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Writing Sample 6 - Sample Literary Essay - Drama
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Hugh Griffith
Dr. Josh Clarke
English 2010
November 22, 2007

Memory as Salvation in Timothy Findley's Can You See Me Yet?

      Like many postmodern writers, Timothy Findley demonstrates that our sense of self derives from our ability to weave together, through imagination and story, the multiple selves arising out of different social circumstances. The play Can You See Me Yet? illustrates this theme through the character of Cassandra Wakelin, a patient in a mental asylum who re-enacts her past by relying on a book of photographs.

      Scholar Diana Brydon calls Cassandra "schizophrenic" (116), but the play's medical evidence for such a precise diagnosis is not clear-cut. As Cassandra struggles to reconstruct her personal history and assert a sense of self-control, her predicament appears to be universal. Her message concerning the power of memory-making in fact challenges the conventional dividing line between sanity and insanity.

      In Greek mythology, Cassandra is a prophetess doomed to deliver oracles that will not be believed. As Margaret Laurence points out in her introduction to the 1977 edition of Can You See Me Yet?, Findley's character, a failed missionary, has also spent her life speaking messages no one seemed to hear (11). Annie, one of the inmates, intuits Cassandra's prophetic role when she asks, "Are you a preacher?" (43).

      In lieu of the Bible, Cassandra now presents a book of family photographs as the source of whatever hope is left to her: "Brothers and sisters: see this book. This book is all I have that tells me who I am. This book is called 'Salvation'" (42). The ability to revisit—and re-create—her memories is a revolutionary idea that suggests there's a visionary clarity to Cassandra's madness.

      According to Erving Goffman, one of the first sociologists to theorize identity as a kind of social performance, the isolated, artificial world of a mental hospital radically disrupts an individual's sense of self. Whereas "normal" everyday life supports a sense of self through numerous social circumstances and relationships, entering an asylum throws all such "social arrangements" into a state of disarray. In the hospital, the self is "systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified" (Goffman 14). With a fierce will, Cassandra resists this inevitable assault on the self by escaping from the mental asylum into the truer sanctuary of her own memory. She refuses to give up on the idea that there is a meaningful, consistent core of her own being. As a preacher, her chief text is this: "Listen to me: no one can kill who you are" (43).

      As Cassandra tries to bring the photographs back to life by treating the other patients as if they were family members living in the past, it may seem that the so-called "Salvation" her memory offers is spurious. She cannot, after all, create a totally comprehensive, reliable script of the past. (She is frustrated, for instance, when the patient whom she sees as her domineering father portrays a vulnerable side she never noticed in the real man.) However, as Karen Grandy has argued, Cassandra actually exerts a significant degree of control as the playwright, director, and star of her personal drama. Cassandra's reconstruction of her past doesn't save her from her mental illness of her tragic end, but it does endow her with a sense of agency and a means of connecting her with the people around her.

      At the end of the play, Cassandra's determination to weave together the historical fragments of her past into a coherent identity falters but then ultimately triumphs. In the last scene, she seems to renounce that self-assurance for which she's fought so hard when she laments, "I've failed. I couldn't make a place of safety. I should be asylum, and I'm not" (162). However, pulled back from the brink of suicide by a fellow patient, Cassandra does not have the final word on her own personhood.

      The final stage directions indicate that all of the actors in the closing tableau look toward Cassandra and that "There is a glimmer of realization that someone has been recognized and accepted" (166). The poignant silence speaks to Cassandra's success in crafting a distinct, recognizable personal identity. In the end, a tentative hope emerges because Cassandra, who wants so badly to be seen, manages, however fleetingly, to see her own life with the prophetic vision and the restorative imagination of an artist.

Works Cited

Brydon, Diana. Timothy Findley. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Finley, Timothy. Can You See Me Yet? Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977.

Goffman, Erving. "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions." Asylums: Essays on the Social
      Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates
. New York: Anchor Books, 1961.

Grandy, Karen. "Performed and Performing Selves in Findley's Drama." Essays on Canadian
. 64 (1998): 181-200. ProQuest. ProQuest-CSA LLC. Killam Library,
      Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS. 15 Nov 2007 <>.

Laurence, Margaret. Introduction. Can You See Me Yet? By Timothy Findley.
      Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977.

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