Performance in The Right Stuff

Eric Sedgwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe writes about performances, about the roles that people must play within different communities -- among wives, among astronauts, and even on T.V. He studies them with the eye of a sociologist, attempting to determine how these performances create the societies in which they exist and the importance they have for the members of these societies. In the following passage he focuses on the wife of Alan Shepard, forced to perform in front of the news journalists as a widow might perform at the wake of her husband.

She was suddenly the central figure in a Wake for My Husband -- in his hour of danger, however, rather than his hour of death. The secret of the wake for the dead was that it put the widow on stage whether she liked it or not. In the very moment in which, if left alone, she might be crushed by grief, she was suddenly thrust into the role of hostess and star of the show. It's free! It's open house! Anybody can come in and gawk! Of course, the widow can still turn on the waterworks -- but it takes more nerve to do that in front of a great gawking mob than it does to be the brave little lady, serving the coffee and the cakes. For someone as dignified and strong as Louise Shepard, there was no question as to how it was going to come out. As hostess and main character in this scene, what else was there for the pilot's wife to do but set about pulling everybody together? The press, the ravenous but gentee1 Beast out there upon the lawn, did not know it but he was covering not the Anguished Wife at Lift-off . . . but the Honorable Mrs. Commander Astronaut at Home . . . in the first wake, not for the dead, but for the Gravely Endangered. [214]

According to the passage, the required performance of a wife at the wake of her husband is a phenomenon that serves a positive social function -- it requires the woman to compose herself at the point when she might otherwise be vulnerable to an emotional breakdown. Does Wolfe see the performance that the astronauts and their wives have to put on in front of the media as serving a positive function as well, despite his generally negative attitude towards the press?

Wolfe characterizes the media in this passage as both "ravenous" and "genteel," adjectives that correspond to his two alternating euphemisms for the press, the Beast and the Proper Gent. What is the effect of combining these opposing characterizations of the media?

The metaphor of the wake in this passage recalls the grim reaper-like figure of the opening chapter, the minister who comes around to the wives' houses to announce to them their husbands' death. Why does Wolfe link the theme of death in the book with the female characters, the wives of the astronauts?

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Last modified 5 November 2003