Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
Many of Arthur Miller’s earlier plays deal with the subject of suicide, with the lead character either contemplating or actually committing suicide during the course of the rising dramatic action. Miller saw suicide as a way to bring the play to its conclusion, with the guilty party receiving “justice” by his own hand. The death of the main character also allowed Miller to voice his concerns about the ills of society, such as the cost of capitalism on a man’s soul and the inherent damage of mass hysteria. This thesis will explore suicide and self-sacrifice in the works of Arthur Miller, and how suicide and sacrifice are major themes in All My Sons and Death o f a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, and finally After the Fall and Incident at Vichy.
As Miller is considered an American theater icon, I was curious to see how such a taboo, morbid topic like suicide operates in his works. I consider this thesis a chance to see how suicide works in each play, and how events in his own life altered Miller’s views on suicide. The suicide of Miller’s ex-wife Marilyn Monroe will be discussed.
Four of the plays end with the death of the main character. The leads commit suicide in All My Sons and Death o f a Salesman. James Proctor of The Crucible and Eddie Carbone of A View from the Bridge go willingly to their deaths. Miller’s later plays After the Fall and Incident at Vichy are studies of the collective guilt of humanity, but still featured characters that commit suicide and sacrifice their lives.
Miller’s earlier characters committed suicide out of self-justification and atonement. Joe Keller shipped defective parts for the sake of his family, and commits suicide for the same reason. Willy Loman wishes to be successful for his family and he believes his suicide will provide money for his son Biff to be successful. Both Joe and Willy work to become good providers, but wreck their families in the process.
Miller’s plays move from one man breaking society’s laws to the conflicted Everyman attempting to find his place in the world. In The Crucible, John Proctor can save his own life by confessing to witchery, but chooses to be hanged rather than lie and disgrace his name any further. In A View from the Bridge, Eddie Carbone’s sexual obsessions result in him informing on two immigrants, thus breaking the prime rule of his neighborhood. In a desperate attempt to regain his name, Eddie fights one of the immigrants but is stabbed with his own knife and dies. These deaths can be seen as suicide by proxy.
After the suicide of his ex-wife, movie icon Marilyn Monroe, Miller’s views on suicide changed. In the semi-autobiographical play After the Fall, Quentin shouts to his self-destructive wife, “Suicide kills two, Maggie! That’s what it’s for!” This memorable quote will be explored in the thesis.
Incident at Vichy, the final play in the thesis, takes place during World War II. A group of men in France wait to be interrogated by the Nazis to see if any are Jewish. An Austrian baron gives up his pass to freedom so a Jewish doctor can escape, even though that means the baron will be executed himself. This sacrifice will be examined, and what part responsibility and guilt played in the baron’s decision to sacrifice his life.
Miller did not put suicide in his plays to give them a dramatic ending. He told stories of men who were destroyed. But those men keep their integrity, even those who have the wrong ideals but fervently commit themselves nonetheless.
Coakley, Robert Anthony, "Suicide and Self-Sacrifice in the Works of Arthur Miller" (2009). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 1133.