• Daniel Kephart

Poldark: The Struggle for Existence

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Mad Men. It's common knowledge that I am fascinated by The Sopranos. Yet when people ask me what my favorite television show is, there is only one answer: Poldark.

In 2019, BBC's hit drama Poldark finally came to a close after a very successful four-year run. Critically-acclaimed and adored by audiences in both Britain and the United States, the series chronicles the life of Demelza and Ross Poldark as they struggle to eke out a living on the coast of the English province of Cornwall. Along the way, Ross and Demelza find themselves embroiled in hateful rivalries, disastrous love affairs, and even violent struggles. Their story, however, is not one of grandiose heroism. Instead, Poldark focuses on the day-to-day experiences and choices of a couple at the personal level.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Sigmund Freud, that infamous psychologist, wrote that the most important event in a boy's life was when his father died. Carl Jung, whose theories seem to have proven more enduring, agreed to some extent. The death, however, did not have to be literal in Jung's mind. Nor did the significance of the death of the father extend only to boys. For Jung, every human being needed to understand that the authoritative aspect of their parents (which he associated primarily with fathers) would eventually fail them. Some individuals, Jung believed, encountered that idea early on and made peace with it. For others, the realization of parental limitations only sank in after the parents themselves had died. The knowledge and wisdom of past generations can only carry a human soul so far.

Here is the place where we first meet Ross Poldark. A British soldier returning from the failed attempt to halt the American revolution, Ross discovers that his father and mother are dead. The Poldark estate, comprised of a copper mine and a farm, is in ruins. The love of Ross' life, Elizabeth, has believed him dead for some time - and has agreed to marry Ross' cousin, Francis. Ross "comes home" to discover that home is not really the pristine paradise he remembered it. The idols of the parents are dead, the promises of those around him broken, and the burden of facing the world on his shoulders.

Initially, Ross does not bear up well under the weight of existence. He takes to excessive drinking. He visits a prostitute. He becomes bitter. Yet his perspective is changed forever when he encounters a young peasant woman who has run away from her father's home. Demelza, a street urchin with no education, has accomplished what Ross could not. Demelza has understood the limitations of her parents' wisdom, and as an adult boldly accepts the weight of life's challenge. Ross, heartened by Demelza's courage, invites her to come work at his estate. Then, ultimately, Ross falls in love with Demelza and weds her. In doing so, he sets himself up for the journey of a lifetime.

In the coming weeks, I'll be exploring critical moments in the character development of Poldark, unpacking their significance as stories of how ordinary people cope with tragedy, struggle, and heartbreak. The characters of Poldark are far from angels - they are often deceitful and self-centered. Yet they are not meant to be idealized characters, nor are they meant to be edgy anti-heroes. Instead, they are human beings struggling to do good in a world where they often do not know how.

And that, in many ways, is the human story. Few stories are so compelling.

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