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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Symbols


Violet's Cancer of the Mouth

Violet is suffering from cancer of the mouth, which symbolizes both the possibility of muteness and of raging, vindictive speech. Particularly in the beginning of the play, Violet is often on the edge of language, slurring her words and gabbling nonsense. Her speech problems are not directly caused by her cancer. Instead they are caused by the pills she takes, partly to dull the pain of the cancer. The site of her affliction, her mouth, brings to mind the possibility she will one day be unable to speak at all. In the Prologue and Act 1, she seems on the verge of falling away from human communication entirely. In sealing this fate, the cancer might widen the emotional chasm that already distances her from her daughters.

However, Violet is far from mute yet. On the contrary, she is an aggressive speaker throughout the play. In Act 1 she complains that her mouth is "burning" from the pain of the cancer. Violet seems able to turn this burning outward, in angry invective that acts like a flamethrower, scorching her children. Thus Violet's mouth cancer symbolizes the ability to use speech to cause harm as well as the possibility of not speaking at all.

Johnna's Necklace

Johnna Monevata, the Westons' housekeeper, shows Jean that she wears a necklace in the shape of a turtle. The turtle is a pouch containing her dried umbilical cord. This item has spiritual significance, she tells Jean: it connects the Cheyenne people to their families. This play's description of the custom seems factual, although scholarly accounts say Cheyenne people wear these only in childhood. According to Johnna, she will wear the necklace her whole life, because without it, her soul would "belong nowhere." For Johnna, the necklace symbolizes her soul, but for the play it symbolizes a natural familial connection lacking in the modern white Weston family, descendants of settlers. The Weston children appear to "belong nowhere." Even though they yo-yo back to the house in Osage County, the Weston daughters are scattered to the four winds and find it difficult to connect to their parents emotionally.

It is possible author Tracy Letts means only to use Johnna's necklace to gesture to another way of life, one more joyful than the wretched and despairing lives the Westons live. But Johnna is a Plains Indian, and the Westons are descendants of the white people who settled the Plains, displacing them. This comes close to making Johnna herself into a symbol. In popular culture, especially, the technique of using non-white characters to symbolize a purer, more natural, or wiser way of life is called the "Magical Negro" trope. (The name deliberately uses the old-fashioned term "Negro," now considered offensive, to show that the trope is also offensive.) Originally, trope meant a figure of speech, but it has come to mean an overused theme or cliché, especially in fiction or film. One element of the "Magical Negro" trope that is missing from Letts's portrayal of Johnna is the non-white character's transformative, saving effect on a white character. Johnna does not impart any life lessons to Violet or the other Westons. Ultimately Johnna's necklace may symbolize only that there is another way to live.

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