"A View from the Bridge" by Arthur Miller

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"A View from the Bridge" is a 1955 play by Arthur Miller, set in the Italian-American community of Brooklyn, New York. The play centres on the clash of values between the Italian and the American ways of life, and the tensions that result from this. The play focuses on the life of Eddie Carbone and his family, and particularly the inappropriate feelings Eddie has towards his niece, Catherine. The key catalyst comes with the arrival of two distant relatives from Sicily, which leads to tragic consequences.

Historical Context

"A View from the Bridge" was first performed in its current form in 1956. The play deals with the issues of Italian (illegal) immigration, poverty, masculinity and community in the United States. The play is set amongst the Italian-American community in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. This is an area that unloaded a lot of the cargo that docked at New York. Some of the ships bought immigrants from Europe, and some of these immigrants stayed in Red Hook, where they worked as 'longshoremen' (people who unload cargo from ships - known as 'dockers' in the UK). Arthur Miller himself worked as a longshoreman in Brooklyn, where he was told a story that he would later turn into "A View from the Bridge".

Longshoremen

The Italian-American community in the United States has a strong sense of identity, and often worked together to help one another. Although many were legal immigrants, who had escaped the Second World War, or post-war poverty, some were also illegal immigrants, who paid for their passage by working on the docks until their debt was settled. Family links were often important in allowing new members of the community to come across from Italy to travel to the US to follow the 'American dream' - the idea that hard work could lead to real riches.

The 1950s were a time of relatively rigid social structures. Women were seen as 'weaker' than men, and therefore were offered only a small range of job options, if they were allowed to get a job at all. Homosexuality was also looked down upon, and was illegal in much of the United States until the 1970s and 1980s. In New York State, where "A View from the Bridge" was set, homosexuality was illegal until 1980 (the same year it was legalised in Scotland).

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Plot Summary

Act I

Act I opens with Alfieri, a lawyer, directly addressing the audience. He explains about Red Hook, and about the Italian immigration to the United States. Alfieri shows himself to be a wise and potentially mysterious figure, who seems omniscient (all-knowing). We are then introduced to Eddie Carbone the protagonist (main character) who is a longshoreman who lives with his wife, Beatrice, and his niece, Catherine. Eddie is shown to be attracted to Catherine, although subtly at first. Catherine is shown to be developing from a girl into a young woman, as highlighted by her interest in dresses and high heels. She has also got a job as a stenographer (typist), which Eddie reluctantly agrees to.

A View from the Bridge

The arrival of Marco and Rodolpho from Sicily (part of Italy), changes the dynamic within Eddie's house, and begins the drama of the play. Marco and Rodolpho are illegal immigrants, and are hiding in Eddie's house until they get settled. Marco is shown to be strong and brave, whereas Rodolpho is more effeminate (feminine). Catherine soon becomes attracted to Rodolpho, and Eddie begins to experience feelings of jealousy towards Rodolpho.

After Catherine and Rodolpho have been dating for a short time, Eddie suspects that they may be thinking about marriage. He tries to break the two up using three different tactics. Firstly, he talks to Beatrice about the fact that Rodolpho might be a homosexual. Next he confronts Catherine and tells her that Rodolpho is only interested in her so that he can stay in the country (if they marry, Rodolpho will legally be allowed to remain). Finally, he goes to Alfieri and asks him how the marriage can be stopped. Alfieri says that there is only one legal way - to tell Immigration that Rodolpho is an illegal immigrant.

Around the dinner table, the tension between Marco, Eddie and Rodolpho is heightened. Eddie jokingly suggests that Marco's wife might have more children by the time he returns, which angers Marco. Rodolpho dances with Catherine, and confesses that he can cook. Eddie decides to teach Rodolpho to box, which he uses as an excuse to punch Rodolpho. Marco challenges Eddie to lift up a chair, holding on only to the bottom. Eddie can't do it, but Marco can. The message is clear - Marco will protect Rodolpho from Eddie.

Act II

Catherine and Rodolpho are soon to be married. Eddie drunkenly returns home, and tries to kick Rodolpho out of the house. Catherine announces that she will move out instead, and Eddie forcibly kisses her on the lips. After Rodolpho intervenes, Eddie pins Rodolpho down and kisses him.

Brooklyn Bridge

Four days later, Eddie visits Alfieri, who reiterates the fact that only calling Immigration can stop the wedding. Eddie does this and returns home. Marco and Rodolpho have moved into the building upstairs. Despite Catherine trying to make peace with Eddie, he refuses. The police arrive looking for illegal immigrants, and find and arrest Marco and Rodolpho. Marco knows that Eddie has called the police, and spits in his face in front of the community.

