becomes an outlet for his anger and frustration as well as those nearby who threaten his peace. Edna also plays a traditional role at the beginning of the play as she suffers with Mel through the troubles that arise, remaining supportive by continually trying to assure Mel that everything will work out for them. However, there is a limit to the abuse that she will take. Proving herself to be more rational than her husband, Edna tries to get him to recognize that she is living in the same situation with the same set of problems and that “you either live with it or you get out.”

Their roles reverse, however, along with their temperaments, when Edna gets a job. Mel then becomes the more passive member of the family, caused in part by his medication, taking long walks around the city and beginning to work through his problems. This time, when the neighbor yells down to them to be quiet, Mel apologizes rather than feeling that he has to stand up to her. Ironically, Edna adopts this role, baiting the woman regarding the water she threw down previously at Mel. The tensions of working in the city, coupled with the other indignities of life there, have made her as tense and irritable as Mel has been, especially when she is fired as well. By reversing traditional roles for men and women and creating similar consequences for each, Simon illustrates the damaging effects that living in an urban jungle can have on an individual, male or female.

Mel feels imprisoned by his world, surrounded by nameless, faceless tormentors who compound his misery. After he loses his job, the walls of the small apartment close in on him as he paces back and forth into every corner. The apartment becomes a microcosm of the city. Whether he is inside freezing or outside roasting, “Either way,” Mel claims, “they’re going to get me.” Mel sees no exit from this prison, eventually acknowledging that he is too old to play baseball or begin a new career running a summer camp. By the end of the play, the city has defeated Mel, who is reduced to fantasizing about revenge plots. In all, the play seems darkly about how an individual is powerless to create change in a certain kind of urban landscape fraught with its own difficulties.

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