Commentary On The Characters And Their Conflicts In West Side Story
Jerome S Blackman, MD, DLFAPA, FIPA, FACPsa
What goes on in the mind of adolescents? Especially adolescents in love? Do they have different neuronal receptors, as an article in a news weekly once suggested? Or, are they the victims of their own raging hormones? Amid the variety of social commentaries in West Side Story (that prejudice begets violence, e.g.) lies a poignant tale of intense young love destroyed because infatuation interfered with reality judgment.
Psychoanalysts are interested in how adolescents resolve the inevitable conflicts they encounter with reality and their relationships as they fumble their way into adulthood. Which brings us to Tony and Maria.
Maria is on the cusp of adulthood, and ready to rocket. She sees Anita as a sort of conscience-reinforcing mother-figure (I’d call it a transference distortion). Ironically, Anita has her own “bad-boy” perversion – she is happy about the rumble because afterward Bernardo will “. . . come in hot and tired, so what! Don’t matter if he’s tired, as long as he’s hot . . .”.
Maria wants Anita to lower the neckline on her new dress to show more cleavage, arguing with Anita that the dress “. . . is not for praying!” (Interestingly, after he sees her in the dress, Tony later sings that her name, “Maria,” is “almost like praying”). Maria is ready to shed the idea of purity symbolized by the white dress, which she complains is “for babies”, and she suggests to Anita that they dye it red (more eye catching, sexier).
So far, Maria certainly seems like a normal teenager. Her powerful attraction to Tony that makes her friends sing, “She thinks she’s in love”, and “She’s out of her mind” is typical of a type of crush most adolescents experience. Even her separating from her parents by choosing someone she says her father will “disapprove” of is not uncommon, and echoes the lyric from the 1940’s tune, “Two Sleepy People”, where the woman sings, “Do you remember, the nights we used to linger in the hall? Father didn’t like you at all . . .” This is all about defensively relieving identity-diffusion anxiety.
Maria’s first big error is acting on a grandiose, adolescent fantasy that all violence can be neutralized by love. Secondly, she idealizes Tony, thinking his superior leadership abilities can stop all the enmity between the gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. She minimizes the reality of the violence, partly as a defense against her fear of it, and partly as a defense (along with cuteness and playfulness) against seeing her own aggressive potential. In general, Maria’s violent reactions, as evidenced at the end of the story when she picks up a gun and threatens to shoot everyone, are more sublimated. That is, she is usually aggressive only in the sense of her competitiveness with other girls (she feels “. . . so pretty, Miss America can just resign . . .”); but she’s not a killer.
Her third mistake in judgment is in not recognizing that Tony is capable of killing, having come out of the same environment as Riff. Because of projection, Maria believes Tony is like her! In fact, the romantic love hymn, “Make of our hands, one hand . . .”, in addition to the literary hyperbola, probably demonstrates one of the infantile elements of their tie – each feeling symbiotically part of the other – which is a common feature of late adolescent crushes.
Now, what about Tony? He’s cut the cord, not only to his parents, whom he hardly mentions, but to the gang that supported him up to the brink of manhood. No longer attracted to the thrill of physical combat, he reluctantly attends the “war council” at Riff’s urging, and manages to tone down the gangs’ violent plans. Tony’s involvement in this war council, before meeting Maria, indicates both his wish and readiness to offer fatherly guidance. Moreover, he doesn’t deny the violent aggression born of pain, disappointment, and frustrated masculinity of the boys in the Sharks and the Jets. Instead, he initially attempts to get the gangs to sublimate their murderous feelings through a “fair fight” – to duke it out, as many fathers (to their wives’ chagrin) advise their sons. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad idea, and the fact that the gangs agreed to it tends to negate the nihilistic attitudes of Krupke and Shrank, the police officers who see the kids as hopeless hoodlums.
Tony is ready for something new, mature, and more personally gratifying, and is sure that “something’s coming”. And it does: love at first sight. But then he makes the error of flaunting his happiness in front of a bunch of unhappy, envious guys. Later when Tony is hiding at Doc’s after he kills Bernardo, his “buddies” almost rape Anita, who came at Maria’s request to help Tony. The Jets are displacing onto Anita their anger at Bernardo for killing Riff. But why are they not at least more considerate toward Tony, since they know Anita brings a message for Tony, probably from his sweetheart? An additional motive for their attack on her seems to be their unconscious envy over Tony’s prospects for a happy, adult union with Maria. They would rather he continue to suffer the way they do and remain in the gang.
Tony has another problem. After he meets Maria, he abdicates aspects of his identity, especially when it comes to aggression, and patterns himself after her. In other words, to not displease or feel separate from her, he incorporates her immature, idealistic wishes to rid the human race of hostility and violence. He regresses – gives up his developing paternal, reality-based judgment – in order to avoid conflict with Maria, and caves in to her insistence that he stop even the fair fistfight that he had judiciously arranged. This is painful for us in the audience. Even if we have not seen the show before, we know this mistake of denying the reality of the gang members’ aggression, associated with his dedifferentiation from Maria, is destined to bring tragic consequences. Predictably, Tony’s on-site attempt to “renegotiate the terms” of the fight leads to an escalation of the violence and the deaths of Riff and Bernardo.
Finally, Tony’s last mistake is inviting Chico to kill him, since Maria isn’t dead, at all. Why does he do this? Why doesn’t he check out the reality first, before getting himself killed? You could make a case for guilt (over Maria’s reported death), but I think the more prominent cause of his self-destructive behavior is his intense symbiotic tie to Maria – he feels they are, literally, “one.” Without her, he feels he is destroyed, and therefore has no reason for living – the psychological basis, often, for adolescent suicide attempts after being jilted – and this interferes with his reality-testing function.
No wonder we put ourselves through this emotional ringer of a show. Vicariously, we experience the exhilaration of our first crushes and master the pain of the loss of our first love affairs. The social message of this parable is basically, Violence is bad, Love is better. The psychological story, however, illustrates the danger of concretely believing that all violent tendencies can be magically erased by love and reason.
Dr. Blackman is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in Virginia Beach, VA, USA