After Marco and Rodolpho are bailed (given a temporary release from prison) by Alfieri, Rodolpho and Catherine continue with their wedding arrangements. After the wedding, Rodolpho will be an American citizen, and only Marco will be deported. Marco calls Eddie out to fight, and Eddie smuggles a knife to the fight. Despite attempting to stab Marco, Eddie is not strong enough, and Marco turns the knife on Eddie. Eddie is fatally wounded, and Beatrice cradles him as he dies.

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Key Themes

Love

Throughout the play, drama is created through the conflict between different types of love. Eddie's love for Catherine appears initially to be familial (based on family) or even paternal (from a father to a child), but soon appears to be less appropriate, and based on lust or romantic love. Eddie's love for Beatrice is distant throughout the play, although importantly, he calls out to her in his dying moments. Beatrice's family love towards Marco and Rodolopho allows her to give them shelter in the United States. Similarly, some of the tension in the play is created through Marco's love for his family back in Sicily. Throughout the play, tension is created by the fact that some love divides the characters, whilst other love binds the characters together. The clash between these two is what causes conflict.

Irrationality

The character of Alfieri is an interesting counter to Eddie in terms of irrationality. Both are irrational, although Alfieri is aware of his own irrationality, and Eddie is not. Alfieri wonders why he cannot stop Eddie's decline, although Eddie himself never wonders this, and thinks until the end that he is taking the most logical course of action. Eddie therefore irrationally thinks that what he is doing is rational, which juxtaposes (contrasts) with Alfieri, who is rationally able to control his irrationality. Alfieri concludes that Eddie is acting based upon his 'animal instincts', something that rational humans have learned to control. Eddie is consumed by his own jealousy, and this drives him to completely change his own personality - from someone who would never betray his family to Immigration, to somebody who does exactly that. Eddie's irrationality is bound up with his desperation. After he cannot persuade Catherine or Beatrice that Rodolpho is bad news, he becomes a desperate man.

Community

Italian immigrant community

Community allegiance (belonging) is strong throughout the play, and the dramatic climax is essentially a battle to restore Eddie's name in front of the community. Community is important in the play, as the characters feel themselves to be trapped between their Italian heritage and their American future. Their lives are defined by being Italian-Americans, and their identity comes from this. Eddie is very conscious of how he is perceived within the community, and Rodolpho's actions cause him embarrassment at work (with Rodolpho's singing) and at home (by stealing Catherine from him). Interestingly, throughout the play, the law of the United States, represented by the Immigration Bureau, is only used as a last resort, and a shocking one at that. It is understood that most disputes are solved within the community, and ultimately this is how the play's dramatic climax takes place. Eddie's betrayal of his community by calling the Immigration Bureau is the key event in the play - it shows that he has become so desperate that he will reject the code of community ethics that he has stuck to and talked about throughout the whole play. Tragedy is impossible without betrayal, and this is Eddie's great betrayal (for more on this, see the video under 'Additional Stuff' further down).

Family

Community is a grouping of families, and the family is a grouping of individuals. Family is at the heart of the drama of the play. The tensions between Eddie, Beatrice, Catherine, Marco and Rodolpho are made more intense by the fact that they are sharing a home. This sense of claustrophobia comes from the fact that all are related. However, there is also a sense that family is important when it is absent, as well as when it is present. Marco's character is made more intense, and therefore potentially more aggressive, by the pressures of his family back in Sicily. Marco is relying on the money he sends home to help his ill child. Eddie's jokes about Marco's wife heighten the tension in the dinner scene. Also, Eddie and Beatrice do not have a family of their own (they have no children), and this causes tension between the two of them. Eddie and Beatrice have not had sexual relations for some time, and this has caused a breakdown in their emotional relationship. It is not mentioned in the text, but it is likely that this is related to his love of Catherine. Eddie therefore is isolated, even within his own family because he is unable to experience a healthy relationship with Beatrice. Tension is increased, therefore, not only by the claustrophobia of the family, but also by the distance (or non-existence) of Marco and Eddie's family.

