The Whispers of Hope
“Would it not be better to compare the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?” President Richard Nixon asked during the American National Exhibition in Moscow. What seems like a dim-witted question utterly reflects the ideals of the middle and upper class of the 1960’s. Having heard the “model” ideals echoed by their president, the predominantly white middle and upper class citizens became engrossed in building their own nuclear family: a working father, kitchen wife, children, and top of the line household appliances. Achieving these consumeristic goals allowed these Americans to feel accomplished and created a false sense of security and peace. While these Americans were driven to attain every aspect of a “model” life, the lower class would go unnoticed and unaffected by the publicly advertised consumeristic ideals. Although it seemed much needed, social change did not seem likely for the underrepresented lower class. Through the use of clear metaphors, diction, repetition, and contrasting tones, the song “The Sound of Silence” sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel casts a shadow of ambivalence over the possibility of social change in the 1960’s. The 1960’s marked an epoch in which Americans did not dare start controversy or question societal expectations. I argue that the “Sound of Silence” conveys mixed emotions about Americans in the 1960’s: pity for the submissive conformists and hopefulness for the few social activists driven to evoke social change.
In the beginning of the song, the speaker, an inspired middle class social activist, reinforces the need for social change. The newly inspired social activist is established by the lyrics of the first stanza: “a vision softly creeping, / left its seeds while I was sleeping” (Simon & Garfunkel lines 3-4). The vision is symbolic of a revelation or a prophetic dream that reveals to the activist the desperate need of change in society. As a result, the social activist resumes his fight for change, which he names his “old friend” (line 1). In his dream, he is walking “alone” on “narrow streets of cobblestone” (lines 8-9). The setting gives the reader the impression that the speaker is alone in his beliefs, and the cobblestone streets are symbolic of the middle class in which he resides. The climactic moment of his dream occurs when he turns to observe the slums of society, which is represented by “the cold and damp” (line 11). It is within the cold, damp, impoverished slums that he realizes the extent of inequality, and the neglect the lower class citizens endure as the rest of the nation pursues their consumeristic agendas. The third stanza intensifies the speaker’s desire for social change. In his vision, the speaker realizes his peers are truly “talking without speaking”, “hearing without listening”, and “writing songs that voices never share” (lines 17-19). The people he witnesses are voicing opinions that they truly do not believe in and following directions without ever questioning. The vision awakens the social activist to his flawed community governed by corrupt ideals and this propels him to take action.
The “sound of silence” is revealed as a metaphor for the façade of national well-being Americans fear to address. In the 1960’s, the middle and upper classes recognize the prevalent problems in the neglected lower classes but fail to act upon the visible injustices or act upon their own flawed life objectives. In the third stanza, the two artists sing “and no one dare / to disturb the sound of silence (lines 20-21). This is an example of the lack of courage of Americans in the middle and upper class to address their artificial lifestyles. The nuclear families, which the middle and upper classes strove so hard to establish, are not worth destroying to fix the problems of the lower classes. The fear to challenge authority in the 1960’s is reinforced by the “Introduction from Homeward Bound” written by Elaine Tyler May. In her text, she makes clear that those who try to defy the ideals of the middle and upper class are “marginalized, stigmatized, and disadvantaged as a result” (May 45). The possibility of exclusion from their respected society and a tarnished reputation is too much of a risk for individuals to take to correct society’s flaws and injustices.
The diction associated with “silence” also identifies the submissive nature of Americans who mindlessly conform to any expectations held by the majority. In the 1960’s, the middle and upper class majority held the expectation that no one should disturb the silence or voice their controversial opinions; the American citizens complied. Their compliance can be seen throughout the song. For example, at the end of every stanza, the phrase “silence” is repeated to reinforce the lack individuality of all Americans and to represent the absence of change. Like silence, conformity is not loud or attention seeking; it connotes acceptance, obedience, and agreement. Regardless of what new understandings are attained and expressed in the first lines of each stanza, people will still fall back in line and conform in “silence”. The fear of disturbing the silence is juxtaposed to “cancer” (Simon & Garfunkel line 23). The comparison emphasizes the hopelessness of evoking change in a society populated with submissive conformists. Like curing cancer, provoking change seemed relatively impossible at the time. Through these lines, Simon and Garfunkel highlight the stubbornness and complacency of individuals in the middle and upper class. They all fear questioning their flawed life objective to fulfill the socially and politically endorsed nuclear family.
