Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489
One of the most striking facts in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life is that Joe is nearly immobile. Joe is the play’s central character—nearly every other character exchanges at least a line or two with him, and he comments on all that he sees from his chair in Nick’s bar. In fact, Joe’s chair seems almost like a throne, an exalted perch from which he commands Tom to bring him odd items, dispenses small bits of wisdom, and grants favors for his preferred subjects.
If Joe is a king, though, he is an impotent one, in all senses of the word. John A. Mills explains it succinctly in the Midwest Quarterly, where he notes that Joe’s immobility can be seen as ‘‘the external counterpart of an inner, psychic immobilization. Joe is stalled, incapable of movement . . . [and] unable to believe in the efficacy of human action, any human action.’’ Joe is a student of life, not a liver of life, someone who exists almost completely in his head. ‘‘I’m a student. I study all things,’’ he says to Tom. In fact, he violates Saroyan’s imperative in the play’s prologue: ‘‘In the time of your life, live.’’ Joe is an eternal observer, and the actions he takes are limited. To compensate for this, Joe uses Tom and Kit Carson to make connections to a world in which he is unable to participate.
Many critics, including Mills, point to the obvious use of Tom as Joe’s surrogate legs. Tom serves as Joe’s legs in his ridiculous errands for chewing gum, toys, and a gun, and he once even lets Joe lean against him as they leave the bar. Beyond that, though, Joe also has Tom serve as his sexual surrogate in his relationship with the prostitute Kitty Duval. Joe obviously cares for Kitty, defending her against Nick’s sly comments in the play’s first act, saluting her inner beauty and stamina when he buys her champagne, and toasting ‘‘To the spirit, Kitty Duval.’’ Saroyan’s stage direction notes that when Joe first sees Kitty, he ‘‘recognizes her as a good person immediately,’’ and when she sits down, he asks her, ‘‘with great compassion,’’ about her dreams and desires.
Joe understands that he cannot act when it comes to Kitty, so he pushes the lovestruck Tom to capture her heart in his stead. Joe directs Tom in his courting of Kitty, mimicking scenes from Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac by playing Cyrano to Tom’s Christian. This happens in Saroyan’s play numerous times but most remarkably when Kitty is telling a dumbstruck Tom about her fantasy of being an actress and having a handsome doctor fall in love with her. ‘‘Tom, didn’t you ever want to be a doctor?’’ Kitty asks. Tom is momentarily stumped but finds his voice when he looks at Joe who, according to Saroyan’s stage directions, ‘‘holds Tom’s eyes again, encouraging Tom by his serious expression to go on talking.’’ Joe does have his own memories and experiences of love, but they were mere beginnings that were interrupted before their promise could be fulfilled. Once, while in Mexico City, Joe fell in love with a woman named Mary, but he then discovered that she was only a few days away from marriage to another man. He falls in love with a different Mary during the play but finds out that she is married and has two children.
While Joe’s dependence on Tom is critical and allows him to connect with people and the world, it is his relationship with Kit Carson that truly energizes him. It is immediately apparent that Kit is different from the rest of the patrons in Nick’s bar when he walks in and selects Joe’s table as his drinking spot. The two men quickly bond with each other, especially when Kit opens his conversation by asking Joe, ‘‘I don’t suppose you ever fell in love with a midget...
(The entire section contains 10059 words.)
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