Justice

Italian immigrants to the United States

Arthur Miller wrote "A View from the Bridge" as an echo of classical (ancient) Greek tragedy. The key role is that of Alfieri, who serves as the narrator, which would have been the chorus in Greek performances. Alfieri described the conflict between the ancient system or justice in Sicily and the more 'civilised' law of the United States. One way to see the play is one where justice conflicts with human desire. At various points in the play, justice runs opposite to the community or to the family. The story of Vinnie Bolzano not only serves to foreshadow (give a hint at what's coming), but also to show how justice in the eyes of the law is not justice in the eyes of the community. Alfieri is only able to offer advice based on the strict letter of the law, and constantly tells Eddie that what he is doing is unnatural. Justice throughout the play can mean one of two things - either the sense of the law of the United States, or the sense of community justice. Alfieri states from the beginning that the natural order of the Sicilian community is one that is brutal, and distrusts the law. When Eddie uses the law to imprison (and deport) Marco and Rodolpho, Marco follows the Sicilian 'law' by attempting to gain revenge. Although Marco's actions are arguably more shocking to a modern audience, you get the sense that they would have been regarded as justice within his community. This shows that there is a very fine line between justice and revenge in the community, and in the play as a whole.

Pride

Eddie's pride is a theme that runs throughout the play. In the beginning of the action it is a positive characteristic, although by the end it has driven him to desperation, and ultimately - death. Eddie is proud to welcome Marco and Rodolpho to his home in the beginning, thinking that Marco and Rodolpho will be grateful when comparing Red Hook to their lives back in Sicily. Eddie's pride causes him deep inner conflict when it comes to Catherine. He could never admit his feelings for her, as this would cause scandal within the community, and ruin Eddie's name. However, he also struggles to allow her to become a woman, scared that another man will want her. In the climax of the play, both Eddie and Marco are fighting over pride. Marco wants revenge as he has been wronged, and he will be unable to support his family after being deported. Eddie wants to save his name in front of the community.

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Key Quotes

"I'm ashamed. Paper Doll they call him. Blondie now." (Eddie talking about Rodolpho, Act I)

This is a great quote for not only showing Eddie's pride (and his embarrassment), but also his feeling that Rodolpho is gay. There is an inherent irony in this, in that Eddie's dislike of Rodolpho comes from his stealing of Catherine, and yet Eddie reacts by assuming that Rodolpho is a homosexual. This also tells us much about the world of masculinity that Eddie lives in, where 'real men' don't sing, dance or cook.

“Katie you are walkin’ wavy! I don’t like the looks they’re givin you […] The heads are turnin’ like windmills.” (Eddie talking to Catherine, Act I)

This hints at Eddie's underlying feelings towards Catherine. Catherine's burgeoning (growing) womanhood is causing Eddie inner feelings that he places onto other people. He notices Catherine's walk, but then quickly pretends it is the other men that are looking at her. Eddie displaces his own guilt onto the other men in the community, and also on to Catherine herself for the way she walks. This gives a great insight into Eddie's character flaws.

“You won’t have a friend in the world, Eddie! Even those who understand will turn against you, even the ones who feel the same will despise you!” (Alfieri to Eddie, Act II)

Alfieri is telling Eddie not to betray Marco and Rodolpho to immigration. This highlights the ironic conflict between law and justice. Alfieri is a lawyer, and is telling Eddie not to call the police on illegal immigrants. In addition, this shows the importance of pride and community - Alfieri claims that Eddie would lose the respect of his whole community, thus showing how important a threat this is. In addition, Alfieri is shown to be all-knowing, as he predicts exactly what will happen.

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Key Characters

Eddie

Longshoremen

Eddie is the tragic hero of the play. Eddie's greatest flaw is that he is not self-aware (meaning he cannot perceive his own faults). In this, he is in direct contrast he Alfieri, who sees and comments regularly on Eddie's problems. Eddie will not admit to being in love with Catherine, and as such, his relationship with both Catherine and Beatrice sours. This also leads him into uneccessary conflict with Marco and Rodolpho. Eddie also is a product of the longshoreman life. The only way that Eddie is able to attack Rodolpho is through his lack of masculinity. However, the presence of Marco ensures that this is not a good line of attack for Eddie to take (as demonstrated in the boxing scene). Throughout the play, Eddie becomes increasingly irrational. Not only does he make bad decisions, but he attempts to justify them to himself. Eddie's ultimately fatal flaw comes from the fact that his irrationality alienates those around him, leaving him isolated. He therefore is unable to gain an outlet for his emotions, or to take on good advice. Eddie's flaw therefore is that his irrationality or 'animal passions' win out over any logical or rational thought.

