Arthur Miller American Literature Analysis
A serious dramatist who believed in drama’s ability to bring about change, Miller explored both the social and psychological dimensions of his characters. For him, individual dilemmas always grew out of the crucial social contexts that confront average people. He is much concerned with how individual morality is influenced by the social pressure that press unrelentingly upon them. His dramas attempt to go beyond being merely simple pieces or self-absorbed psychological studies to deal in depth with moral and ethical issues. He was interested in how ordinary individuals can live in unity and harmony with their fellow humans without sacrificing their own dignity.
In most of Miller’s dramas, the family is the central unit through which he presented and explored social and ethical issues. Central to Miller’s family drama is the image of the failed father. In selling out his fellow men to protect his family business, Joe Keller in All My Sons indirectly causes the death of his own son, Larry. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman forces his false dream on his son, with disastrous consequences. Both fathers commit suicide. Quentin’s father in After the Fall, like Victor Franz’s father in The Price and Moe Baum in The American Clock, lose money in the Depression and go into devastating psychological declines.
The sons in Miller’s writing often strive to break their bonds with their fathers. Chris Keller, like Biff Loman, becomes disillusioned with his father’s false values. Quentin sees through his father’s phoniness, and Victor realizes his father’s betrayal. The father often represents the misguided and self-centered dream of material success that must be attained at any cost. The sons must break away from their fathers and their fathers’ worlds if they are to realize their own identities and lead more authentic lives.
In the family dramas, the mother has two sides. Kate Keller, like Linda Loman, both supports and defends her husband at all costs. In Miller’s later plays, the mothers refuse to accept the failure of their husbands. Quentin’s mother treats the father with contempt, and Victor’s mother vomits on his bankrupt father. Although the mother may be a source of stability in support of the father, she can also be a source of disillusionment.
Although some critics disagree, Miller sees his common heroes as tragic figures willing to sacrifice everything for their convictions even though their convictions are often based on false ideals or on private delusions. Willy Loman is a washed-up salesman; Eddie Carbone, a troubled longshoreman; and John Proctor, a simple farmer. Each is willing to die for his beliefs. Miller’s heroes proudly confirm their individual identity. Willy screams, “I am Willy Loman.” Eddie must defend his name, and John Proctor in The Crucible would rather die than lend his name to an evil cause. Naming names and accusing others is a serious offense. Dying anonymously in death camps is an abomination.
Miller’s heroes are not victims of inexorable social forces. Ultimately, they bear the responsibility for their own actions. Embedded in them is a sense of guilt, usually for sexual infidelity. Willy’s affair in a Boston hotel room haunts him, and Proctor’s adultery fills him with shame. Proctor, like Quentin, stands accused before his wife. The Puritan strain of sexual guilt, a recurring theme in American literature, is an undercurrent in Miller’s work.
Guilt for Miller, however, extends beyond sexual transgressions. It is centered in a more serious crime: betrayal, either of oneself or of others. Miller’s characters often live in worlds of illusion and denial, and those who escape from tragedy must undergo a process of self-discovery. In Miller’s cosmos, individuals must act upon their own consciences without betraying their fellow humans for private gain.
His plays, which often involve litigation, put society itself on trial. In a post-Holocaust world, no one is innocent. After the Depression, a shadow has been cast on capitalism and its promise of salvation through material prosperity. Socialism, which once held out the dream of a universal brotherhood, has given way to totalitarianism. In this fallen world, the individual must learn how to live with dignity and honesty against a backdrop of disillusionment.
Although labeled a realist, Miller has experimented with a number of innovative dramatic techniques. In Death of a Salesman, he intersperses time sequences from the past and present without using flashbacks. In After the Fall, he employs expressionistic stage techniques in a stream-of-consciousness narrative. The device of a narrator in After the Fall and A View from the Bridge and the authorial comments in The Crucible introduce a distancing effect to his dramas. The montage effect in The American Clock and the Pinteresque absurdist style employed in Danger: Memory! demonstrate his ability to handle a variety of dramatic styles.
Miller’s poetic use of idiomatic speech and his subtle deployment of dramatic symbols clearly indicate that his drama has moved far beyond photographic realism. Using a variety of approaches, Miller most often juxtaposes the past actions of his characters with the ethical dilemmas in which they find themselves. Through this technique, they are forced to define themselves in terms both of their social situations and of their moral convictions.
As Miller realized that his life was winding down, he felt compelled to write a final play, Finishing the Picture, to answer some of the questions that the public had about his life. This play, produced just months before his death, marked the end of a highly productive career.
First published: 1945
Type of work: Novel
In this novel, the first of only two in Miller’s career, the protagonist learns to let go of his prejudices.
Arthur Miller’s first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, closed after only four performances in 1944, although in the same year, Miller received the Theatre Guild National Award. In this play, Miller was concerned with how people can find a spiritual home in an outside world that often is corrupt and destructive. It was essentially this concern that he explored in his first novel, Focus.