Simon and Garfunkel communicate through the speaker’s lack of success, a sense of pity for the middle and upper class’ inability to promote or influence change. The speaker noticeably begins to show desperation and frustration in delivering the message he obtains from his vision. This can be seen in the fourth stanza as he begins addressing his peers as “fools” (line 22). The public affront issued by the speaker captures the frustration in his attempt to grab everyone’s attention. By addressing his peers as fools, he hopes to stir them into action and also rudely awaken them the same way he was awakened by his vision. Just as his eyes were “stabbed” by the vision, he hopes the same uneasiness caused by name-calling will serve as a catalyst for the commencement of social action in his middle class community (line 12). After thinking he has grabbed people’s attention, he pleads “hear my words that I might teach you / take my arms that I might reach you” (line 24-25). The speaker begins preaching the truths he has been exposed to but his spirited attempt ultimately fails. The simile of his words falling “like silent raindrops” indicates that the message he voices will go unheard. Instead of traveling to his audience’s ears, the speaker’s message falls to the ground never to be heard or voiced again (line 26). Once again, Simon and Garfunkel employ the sense of hopelessness through their repetition of the word “silence” in the end of the fourth stanza after the speaker’s failed attempt to break the silence.
Although the two lyricists devalue the attempt of the social activist, Simon and Garfunkel express that there is still small sign of hope kept alive by the presence of fearless social activists in the lower classes. It is in the slums and neglected communities that social activists voice their opinions publicly and fearlessly in their community. Unlike the artificiality seen in the middle and upper class, the lower classes express their genuine heartfelt emotion. They do not shy away from exposing their beliefs as seen in their words being “written on the subway walls and tenement halls” (line 35-36). The subway walls and tenement halls represent the public areas heavily populated by those in the lower class. It can be inferred by the time in which the song was written that the lyricists were referring to such social activists as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King whose audiences were derived from the poor and lower class citizens that the government neglected. The lyricists communicate to the audience that there are individuals, like Malcolm X and King, relentlessly fighting for a cause and successfully making real changes. The success that was absent in the middle and upper classes is finally apparent in the lower classes and slums expressed by the final line. The final line of the song speaks of a “whisper in the sound of silence” (line 36). Finally, a sound is made. The silence is finally broken with a whisper from the social activists in the lower class. The whisper of silence is symbolic of the nation’s slight chance of hope that louder more poignant noise will follow to end everyone’s fear of breaking the silence.
“The Sound of Silence” offers both ends of the spectrum to the concept of social change, which casts a sense of ambivalence to the idea of questioning a false sense of security in order to reveal the flaws in society. The audience is never informed of the end result caused by the whispers from the lower class. The lack of a clear resolution in the song raises the idea that breaking the sound of silence may actually have created more problems than it fixed. It brings forth the question: Is always being genuine and attaining absolute truth vital to the harmony and happiness of individuals in American Society? The end of Mike Nichols’ 1960’s film “The Graduate” reinforces the same ambivalence conveyed in “The Sound of Silence”. The movie revolves around the main character Ben Braddock who loses his sense of direction after graduating from college. His peers all have relatively followed the same business paths and have attained financial stability, but Ben does not feel passionate about leading the same life as those in his community. Ben rebels against the social norms of his community and goes so far as having an affair with the much older already married Mrs. Robinson. After falling in love with the character Elaine, he goes out of his way to break up her wedding. The community attending the wedding is outraged and chaos ensues. Ben and Elaine eventually escape onto a public bus in which a critical moment takes place in the closing scene. Despite the fact that Ben succeeds in getting the girl, he understands that he is now an outcast and carries an uncertain expression on his face. Elaine also recognizes the extent of her actions and like Ben, wears a troubled look on her face. Like the ambivalence left by the whisper in “The Sound of Silence”, director Mike Nichols also leaves his audience uncertain whether the Ben and Elaine, who both followed their hearts but defied the social norms, did the right thing.
“The Sound of Silence” presents two clashing notions concerning the need for social change in the 1960’s. Simon and Garfunkel expose their listeners to the flawed ideals and submissive nature of the middle and upper class. These flawed ideals create a false sense of harmony amongst those who have chosen to fulfill the Post War American Dream: the nuclear family. The nation’s outlook on success did not accommodate the lower classes in society. Despite the fact that the ideals addressed were looked down upon, the lyricists also make clear their uncertainty of challenging the nation’s flawed sense of peace and whether it would yield positive or negative results. It is understood that there will always be individuals who are driven to influence social change, but individuals like Director Mike Nichols, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel are not certain of the true benefits of the social activists’ actions in the long run. Ultimately, the risks of fixing the flaws within society may come at a far greater cost than submitting to the already established social norms and policies.
May, Elaine Tyler. “Introduction from Homeward Bound.” Dimensions of Culture 3: Imagination. Ed. Dr. Nancy Gilson, Dr. Jonathan Markovitz, and Dr. Chad Harris. United States of America, 2009. 41-46
Simon & Garfunkel. The Sound of Silence. The Sound of Silence. Columbia Records, 1966.
The Graduate. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. Dustin Hoffman. Embassy Pictures Corporation, 1967.