Raising Arizona | Critical Essay by Rodney Hill

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Raising Arizona.
This section contains 3,006 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Rodney Hill

Critical Essay by Rodney Hill

SOURCE: "Small Things Considered: Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men," in Post Script, Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 18-27.

In the following essay, Hill suggests links between the themes of Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men, comparing the psychological roles of their characters.

Little things mean a lot, we often hear. But the philosophy that "the best things come in small packages" is frequently rejected in America, where bigger is always called better—and where the biggest is definitely the best. Such a contradiction seems indicative of a fundamental cultural flaw: instead of embracing truly worthwhile (although perhaps small) values and goals, we adopt the more popular, less-thought-out, superficially "big" ideas. We seem to pride ourselves, as a culture, on size rather than quality: the size of our cars, our homes, and, in an era in which moviemakers often inflate themselves and their motives, even our movies. Independent filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, though, seem to take the opposite approach and even to find great significance in the small things that do abound in American culture. Their first feature was itself a "small" work, a cheaply-made, modern film noir, Blood Simple, that quickly attracted a cult following. Its success paved the way for their mainstream comedy Raising Arizona which, despite its far larger budget, still has much of the small about it.

Raising Arizona is about a little man in the American scheme of things, a little man with small ambitions. H.I. McDunnough (Hi) is a small-time crook whose specialty is robbing convenience stores—seldom successfully. But what gives this far from unusual figure some resonance is the way the film connects him to one of the almost archetypal depictions of the little man in American literary history. The Coens' film is a pointed retelling of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a classic tale about downtrodden men who long to claim a piece of the American dream: the dimwitted Lennie Small and his smarter yet smaller companion George. Through their comic elaboration on the Steinbeck novel, the Coens have fashioned a contemporary response to the popular American gospel of bigness and success, a response that, in contrast, tells us how much those little things can really mean if only we will seek them out.

The most obvious link between Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men occurs in the main characters of the two works. For not only is Hi a minor character on the American scene, a small-time crook, but he also has an alter ego named Leonard Smalls, whose comment, "My friends call me Lennie," forms a firm association with Steinbeck's Lennie Small. Of course, this biker-bounty hunter is hardly a pure reincarnation of Steinbeck's sympathetic Lennie; rather, the combination of Smalls and Hi, his psychological double, form a mutated, nightmarish, and more complex version of the Steinbeck character. In the novel, we might note, Lennie is not at all malicious, although his retardation causes him to do bad things without realizing the consequences of his actions. Similarly, Hi means no real harm by his holdups, his kidnaping of one of Nathan Arizona's "extra" babies, or even his fight with his foreman. He is simply compelled by some inner force or urge to this socially unacceptable behavior. But the Coens go a step further with their central character by concretely incarnating his asocial and potentially menacing aspect in the horrible figure of the lone biker.

Smalls is essentially a distorted, negative image of all the qualities that endear Lennie Small to Steinbeck's readers. While Small adores little, cuddly animals—in illustration of what Steinbeck called "the inarticulate and powerful yearnings of all men"—Raising Arizona's Smalls, whose very name accents a multiplicity of purpose not as evident in Steinbeck's "singular" Small, is, we are told, "especially hard on little things," as we see when he kills a roadside rabbit with a hand grenade. While Steinbeck's Lennie does inadvertently injure or even kill all of his playthings, the Coens' Lennie has destruction as his raison d'être. These "little things," the animals, are thus central to the way the film elaborates on Steinbeck's tale, for through them it develops its own characters, setting up the entity of Hi-Smalls much as the novel defines Lennie's character. Lennie is intimately involved with animals, while Smalls compares himself to numerous creatures—a bloodhound, a pup, even a "warthog from Hell." In fact, the very source of the identification of Smalls as Hi's "other self" is a Woody Woodpecker tattoo that each possesses, a symbol simultaneously of animalism, childhood, and phallic sexuality that hints of each's full complexity. Hi's primitive behavior during his robberies—with the legs of the pantyhose slipped over his head resembling floppy rabbit ears—and his fight with his boss Glen may be partly attributed to the "big weight bearing down" from the pressures of his family and social life. For the Coens' world, just as Steinbeck's, seems to be one in which "innocent persons are sacrificed," like animals, "to the perversities of a decadent world that, because of financial or sexual obsessions, cannot allow such innocence to flourish". The escaped brothers, Gale and Evelle, suggest to Hi that the source of his marital friction (which disrupts the happy home centered on the toddler) could be financial worries. As a solution, they suggest that Hi accompany them on a bank robbery—a financial obsession threatening to Hi's newfound innocence as well as the absolute innocence symbolized in the baby. Gale and Evelle cannot know, however, that the source of the financial problem (Hi's loss of his job) was his revulsion over Glen's proposition that they engage in wife-swapping, a sexual obsession threatening to innocence, an obsession to which Hi is ultimately sacrificed by being fired. As Hi points out, "It is a tough world for little things" who are at the mercy of man's perverse, animalistic nature.

