In this final post on The Big Lebowski, we examine the Dude as an expression of the genuine human, that person that understands both their own freedom in agency (on the one hand) and their responsibility toward others (on the other). We also have a look at Donny, that character played by Steve Buscemi, and ask whether Donny is a genuine person or a version of the sub-man (spoiler alert: we aren't in agreement here).
The Genuine Man: The Dude (Jeffrey Lebowski)
The Dude captures what it means for one to successfully strike the balance between individuality and universality. The plot of the Big Lebowski unfolds as the different characters act upon The Dude, beginning with Jackie Treehorn’s henchmen breaking into his house and desecrating the rug which, in the Dude’s words, really tied the room together. The Dude is motivated equally by his own desires as well as by the influence of the people around him. In describing the genuine man, de Beauvoir writes:
“As we have seen, my freedom, in order to fulfill itself, requires that it emerge into an open future: it is other men who open the future to me, it is they who setting up the world of tomorrow, define my future; but if, instead, of allowing me to participate in this constructive movement, they obligate me to consume my transcendence in vain, if they keep me below the level which they have conquered and on the basis of which new conquests will be achieved, then they are cutting me off from the future, they are changing me into a thing” (88-89).
In this way, we see that the Dude, who might have been turned into an object by the people who attempted to use him for their own means, instead maintained his individuality despite the forces at play upon him. He never allowed his future to be limited by any of the other characters. Everyone has something that they want from the Dude, and, while the Dude is willing to go along with this to a certain extent, he never loses sight of what he wants for himself. The Dude’s ambitions are decidedly less grand than what society wants to demand of him, and this does not bother him one bit. The Dude is completely content with life’s simple pleasures: a nice rug, Creedence Clearwater, white russians and the like. He is happy to do the bare minimum to get by in life, which is clear to us from the first scene, in which we witness him at a grocery store, where he writes a check to purchase a single carton of half and half. However, we still find that, as much as he is willing to live a simple life of simple pleasures, he also reacts to the actions of the people around him. When his rug gets peed on, he attempts to right the injustice that has been committed by seeking out the other Jeffrey Lebowski and explaining the situation to him. However, when Jeffrey Lebowski denies any responsibility for the event, the Dude soon realizes that this exchange will not help him get what he wants. At that point, the Dude, completely unbothered by Jeffrey Lebowski’s negative judgement of him, convinces Brandt to let him take a rug anyway. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses the skill with which the Dude navigates the world in order to get what he wants, while also working in cooperation with the people around him.
Donny: Child, Sub-Man, or Genuine Person?
We could not come to consensus about Donny, the (apparent) third wheel to the Dude and Walter. Donny, as he is played by Steve Buscemi, is a friend of the Dude and Walter, and meets his untimely end following the confrontation with the Nihilists in the parking lot outside the bowling alley. Situating Donny in de Beauvoir’s catalogue led us to consider a couple of options.
Donny as sub-man
There are several things about Donny’s character which could indicate that he is de Beauvoir’s sub-man. For one thing, throughout the film he is strategically placed behind the Dude and Walter. This occurs several times in the various bowling alley scenes, as well as when we see the three in the Dude’s car. The only time Donny is at the front is during the scene when they go to watch the Dude’s landlord perform a ballet and, by virtue of the setting, Donny’s position once again leaves him blocked off from the other two. Donny never indicates that this setup is a problem for him. He always seems content to take the backseat on his life. In reference to the sub-man, de Beauvoir writes, “Nothing ever happens; nothing merits desire or effort” (48) and, indeed, this is how Donny moves through his life. While the Dude is a reactive character who consistently works towards getting his desires, Donny, on the other hand, is purely reactive and devoid of desires to work towards. The sub-man is the child who never grew up and, similarly, Donny is very child-like. One of the most repeated lines of the film, coming from Walter and addressed to Donny is “Shut the f*** up Donny,” to which, Donny usually shuts up. He doesn’t take the aggressive command as an attack upon him, but responds, rather like a child being told to be quiet by an authority figure. He doesn’t have the agency to defend himself and rather accepts Walter’s treatment of him as a part of his life, which he has no control over.
Donny as Genuine Man
Donny takes the backseat in the film but he is also given independence from the trio of main characters through his untimely death and the background of his life in the eulogy given by Walter when pouring his ashes. This sort of independence is also shown through his uninvolvement with some of the more extreme antics of the Dude and Walter, namely the delivering of “the ringer” and the confrontation of the high school boy, Larry. Perhaps this is Donny participation as the sub-man, however, it seems that he is acting genuinely in his own way by not dealing in the antics that don’t involve him.