Initially, Lawrence Newman, a corporate personnel manager, is much concerned with propriety, with external appearances, as Willy Loman was in Death of a Salesman. The corporation for which he works gives him the sense of security that he needs, as does his neighborhood in Queens, where he is dependably loyal to the standards of behavior expected by his employers and by his neighbors.
Newman is racially intolerant. He builds his own self-esteem most effectively by categorizing people and filling groups in his mind with those whom he deems inferior to him. As he rides the subway to work every day, he observes the people around him, placing them conveniently into the categories that he has created. He places Jews in the column labeled “Avarice” and, by so doing, feels better about himself because he is a Gentile. Yet this sort of categorization goes still further. When he reads racist statements etched on the wall of the subway station or when he reads in the newspaper about the destruction of a synagogue by vandals, his heart races slightly because he feels that he is not alone and that, just possibly, a movement based on racial superiority is about to get underway.
Even though Newman supports his company’s policy of anti-Semitic racial policies, he is demoted, which leaves him bewildered. By now, however, Gertrude has added a new dimension—sex—to his life. He had deplored what he thought to be the blatant sexuality of Jews as he observed them from his subway set, but now he is himself an eager participant in what he had deplored in them. His rigid world begins to seem ridiculous to him. His comfort zone has been breached.
His first sexual adventure with Gertrude emboldens Lawrence to the point that he protests his demotion. He begins to feel what it is like to be a Jew when he gets eyeglasses that make him look Jewish and result in his being the butt of anti-Semitic comments in his racially discriminatory workplace. He gradually begins to see Jews as individuals rather than as broad, generalized types.
His epiphany comes in the form of a dream in which he envisions a carousel revolving on a plot of land above an underground factory. Through this dream, he comes to realize that beneath surfaces one may also find something deeper, something not necessarily good. His most heroic moment comes in his own Queens neighborhood when a group of anti-Semitic hooligans attack the only Jewish resident in the block and Newman (whose name suggests the change that has taken place in him) comes to the aid of the neighbor. When the police arrive, they presume that Newman is a Jew, and he does not correct them.
In the course of his gradual transformation, Lawrence Newman is forced to realize that racial prejudices adversely affect not only their targets but also their perpetrators. He also realizes that those who are racially prejudiced eventually become the very caricatures that their racial categorizing has created of the groups on which they look with contempt.
All My Sons
First produced: 1947 (first published, 1947)
Type of work: Play
A man who sacrifices the lives of others for personal wealth becomes responsible for the death of his own son.
All My Sons is a realistic drama with tragic overtones. The play is tightly structured. It takes place in a single day and a single place. Following the tradition of playwright Henrik Ibsen, Miller slowly unravels past events to reveal a moral wrong or sinister crime. Joe Keller is a prosperous manufacturer enjoying the fruits of his wealth. He is a jovial man with a loyal wife, Kate, and a devoted son, Chris, who will inherit his father’s business. Miller said that he started the first scenes slowly, without much action, but he plants unmistakable hints of menace early in the play.
Despite its realistic tone, the play has the air of a fatalistic tragedy. Larry, Joe’s son, was missing in action in World War II. After three years, he is presumed dead, yet Kate refuses to accept his death. As son, brother, and lover, Larry’s haunting presence overshadows the entire action. The night before the play opens, a storm knocks down Larry’s memorial apple tree, a sign of hidden guilt and the fall from innocence. Anne, Larry’s old girlfriend, is staying in his room, which still contains Larry’s clothes and his freshly polished shoes. Chris wants to marry Anne, but he is not sure that she has accepted Larry’s death. Even after Anne has accepted his proposal, Chris still kisses her more as Larry’s brother than as her fiancé. Also, as long as Kate will not accept Larry’s death, Chris cannot have his mother’s blessing to marry Anne.
Larry’s death is linked to a hidden crime: Joe Keller knowingly sold defective engines to the Army, causing the deaths of twenty-one pilots. Joe has pushed the blame onto his innocent partner, who is serving a jail sentence. Kate will not accept Larry’s death because Larry’s death will point to Joe as the murderer of his own son. Because Larry did not fly any of the defective planes, Joe considers himself innocent in his son’s death; Anne, however, reveals a letter from Larry in which Larry condemns his father for the deaths of the pilots and declares his intent to fly a suicide mission. Joe, who bears responsibility for his own son’s death as well as for the deaths of the other pilots, commits suicide.
In All My Sons, Miller explores the hidden order of the universe. The crime that Keller tried to avoid comes back to haunt him. His dead son’s voice condemns him from the grave. Although this play has been criticized for its melodramatic effects, All My Sons adds a tragic dimension to a realistic drama.
Death of a Salesman
First produced: 1949 (first published, 1949)
Type of work: Play
(The entire section is 5076 words.)
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