Just as the Hi-Smalls pairing forms a parallel to Lennie Small, the pairing of Hi (including the Smalls aspect of his psyche) and Ed parallels the Lennie-George combo. Hi is tall (though not bulky—that trait belongs to Smalls), irresponsible, and trying to escape a checkered past of crimes against society. Ed, however, is his opposite, with her small build, great sense of responsibility and decorated efforts as a law enforcement officer. Ed constantly has to remind Hi of the proper way in which to behave in certain situations, much as George tells Lennie what to say and do. For example, she scolds Hi for allowing two escaped convicts to intrude into their "decent" home (ironically forged by the crime of kidnaping), and she chastises his violence against Glen. In this respect Ed and Hi may be seen as the conscious and subconscious—or possibly even superego and id—the former always trying to keep the latter in check. Interestingly, Ed sometimes resembles Lennie, as her need for a child echoes his desire to tend little rabbits, and in one scene Hi becomes George; he destroys Smalls, saying, "I'm sorry," displaying the same regret with which George shoots Lennie.

Typically, such switching of characters would break down the foundation of any comparison of two works. However, in this case the interchangeability of character relationships between Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men not only serves to underscore the existence of Ed, Hi, and Smalls (as well as George and Lennie) as small segments of one whole personality, but it also contributes to one of the Coens' strongest thematic tools: confusion of identity.

If one is to make a successful metamorphosis into a better existence, then one must first come to grips with the true nature of one's current self. The inability of Raising Arizona's characters to do so, indicating the futility of their dreams, is pointed up in the numerous confusions of identity throughout the film. The hero is alternately called "H.I.," "Hi," "Daddy," "Mr. McDunnough," and "Herbert" (the name he uses to sign the letter acknowledging the confused, troubled side of his character). The validity of his mate's name is called into doubt when Hi queries, "What kind of name is 'Ed' for a pretty little thing like you?" Her reply introduces an alternate name, "Edwina," and she is later called "Mrs. McDonnough" (a title lending a false air of respect and import) and even "young Missy" (a child-like name evoking images of smallness). Ed, like Hi, is also facing a serious identity crisis: she is an officer of the law who marries an ex-con, tenders her badge, and embarks on a criminal act. Amusingly, the motif of confused identify is extended to some minor characters, such as the large, burly man in Hi's prison therapy group who, because of terrible menstrual cramps, feels trapped in a man's body.

Such ambiguous personalities are evident in Of Mice and Men as well, where they also indicate a reluctance or inability to engage in introspection. Lennie's surname, "Small," is obviously at odds with his physical size; it is, however, in accord with his inability to understand his environment and himself; and while Lennie may be physically strong ("Leonard" means "strong or brave as a lion"), he is not emotionally viable, nor is he brave. While there is no apparent contradiction in George Milton's name, a contradiction or confusion of identify is clear in his repeated avoidance of questions about his relationship to Lennie. Several ranch hands remark that it is odd to see two men traveling together as they do, but George insists that there is nothing strange about it at all. Dusenbury theorizes that Steinbeck points up the unusual friendship to emphasize the aloneness of the typical ranch hand. However, on the surface there is a subtly implied homosexuality, underlined by Lisca's reminder that "George" means "husbandman," in this case husband to one who is "strong or brave as a lion." More important than denying homosexuality, though, George is denying that Lennie is really his psychological twin; Lisca suggests that the Lennie-George dichotomy could be that of the unconscious and the conscious or the id and the ego. George fails to admit this relationship and the fact that they have no choice but to travel together.

While the main characters in the two works are all confused about where they stand in life, they are equally unsure of exactly what they seek. Steinbeck called his novel "a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world." Rabbits symbolize the fertile dreams of Lennie and George, but they are easily replaced with whatever suitable substitutes can be found: first with a mouse, then with a puppy, and finally with George's trip to a "cat house." In one version of his plans, George even mentions the possibility of eating some of the rabbits, an act which is paradoxically destructive of the very symbol of the dream itself.

In Raising Arizona, the McDunnoughs' hopes are personified in the form of a toddler who undergoes no fewer than six changes of identity, indicating the characters' lack of focus on their dreams. He is first called "Nathan, Jr., I think" by Hi. Nathan Arizona later uses the same phrase to refer to the child; and he admits that his own "name ain't Nathan Arizona," but rather Nathan Huffhines. Thus the baby becomes Nathan Huffhines, Jr., by association. Once they have him home, the McDunnoughs continue to call him "Nathan, Jr.," in private, but they subsequently label him "Hi, Jr., 'til we think of a better name," and "Ed, Jr.," in the company of others. The most brilliantly absurd confusion of identity comes when Hi tells Glen that the baby is Ed, Jr. Glen mistakes the name "Ed," normally a masculine name, to be feminine, remarking, "I thought you said it was a boy." In a line that would in most instances seem quite superfluous, Hi then has to explain that "Ed" is in this case short for "Edward," not "Edwina." As others try to horn in on the dream (just as Candy and Crooks beg to be let in on George and Lennie's dream), the child becomes Glen, Jr., and Gale, Jr. Put simply, Nathan, Jr., is all things to all people, none of whom has given serious thought to what his true goals are. The characters "suffer from tunnel vision, each gripped by an obsession he or she cannot … explain."