Alfieri

Alfieri is, in many respects, the antithesis (opposite) of Eddie. His logical and reasoned brain allows him to rise above the animalistic passions of the community. His omniscience also allows him to perceive both the Italian and the American aspects of the Italian-American community (this is the metaphorical 'bridge', that Alfieri has a view from). Alfieri is both a narrator and a character within the play. He acts therefore as a device to highlight the irrationality of others. Because Alfieri knows what is going to happen, he is able to advise Eddie and later Marco on how not to proceed. However, the fact that they are irrational means that they don't listen to Alfieri. Alfieri is the voice of reason, and by ignoring him, Marco and Eddie show that they are not reasonable. Alfieri understands that Eddie loves Catherine, and that Marco will attempt to fight Eddie. Eddie also understands the conflict that immigrants face between traditional Sicilian styles of justice (i.e. revenge) and the more 'civilised' style of American justice (i.e. the law). Although Alfieri is all-knowing, he is not omnipotent (all-powerful), which perhaps makes his knowledge more tragic.

Marco

Longshoremen

Marco represents Sicilian culture and justice. His physical strength serves as a plot device to give him the upper hand over Eddie. Marco operates as a guardian for Rodolpho, which only increases the pressure on Eddie (who cannot express himself through any other means than physically). Marco is, in many respects, the opposite of Rodolpho, in that he is married, with children, and fits many of the descriptions of a 1950s 'man'. Marco embodies the Sicilian idea of justice when he is arrested. He spits in Eddie's face, thus shaming him in front of the community, and on his release, he calls Eddie out to fight. Although Marco does not intend to kill Eddie, when Eddie tries to kill him, Marco sees it to be fair to use the knife against Eddie. Marco's idea of justice is therefore indistinguishable from revenge.

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Key Scene

The scene where Eddie and Marco compete to lift the chair is the final action of Act I (you can watch the key action at the beginning of the video on the left). This is a critical scene in increasing the tension and giving a sinister physical character to the conflict between Eddie and Marco. In many respects it foreshadows the later physical conflict between the two at the end of the play. In both Marco orchestrates the conflict with Eddie, and in both, Eddie is beaten both physically and mentally. The underlying cause of both conflicts is Eddie's jealousy of Rodolpho, and ultimately, his love of Catherine. Eddie is therefore being emasculated (made to feel like less of a man) by both Rodolpho, who has 'stolen' his love, and by Marco, who is physically stronger.

The stage directions in this scene leave little doubt as to the underlying message of the chair lift:

"Marco is face to face with Eddie, a strained tension gripping his eyes and jaw, his neck stiff, the chair raised like a weapon over Eddie's head - and he transforms what might appear like a glare of warning into a smile of triumph, and Eddie's grin vanishes as he absorbs his look. [Curtain falls]."

This represents Marco and Eddie's animalistic competition. From this point on, Eddie has been challenged and defeated, and therefore become increasingly more desperate. Eddie loses an 'alpha male' confrontation in his own home, in front of his wife and niece. This therefore begins Eddie's isolation. Eddie's future criticism of Rodolpho as being unmanly (or even gay) are increasingly ironic given that Marco has openly bested Eddie in this respect. This scene takes what was a simmering tension and brings it out in the open. Both Eddie and Marco are shaped by this event, and both are clear as to the nature of their disagreement. From this point on, it becomes evident that the play will finish with a fight between the two characters. The tension and drama begins to build from this point, thus setting up Act II for a dramatic conclusion.

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Additional Material

The video (above) shows Arthur Miller describing his influences in writing "A View from the Bridge". It's interesting to hear what he has to say, particularly on the nature of tragedy and the character of Eddie Carbone. Watching this will help to show you what Arthur Miller thinks about each of the characters, which will give your writing that extra edge in the exam.

Click here or on the image above to read an article in the Wall Street Journal (an American newspaper) about Arthur Miller and the story behind "A View from the Bridge".

The video on the right shows a brief introduction to Greek theatre, which will give you some background on how classical drama played out. Arthur Miller based "A View from the Bridge" on a traditional Greek play. This video will make it easier for you to draw parallels between Miller's work, and that of classical playwrights, and will make it easier for you to flesh out your analysis.

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Image credits:

Image 1: by Ekbert786 via Wikimedia Commons, Image 2: by Samuel Gottscho via Wikimedia Commons, Image 3: by Wolf Gang via Flickr, Image 4: by Carsten Lorentzen via Flickr, Image 5: by MHSO via Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Image 6: by Alexander Thoele via O Globo Blogs