Analysis of The Price by Arthur Miller
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Arthur Miller’s The Price as a Postmodern Text
Arthur Miller’s The Price is a successful example of postmodern drama that examines some of the ways in which competing narratives complicate the question of truth and individuals use selective narratives to carve out a modicum of dignity from an otherwise inhuman economic system.
- Victor Franz
- Esther Franz
- Gregory Solomon
- Walter Franz
The Price is a tightly constructed drama that explores issues of memory, familial duty, and betrayal. Importantly, it is also a story about the competing narratives that define family life and that we often lean on to provide us with a preferred view of ourselves.
The title of the play takes on several meanings. There is a price – a cost – that we pay when we decide to put our own interests above others. There is also a price – a value – that we place on our own dignity.
A cast of four characters gather in a loft apartment in New York City to arrange for the sale of the family’s old furniture, stored until now in the unoccupied space. Next week the building is being torn down, so the task of dealing with the literal trappings of family history must now be faced. This, of course, takes on metaphorical resonance very quickly in the play.
Over the course of The Price, two brothers, Victor and Walter, arrive at a new understanding of what happened to their family. They haven’t seen one another or spoken for over fifteen years. When they meet, the brothers engage only at a distance, trying to avoid talking about their true feelings of blame, guilt, and indignity.
These feelings come out and are transformed into something that comes close to a mutual sense of self-blame from each brother, but not before they’re presented as accusations and as evasions.
Cast in Opposition
The first character to be revealed, however, is Esther, Victor’s wife. In the play’s opening scene she is identified as an alcoholic – or if not a full-blow alcoholic then at least a lush. This is a trait she neither defends nor denies. She also makes no apologies for her drinking. This fact sets her in direct opposition to both Victor and Walter who go to great lengths to avoid admitting their own flaws and moral failures.
In classic Miller fashion, the opposition between each character is sharply drawn to maximize dramatic tension and to clarify the themes of the work.
Victor casts himself as a victim. He has worked as a police officer for over twenty-five years and now qualifies for retirement with a full pension. Yet he can’t bring himself to retire because he doesn’t know what he will do next. He spent his adult life engaged in what he sees as an act of self-sacrifice. As a police officer Victor “hated every minute of it” (20), but he stayed on because he had to take care of his father, a business man who came to ruin in the Depression and never got back on his feet.
Victor would have gone to college, but he had to take a job to provide for his father and his wife and so never found a way to explore his true potential. His brother Walter, on the other hand, chose to cut ties with his father. He went to college and became a respected doctor and scientist. To Victor, Walter represents a path not taken as well as a duty unfulfilled.
Walter does not see things this way. He defends his decisions by pointing the blame at their father, suggesting that Victor had allowed himself to be lied to and exploited by an unloving man who was too selfish and too scared of the prospect of losing once more at business to begin to try again.
Thus Miller presents us with a set of opposites. Not only do the brothers stand in opposition in the arc of their lives, but they also stand in opposition in the stories they tell about what happened to their family.
For Victor, it is a story of victimization. He is the victim of Walter’s selfish decisions. He was left as the sole support of their broken father. And he accepted this duty at great cost to himself, acting nobly and receiving nothing in return.
For Walter, Victor is deluding himself. There was no noble sacrifice. Their father was a liar and Victor should have known – and probably did know – that he was being used.
The details of the story support both Victor’s and Walter’s version of things. In the end, it becomes clear that they have both chosen to believe in a narrative that suits their different interests.
The revelations in the play are poignant. They don’t allow anyone in the family to escape some degree of guilt.
It’s important to note that these revelations are the product of conflicting narratives. Neither brother possesses the whole truth. This fact is essentially an emotional reality, rooted in the notion that the full truth is often too unpleasant to face, so it is replaced by a partial truth, one that allows a posture of dignity.
Both brothers want to be righteous, a trait that is again contrasted by Esther who just wants to be right. She struggles to get the brothers to be honest and open with one another, because she understands that they have been paying the cost of self-delusion and suppression for the sixteen years of their estrangement.
The idea at the heart of the play is fundamentally psychological, suggesting that individuals are subject to flaws of memory and that those flaws are often invisible – not noticed as flaws because they are what the individual wants to see. In today’s parlance, we might say that the inaccuracies of memory are not bugs in the system, they’re features.
A Postmodern Theme: the Subjectivity of Truth
As a theme, this notion marries very well to the postmodern moment in which the play was written. First performed in 1968, Miller provides a telling insight in his production notes for the play: “As the world now operates, the qualities of both brothers are necessary to it; surely their respective psychologies and moral values conflict at the heart of the social dilemma. The production must therefore withhold judgment in favor of presenting both men in all their humanity and from their own viewpoints” (115).
These sentiments might be taken as a precise summation of a major branch of postmodern thought – the subjectivity of truth.
The Price, in its drama and in its ideas, hinges on the deconstructionist notion that a “desire for certainty of meaning results in the repression of other possible meanings” (Morner & Rausch). However, Miller’s postmodernism is not essentially one of the conflicting narratives of social-political identifications. It is a fundamentally psychological postmodernism.
Miller would seem to agree in The Price with Kenneth Gergen’s view that in the postmodern mindset “[t]here are no means by which we can press past the enormous layers of sedimented understanding to confront the phenomenon face to face” (The Saturated Self 122). The individual’s sense of reality is necessarily subjective and self-serving in its subjectivity.
Truth is a construct and it is made of the flawed materials of selective memory. We choose our own truth, whether we know it or not.
The plays of Arthur Miller are never more than a half-step away from a critique of the American capitalist system.
In The Price, the central conflict between the two brothers is inextricably linked to the ways in which a person’s job defines that person’s social status. While the emotional issues that scar their relationship are more complex than “mere money,” it is still possible to isolate the core of their animus in a refused loan.
That loan would have sent Victor to college. It would have kept him from becoming a career police officer – a beat cop in the city.
Framed as an economic critique, the play’s use of the postmodern device of conflicting narratives and unstable truth also becomes a commentary on the precarious nature of our cultural defense of the capitalist status quo.
In order to participate in the system, these brothers must ignore certain facts. They have to keep secrets. And as they do so, they lose the family around them. Walter loses his wife and kids when he lets greed overtake him. He suffers a breakdown that seems entirely related to his pursuit of wealth.
Victor’s situation isn’t much better. After a career of working a job he hates, at fifty years old he has a chance to move forward and do something different but he is incapable of envisioning a role for himself in the marketplace wherein he might achieve the dignity he feels he’s been denied in his twenty-eight years on the police force. His story of self-sacrifice is the only story that provides him with an identity that is at all positive, at all human.
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