Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
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.
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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.