Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Arrival

I start this series of posts in fear & trembling, knowing there's nothing Prisoner fans like better than tearing apart each other's opinions. I'm also in fear & trembling at the idea of trying to get my head round even some of the allegorical concepts in the show, fear of getting stuck on an idea or not being able to find as much allegory as I'd like. So let's begin with a colossal Prisoner heresy. I'm going to call out McGoohan on this & tell him the received wisdom can't possibly be right.
'P[atrick] M[cGoohan] has stated that the show was an Allegory, [Number] 6 was an Everyman, & the Village was Society at large. That these are aspects of the show is undeniable- whether that�s all they are- hmm�.[One] should never put total faith in an artist�s version of their own art.' (http://www.cosmoetica.com/B39-DES18.htm)
My Prisoner heresy is that I'm far from swallowing the basic allegorical premise outlined by McGoohan, in fact despite that idea being oft-repeated in the literature, I have disliked it from the moment I first read it. For allegory, it's too easy, too obvious. I don't want to stick to only one allegorical idea in these posts, so I'd better get my pet theory out of the way. The Village does not represent society: the job that Number 6 has resigned from represents society. For me The Village rather represents the dream that Number 6 has, predicated on resigning from his job/society. The whole point is that he has created this himself: he is, after all Number 1. I am quite prepared to be shaken in this view by the end of this series of posts.
So let's consider what actually happens in the opening sequence, since that indicates the basic premise of the show.. A man drives into an underground car park. He enters a building (through doors marked 'way out'). He walks down a long, dimly-lit corridor. He walks abruptly into a low-ceilinged office furnished with a large map & traditionally-styled furnishings. He puts a letter down on the desk, it doesn't have a destination, merely 'private, personal, by hand'. He slams his fist down on the table which upsets a cup of tea. He drives back out from the underground carpark into the light. A black, more traditional, car pulls out as he comes out. His car & the other car are seen driving along the road. A typewriter's keys are seen crossing out his picture with Xs. He is driving along followed by the other car. His picture is mechanically placed in a filing cabinet (one of many filing cabinets) drawer marked 'resigned'. The man draws up outside a house, followed by the other car. He enters the house & the other car pulls up. He is seen inside the house taking up a suitcase. He picks up his passport. A man dressed like an undertaker emerges from the car & approaches the front door of the house. The man puts pictures of foreign places in his suitcase. Smoke comes through the keyhole. Skyscrapers sway in front of the man's vision. He blacks out. He wakes up again - in what turns out to be a perfect replica of his own room in The Village.
This, the key premise of the show, to me already raises questions about McGoohan's assertion of the show's allegorical basis. The reason I have gone through the title sequence in such detail is that is allows different avenues into an allegorical understanding of the show. For example it is not necessarily so that the Village is society. The allegory is clearly about society, though:
'One thing everyone can agree on is that the show examines the growing restrictions that society places on individual freedom. What people disagree on is which particular restrictions the show depicts and how those restrictions relate to our lives today (and has that changed if at all from the shows first airing several decades ago).' (http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/articleatoza.htm)
I believe it could be seen that the job from which Drake has resigned is actually the restrictive society he despises - his idea to escape on a holiday is shown by the pictures in his suitcase. The Village I believe in this case could represent his own dream escape from his humdrum workaday life. The fact that he doesn't like it when he gets there is largely the point - he has made his bed & must lie in it, so to speak. In this view the show largely becomes a journey into his own self-sabotaging inner world, reinforced by the final episode. In fact I like this allegorical view enormously since it actually makes the often-criticised ending hang together well.
