Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 5,076 words.)