The View from the Bridge
In his essay Tragedy and the Common Man, Arthur Miller writes of how ‘the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were’, and uses the protagonist, Eddie Carbone, an as illustration of the ‘common man’. Miller has a unique perspective on tragedy, and tries to reinvent its conventions by attributing the Aristotelian characteristics of a tragic hero to the simple longshoreman Eddie Carbone, who contrasts against the ‘kings’ that are King Lear or Othello. Eddie is human, and although he may be subject to an array of flaws, we appreciate in him the ‘heart and spirit of the average man’.
It is important that Eddie is introduced as a warm, caring character so the audience’s admiration can be tested throughout the course of the play, and also to illustrate that Eddie was once happy and has suffered. Eddie is presented as a devoted family man, which is evident from Catherine’s presence. Catherine is Beatrice’s niece and has no blood relation to Eddie, yet Eddie still states he is ‘responsible’ for her because he ‘promised [Catherine’s] mother on her deathbed’. This demonstrates that Eddie believes in the idea of family, rather than the idea of just helping biological family.
Eddie is devoted also in the sense that he has always supported his family and always will; he states ‘I supported [them] this long I support [them] a little more’. Eddie’s devotion is a fundamental aspect of the Italian honour code, which shows Eddie to be a man of family honour and loyalty. Miller establishes Eddie to be a strong upholder of these values early on in the play through Eddie’s telling of Vinny Bolzano’s family betrayal to Catherine; asserting the moral that ‘you can quicker get back a million dollars that was stole than a word that you gave away’.
In short, Miller presents Eddie’s admirable characteristics during the opening scene to ensure that the audience recognise that Eddie can be admirable, even if he does not always uphold his principles. One of Aristotle’s chief ideas was that a tragic hero possesses a hamartia, which Miller uses to ensure Eddie’s status as a tragic hero. Alfieri states in his final monologue that ‘it is better to settle for half, it must be! ‘; this shows the audience that it is Eddie’s inability to compromise (his hamartia) which results in his death.
Eddie exacerbates situations through his stubborn nature, which sometimes makes it sometimes difficult for an audience to admire him. For example, he has antipathy for Rodolpho and refuses to accept Rodolpho’s relationship with Catherine. Even with the words of a close family lawyer, ‘you cannot stop it’, Eddie still fights on and rings the immigration bureau to solve his dilemma, ironically resulting in his death. Eddie also refuses to accept that Catherine is maturing; he claims that Rodolpho is ‘stealing from [him]’ and that he has every right to control Catherine because she is ‘a baby’.
Another flaw is that Eddie harbours incestuous feelings for Catherine. He reacts ‘furiously’ when Alfieri raises this idea. To an audience in 1950s America, these incestuous feelings would put Eddie in a less favourable light, but one must respect that they are buried in his subconscious and uncontrollable. Eddie’s response illustrates this, thus enabling the audience to sympathise for Eddie. Sympathy is also evoked when Eddie experiences anagnorisis; his discovery that his reversal of fortune was brought about by his own actions.
Miller also uses anagnorisis to make Eddie conform to the Aristotelian idea of a tragic hero. Eddie cries ‘in a driving fright and anger: Get them out of the house! ‘ when the immigration officers call because he recognises his fault in calling them. A symbol for his anagnorisis is perhaps Eddie’s death. The blade was turned ‘inward’ and ‘pressing… home’; his own knife ended his life, which remains a metaphor for his self-destruction. This links with another trait of a classical Greek tragedy which is that the character’s fate must be greater than deserved.
In Miller’s essay, he writes that the protagonist is merely ‘attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society”. Perhaps this is evident when Eddie is shouting ‘I want my name’ for it illustrates Eddie’s desire for the respect and reputation the title possessed in the neighbourhood of Red Hook. Eddie just wanted an ‘unchangeable environment’ and did not initially intend to create any distress; originally, he describes taking the immigrants as ‘an honour’.