The fact that something has gone seriously awry with Hi and Ed's schemes for a family life is underscored by the paralleling of the lone biker with the gigantic rabbit in Lennie's nightmare. Just as the rabbit is a symbol of the utopian farm made monstrous in size and cruel in speech, Smalls, incarnated in Hi's first dream, clearly symbolizes an infant made monstrous and cruel, his booties dangling from his body armor and his tattoo reading, "Mama didn't love me." The cartoonish yet hellish lighting of the biker together with the woodpecker tattoo contributes to the "evil child" image, and, as Steele says of Lennie's nightmare rabbit, when one's most cherished dream turns upon one, it is indeed the death of hope.

If one's goals are unclear or badly founded, then the determination from within that is necessary to the actualization of one's dreams is absent. Therefore, working toward those aspirations becomes an impossibility, and, rather than reevaluate the validity of his goals, that person may seek a short-cut to achievement. However, the easy way out almost always involves settling for less than the desired result. For example, Hi's holdups (significantly of convenience stores), intended as quick ways of getting cash, result in one incarceration after another. One of Hi's fellow inmates tells how, as a child, he often settled for eating sand when he could find neither meat, nor fowl, nor crawdads. He describes a disastrous attempt to cook a crawdad in a boiler, but without any water (i.e., without following the proper, time-consuming steps); instead of a crawdad lunch, he got something more closely resembling popcorn.

Attempts to reach goals too quickly are more abundantly portrayed in Raising Arizona as premature births. Hi is repeatedly released on parole, as the cell doors "swing wide" before he has had a chance to reform at all, before the fat man with the mop has finished cleaning the dirty floors of Hi's rambunctious mind. The escape of Gale and Evelle from prison is shown as a birth from a tunnel, each man screaming like a newborn baby, and Evelle's feet-first emergence suggests a problem with the delivery. The brothers' entrance back into society is made in a stolen station wagon—significantly a family car, the ideas of family and home being modes of cultural acceptance throughout the film—which they drive off while it is still being filled with gasoline, leaving the pump hose lying on the ground like a prematurely severed umbilical cord. Hi, in his last flight from the police, undergoes a birth from the cab/womb of his getaway truck (screaming in unison with the driver/mother), through its windshield/birth canal, and (again prematurely) into the "Ozzie and Harriet" world of a split-level ranch home. This is a world for which Hi obviously is not ready, and he must run through it since it has no place for him yet. Most importantly, Hi and Ed have "born" a baby into their world, but they have done it much too easily and prematurely. Only when Nathan, Jr., is kidnaped from them by Gale and Evelle do they admit that they never really deserved him in the first place.

This realization is the slap in the face that puts the McDunnoughs on the right track to a truly hopeful future. The lone biker arrives immediately, visible for the first time to Hi's conscious and to Ed. They are now face to face with Hi's alter ego, the biggest single obstacle barring a new life from them. Just as George kills that aspect of himself that Lennie represents, Hi must confront Smalls, the true nature which he has feared and about which he has been confused; he must either overcome this side of his psyche or be destroyed along with his dreams.

In the aftermath of their triumph over the lone biker of the apocalypse, Hi and Ed, not certain that kidnaping was not the proper solution to their problems, return Nathan, Jr., to his crib, a gesture indicating their intent to start afresh. Just as George and Lennie's retreat to the spot by the river has explicit overtones of a return to the womb and rebirth, Hi and Ed momentarily "retreat" from their mad pursuit, realize where their problems lie, and are reborn to a new way of seeing their dreams. Barth points out that the Coens' stylistic alterations of reality throughout the film work to suggest the necessity of just such a new way of perceiving.

Throughout the film, Arizona is a source of confusion, especially as used as an assumed name by Nathan Huffhines; and with its absurd juxtaposition of mass-culture junkiness with parched, primal landscapes, it has been referred to by Ethan Coen as "an Arizona of the mind." Arizona is also the American state where the characters have chosen to pursue the American dream, indicating, in the context of its symbolic use, a fundamental flaw of uncertainty in the pursuit. In the final line of dialog, Hi muses, "I don't know; maybe it was Utah." Thus he doubts the very essence of his entire struggle. Has he been on the wrong track from the beginning? He is raising Arizona as one would raise a question, and he has finally achieved the necessary level of self-examination that may make his dream a possible reality.

Thus, by borrowing Steinbeck's theme of small Americans and their misguided dreams, Joel and Ethan Coen contend that, in order to achieve true personal success, one must look beyond the cultural stereotypes of what one's goals should be and pursue instead the small, truly wonderful things in life. To the jubilant cheers of the human race found in the yodels of the closing soundtrack, Hi opens his eyes to the reality of his misdirected quest, indicating an awakening that will foster new, more realistic dreams.

(read more)

This section contains 3,006 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Rodney Hill
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Essay by Rodney Hill from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
Follow Us on Facebook