Tragedy, Integrity, Guilt, and Shame: Understanding John Proctor

By Palmer, David | The Arthur Miller Journal, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Tragedy, Integrity, Guilt, and Shame: Understanding John Proctor


Palmer, David, The Arthur Miller Journal


Perhaps Arthur Miller's most famous essay on theater is "Tragedy and the Common Man," which appeared in The New York Times on February 27, 1949, slightly more than two weeks after the opening of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. In it Miller defined tragedy in the following way:

I think the tragic feeling is invoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity The [tragic] flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing-and need be nothing-but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his ... image of his rightful status The quality of [tragedy] that [shakes] us derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. (Theater Essays 4-5)

Certainly this idea of a person being displaced and torn away from a chosen self-image is central to many of Miller's greatest tragedies. It is Joe Keller's retort to his son Chris, "Who worked for nothin' in that war? When they work for nothin', I'll work for nothin'" in act 3 of All My Sons (1947) (Miller, Collected 1944 156). It is Willy Loman's tirade at Biff toward the end of Death of a Salesman (1949): "I am not a dime a dozen. I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman" (Miller, Collected 1944 251). It is Eddie Carbone's demand in A View from the Bridge (1956) when he screams, "Wipin' the neighborhood with my name like a dirty rag. I want my name, Marco" (Miller, Collected 1944 635). It is Victor Franz's angry rejection of what he takes to be his older brother's condescending attempt to repair their relationship, "You're not turning me into a walking fifty-year-old mistake," in The Price (1968) (Miller, Collected 1964 263). It is a theme as old as Oedipus at Thebes. Gerald Weales has suggested that this is one of the most useful lenses for examining Miller's writings:

... the most profitable way of looking at [Miller's] work is through his heroes and through the concern of each, however inarticulate, with his identity-his name, as both John Proctor and Eddie Carbone call it. (334)

Christopher Bigsby elaborates on this idea in his discussion of Miller's conception of tragedy:

... [Miller] implicitly draws from tragedy the notion that it deals with the need for the individual to retrieve his good opinion of himself, that the tragic hero is willing to lay down his life to sustain a vision of himself sometimes profoundly at odds with his former actions. (201)

A month after "Tragedy and the Common Man" was published, a second Miller essay, "The Nature of Tragedy," appeared in The New York Herald Tribune. Here Miller added to his vision of tragedy by distinguishing between the tragic and the merely pathetic:

Tragedy, called a more exalted kind of consciousness, is so called because it makes us aware of what the character might have been.... it is the glimpse of this brighter possibility that raises sadness out of the pathetic toward the tragic. (Theater Essays 10)

In writing about Willy Loman, Weales also recognizes this element of failing to meet a personal ideal in Miller's conception of tragedy: ... "What the play gives us is the final disintegration of a man who has never even approached his idea of what by rights he ought to have been (340)."

Willy Loman, like so many of Miller's heroes, had a vision of what he thought it was to be a successful human being, a person worthy of respect. But as events unfold, he discovers that rather than achieving this ideal, he is seeing it slip away into the unattainable. The ideal can be only glimpsed, never realized. That perhaps is what Bigsby meant in the quotation above when he speaks of the character's need to "retrieve his good opinion of himself." In many of Miller's plays, the character's confrontation with challenges to his sense of self happened in the past. …

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