Study Guide

After the Fall

by Arthur Miller

After the Fall Analysis

The Play (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

After the Fall begins with Quentin sitting center stage on a chair in a dim light. In the background is a three-level, colorless stone tower, symbolic of the Nazi concentration camps, on which the people of his past walk in and out of his mind as he talks to himself. Quentin is, as it were, on trial, and he addresses the jury, “the Listener” or audience, in order to justify himself to himself. His monologue then becomes a dialogue with the people of his past as he seeks to alleviate his guilt over destructive relationships with two former wives.

Because the action takes place in Quentin’s mind, the episodes in act 1 are piecemeal and seemingly disconnected, but several major characters do emerge, along with distinctive periods of contemporary history. The first is Holga, an archaeologist and his prospective third wife, through whom he visits the Nazi death chambers of the late 1930’s, discovering in the process that no one is innocent. Holga has a feeling for this place and for her mother who died there, but with a long narrative telling how she kissed an idiot child in a dream, she endeavors to convince Quentin that he must accept the past and go on.

Quentin, though he would like to become a “separate person,” is different from Holga. He lacks any feeling for the Holocaust. He cannot mourn his mother, and after two failures in marriage he is skeptical about his relationship with Holga; indeed, he cannot sign letters to her “With love.” This void does not mean, however, that he is emotionally divorced from former relationships.

There are several women who cloud Quentin’s past: One is Felice, a client whose divorce he managed. He has no feeling for her, though she idolizes him. It is his first wife, Louise, who calls attention to his indifference to women, indeed his use of them as instruments to provide “a constant bath of praise.” The constant quarreling between Quentin and Louise leads to flashbacks of his childhood, of his dominating mother (for whom he cannot weep), and of other historical periods. The stock market crash of the 1920’s, followed by the Great Depression, when his father lost his fortune and his wife’s respect (she wants a divorce and calls him an idiot) leave their mark on...

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After the Fall Dramatic Devices (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

After the Fall is expressionistic, an interior monologue in which the imagery is symbolic, the structure erratic, the characterization general. Together these elements convey the unconscious tension in Quentin’s mind as he attempts to justify himself to the Listener/jury/audience. As indicated in the stage directions, the windows of the Nazi concentration camp are “eyes” that appear “blind and dark,” like those of most of the characters. The colorless hollows of the tower reflect the holes in Quentin’s memory as the characters on the three levels appear and disappear, as though in his mind. The lighting is dim to dramatize the fogginess of his memory as he seeks to address the Listener from his chair, alone on the stage.

As though in the mind, the play proceeds by abrupt transitions in time, space, and mood as the protagonist makes a symbolic journey in search of his identity in a hostile world. His life with Louise, the loss in his family, Lou and Mickey’s demise, and his meeting Maggie all intertwine as experiences of his childhood are juxtaposed to more recent events. Act 1 does have movement, however, toward the more orderly sequence of events in act 2, which develops Quentin’s relationship with Maggie.

If there is something that holds the play together it is certain key words: “idiot,” “separate person,” and “love.” It is not clear in the end whether Quentin really becomes a separate person who can love another, but the notion of the “idiot child” is, at least dramatically, fully resolved. At the outset, Holga tells how she kissed her idiot child. Maggie in her innocence then takes on the aspect of a disturbed child. Quentin’s mother calls his father an idiot, an insult Louise applies to Quentin. Quentin’s final leaving with Holga is a symbolic indication that, in recognizing Holga’s notion of the idiot child, he as idiot has embraced his own decisions and failures and so is both separate and free.

After the Fall Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. File on Miller. London: Methuen, 1988.

Centola, Steve, ed. The Achievement of Arthur Miller: New Essays. Dallas: Contemporary Research Press, 1995.

Hayman, Ronald. Arthur Miller. New York: Ungar, 1972.

Hogan, Robert. Arthur Miller. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.

Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Mottram, Eric. “Arthur Miller: The Development of a Political Dramatist in America.” In Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert W. Corrigan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Stanton, Stephen. “Pessimism in After the Fall.” In Arthur Miller: New Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Martin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1982.