Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Bonds Forged on the Double-Sided Anvil of Guilt and Praise: Maternal Manipulation in after the Fall and Suddenly Last Summer

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Bonds Forged on the Double-Sided Anvil of Guilt and Praise: Maternal Manipulation in after the Fall and Suddenly Last Summer

Article excerpt

Few human relationships compare to that of a mother and her child, and the maternal bond has, through the centuries, been revered and served as inspiration for artists in many mediums. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that two prominent playwrights of the twentieth century, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, would explore the boundaries of mother-son relationships within their work. What these playwrights portrayed, however, is far removed from what is perhaps the most venerated of maternal relationships-the Christian Madonna and child. That holy union, which epitomizes the most pure, selfless, and loving example of maternal care, is juxtaposed by both Miller and Williams in their respective plays-After the Fall and Suddenly Last Summer-with egotistical projection and sordid obsession. In Miller's After the Fall, his protagonist Quentin is haunted by the flawed relationship with his mother, Rose, which in turn taints his future relationships. Williams also veers from the idyllic as he explores the twisted mother-son relationship of Sebastian and Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer. Though there are differences in the interactions between Rose and Quentin and Violet and Sebastian, the damage inflicted by both these women on their sons is worthy of note as both, in turn, are guilty of manipulating their sons to suit their own needs.

When evaluating the circumstances surrounding the maternal influences of both Rose and Violet on their sons, consideration must be given to the source of the information used to form any judgment. In After the Fall, it is Quentin who is recounting his relationship with his mother. He is the one who colors our opinion; however, since it is he who has been affected by their relationship, a certain amount of credence can be given to his evidence. When formulating an opinion regarding the relationship between Violet and Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, though, the option of hearing from Sebastian is negated, since he has died before the action of the play begins. It is Violet and Catherine who vie for the authoritative voice regarding the true (or truer) nature of Sebastian. Given that Violet carefully molded Sebastian's life, she continues to strive to mold his legacy in death as well and thus protect the façade she has crafted-much to the peril of Catherine.

In the case of Rose, we see a woman who uses her son, Quentin, as a pawn in her embittered relationship with her husband. What is quite striking is that Miller's first mention of her is an offhand remark that Quentin makes to the Listener in the play's opening scene. In abrupt fashion, Quentin simply states, "Mother died. Oh, it's four . . . five months ago now" (504). The fact that Quentin is unsure exactly when his mother died is symptomatic of his outward ambivalence in relation to her death. The reality, however, is that Quentin is quite conflicted regarding his mother's death, and this manifests itself in his inability to grieve as society dictates a son should. His introspection regarding the reason for this lapse provides meat in Miller's play, as time and again Quentin comes to the realization that his broken relationships with wives, women, friends, and even himself are the result of the pull that Rose still exerts over him, even from the grave. As Quentin says to the Listener, while Mother looks on in a death-like pose, "I still hear her voice in the street sometimes, loud and real, calling me. And yet she's under the ground" (507).

When After the Fall was first staged in 1964, audiences were so focused on drawing comparisons between the play's character Maggie and Marilyn Monroe that few bothered, or were savvy enough, to notice the parallel between Rose and Miller's mother, Augusta. In Faces of Miller Women, Nanda Šilima states that "the mother in After the Fall is a faint reminder of Miller's own mother who was also an agonized shadow of the Depression, whom series of frustrations had made bitter, bewildered and aggressive" (47). …

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