I'm probably over-analysing, but I think the opening sequence is open to multiple interpretations, deliberately so or not. The car represents his drive, literally, zooming through life. His work is plainly oppressive: he passes out of light into darkness as he enters it. Yet he enters it through a door with 'way out' on the outside. He is therefore clearly exiting something in this basic premise of the show, rather than going *to* something, The Village. The long corridor he walks down could represent a vagina, suggesting that he is 'reborn' by his resignation, rather than his subsequent death by gas & 'rebirth' in The Village. The traditional furnishings of his boss's office represent the forces of tradition & stability. That the letter is not addressed indicates that it isn't really the issue, who it is for. However the number of precautions written on it indicate its importance.  His car then becomes the means by which his drive becomes his new life. That it is a sporty model indicates quite a different personality from the dour characters driving the black car. His house - & its reproduction in The Village - indicate the persona he he has created for himself, that he retreats into. The holiday pictures indicate his wish to get away. His sanctum is 'violated' by the gas blown through the letterbox - each time his home is entered could represent an intrusion by the outside world into his own fantasy world. The swaying tower blocks represent the world he has created for himself, swaying & falling. He falls asleep, & wakes up.
The thing I most want to avoid at this point is getting hung up on a particular idea, to the exclusion of all others, & this is why I've tried to hang many different allegorical interpretations on the opening scene, so that I can pick them up & run with them. I'm finding I'm particularly out of tune with the oft-repeated idea that Number 6 has died through the gas in his house & been born again. He could equally have been the agent of his own rebirth in reisgning, although his new life isn't what he hoped it would be.
There are several key allegorical elements introduced in this episode. Number 6 is seen driving through London, tower blocks are the last things that sway before his eyes before he blacks out. This cityscape is a clear contrast with the (apparent) pastoral idyll of The Village. One could represent his past life, the other his new life. One the place his drive brought him in his career, the other the dreams he had of escape which turned sour since they were impracticable. I would think there is also a more classic allegory here of all the city represents, contrasted to all the village represents, e.g. Bustle compared to slowness, solitude compared to community, etc. This Village, though, is almost a caricature of a real village: it is incredibly controlled & contained. It can only really represent the nightmare that happens when we get what we think we want.
The fact that he remains a number is significant for me. His employers' allegorical response to his resignation -quite literally crossing him out & filing him - suggests his past life has been highly ordered & regimented. However he remains a number. Everyone in The Village is a number. Despite the fact he has created this himself  
The scene in the Labour Exchange is reinforcing of the total community Number 6's dream actually creates. I realise when I wrote about The Prisoner before I wrote at length about institutionalisation. The fact that such a pseudo-community has both a labour exchange & citizens' advice bureau could, in the conventional allegorial view, refer to the pretence that is our society. It could also refer to Number 6's own views on society if he were actually to create his dream. The gadget in the labour exchange could either represent an intrusion by the world of technology into Number 6's pastoral dream - I think this is also represented by the music in his house, & his rejection of his own dream by the rejection of the music. The gadget could also represent the 'stuff' with which we complicate our lives on every level. In a sense the simplicity of The Village - simple if you don't question - is the antidote for the complexity of modern life. The penny farthing was said to represent modern technology, & its two different-sized wheel the way modern life fails to hang together or satisfy us.
The theme of privacy & the violation of it that runs through The Prisoner is here in abundance. The Village authorities know him intimately - the eggs he likes & the clothes fit like gloves. Of course it could be the way we are stamped, filed, numbered, etc. I feel his flat refers to his own personal 'space' - in his mind, almost his own psyche. He cannot escape from the intrusions of the flawed Village, though. But there's something wrong with this. Assuming The Village is Number 6's own mental creation, what kind of man are we talking about? He clearly doesn't really know himself: his dream is disconnected from his route to it, his resignation. His own self-sabotaging behaviour has led himself to this, & despite the best will in the world, he creates his own hell. The fact that he then blames everyone else for this indicates the chilling basic allegory contained in my pet theory: we create our own hell.
There is simply so much here than can be interpeted allegorically. Some of the things I'm having difficulties with at the moment are Rover & the man Rover catches in this episode. I have a feeling the stripes & colours of the Village clothing will prove susceptible to interpretation. But I hope there will be opportunities to look at these things in successive posts.
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