Eddie’s reaction illustrates his dedication to family values which strengthens the idea that his fate was far greater than deserved. Eddie conforms to Aristotle’s idea of peripeteia, which is the protagonist’s reversal of fortune. Initially, the apartment is presented as ‘homely’ but towards the climax it is a place of isolation for Eddie, where he is ‘rocking back and forth’ alone. This is because Eddie’s relationships crumble. In the opening scene, Eddie’s relationship with Beatrice seems healthy; he cares about her and worries that she has ‘got too big a heart’.
Eddie’s obsession with Catherine, however, affects Beatrice, which engenders some conflict between them; Beatrice shouts more frequently about Eddie’s inability to ‘leave her alone’. Beatrice detaches herself from Eddie and the health of the relationship begins to worsen. Beatrice explains to Catherine that she ‘gotta’ tell Eddie to let her go. The imperative conveys how Beatrice is suffering too. However, this coupled with Eddie’s increasing friction with Rodolpho renders the relationship sexless and with them thinking each other ‘different’ people.
Eddie’s relationship also diminishes with Catherine also because of Eddie’s hamartia. Catherine seems caring, she gets Eddie beers, and he complements her; calls her ‘beautiful’. However, because of Eddie’s inability to let go, Catherine becomes frustrated and even shouts ‘I’ll kill you! ‘; she calls him a ‘rat’. The audience appreciate that Eddie recognises things have changed, the way, for example, he explains that Beatrice ‘didn’t used to jump me all the time about everything’. The audience can appreciate also that Eddie is charged with frustration and rage because he simply wants his old life.
This induces more sympathy from the audience because one understands Eddie is not deliberately trying to exacerbate things, the tragedy occurs because he is merely his attempting to ‘evaluate himself justly’. It is important for the audience to have an understanding of Eddie’s nature, before the audience criticise him, as it helps the audience to empathise with him. Eddie is an Italian-American in which both countries have different systems of law. Eddie’s conflict with American jurisdiction and the idea that there are no laws to support his problem stem from his Italian morals and attitudes.
The Italians possess more of an honour code firmed upon the ideas of community and family, rather than acting with the legal system in mind. As such, Eddie acts with selflessness, which is demonstrated when he states he ‘took out of [his] own mouth to give to [Catherine]’ and ‘walked hungry plenty days in this city! ‘. Catherine is treated as his own daughter, and the idea that he goes hungry illustrates the extreme degree of care he has for his family, making the tragedy of his death impact more on the audience.
Alfieri could be compared the function of a Greek chorus, ensuring that the audience understands the performance by offering context and information. Simultaneously, he elevates Eddie’s status. He charges Eddie’s ordinary story with the drama like that of Othello’s simply by commentating; the very act tells the audience the story is special, which again makes the death like that more of a traditional tragic hero. For example, in Alfieri’s prologue, he claims that a case like Eddie’s occurs only ‘every few years’.
He uses the metaphor of ‘the green scent of the sea’ to make the story of Eddie’s fresh and distinct from the usual ‘flat air’ that flows in his office. The audience respects Alfieri’s views not just because of his status as a Manhattan lawyer, but because he is the very ‘bridge’ between American and ethnic law: he remains both an American lawyer, but an Italian-American, too, true to his nature. He states how he thinks he will ‘love him more than all [his] sensible clients’ during his epilogue, heightening his status to the audience.
This is Miller’s way of attributing the classic Aristotelian characteristic of nobility to Eddie, which remains at the very core of his actions. More sympathy is created when the audience recognise this at the climax when he cries ‘Then why’; questioning why his selflessness resulted in his death. In conclusion, Eddie may not be ‘purely good, but himself purely’ expressing that albeit subject to an array of flaws, Eddie is human and a man whose actions are rooted to his morals and values, which are by far the most dominating reasons for how one can see him as a ‘tragic hero’.
Eddie remains the unconventional protagonist of Arthur Miller, in that Eddie possesses the classical Aristotelian characteristics of a tragic hero but he is not someone of royalty or great power; he is a ‘common man’ who has nothing but his family and his morals. Some may view Eddie as a man who fails to ‘settle for half’, but what marks his tale as special; what places him among the admirable tragic heroes such as Othello or King Lear, is his being ‘wholly known’.