A View from the Bridge
Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Arthur Miller was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to name names of communist sympathizers in 1956, the height of the McCarthy Era. Miller refused to do so and was heralded by the arts community for his strength of conviction and loyalty. In 1957, Miller was charged with contempt, a ruling later reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Miller, like Eddie Carbone, was faced with the problem of choosing to be American or not, specifically by naming names of people who were doing (what were considered then) unlawful acts. Miller's own struggle with this issue is very present in A View from the Bridge. Unlike Eddie Carbone, Miller chose to be loyal to his fellow artists, but like Carbone, Miller went against the cultural consensus at the time. Miller, in the play, has reversed the scene—rather than the mass culture supporting the extrication of possible communists, Miller chose to script a community that accepted and protected unlawful people. The consequences and eventual repercussions of naming names, for Eddie Carbone, are drastic. Miller used this play to strongly condemn the McCarthy trials and those who named the names of innocent artists.
The irrational human animal
Eddie looses control of his actions in the play. Driven and possessed by incestuous love for his niece, Eddie resorts to desperate measures to protect his identity and name in the community. Alfieri's commentary often remarks on this theme. Alfieri seems constantly amazed by Eddie's actions and his own reactions to the events of the play. Alfieri sees his own irrational thinking, just as he recognizes Eddie's irrational behavior. Irrationality is also how Alfieri defines acting wholly. The human animal becomes irrational when he acts fully on his instincts—just as Eddie does in the play. Alfieri proposes that humans must act as a half, or restrain some of our instinctual needs or wants for reason. Nonetheless, Alfieri still admires the irrational—the unleashed human spirit that reacts as it will.
Allegiance to community law
There is great conflict between community and American law in the play. The community abides by Sicilian-American customs protects illegal immigrants within their homes, values respect and family, is hard working and know the shipping culture, has strong associations with names, believes in trust and wants revenge when a member has been wronged. Some of these values, however, come in conflict with those of the American system of justice. Eddie Carbone chooses to turn against his community and abide by the state laws. He looses the respect of his community and friends—the name and personal identity he treasures. Eddie Carbone, with a stronger allegiance to the community, reverts back to another custom of Sicilian-Americans: revenge. Not only is Eddie pulled back to the values of his community, but the final victor of the play is symbolic of community values—the Italian, Marco. Thus, the small community is stronger than American law.
Although specifically articulated, homosexuality or what makes a man "not right" is a persistent theme of the novel. Eddie obviously identifies Rodolpho as homosexual because Rodolpho sings, cooks and sews a dress for Catherine. Eddie also questions Rodolpho because he does not like to work and has bleach blonde hair that makes him look more feminine. Eddie gives Rodolpho several tests of his masculinity. In the first he teaches Rodolpho how to box and the second, more blatantly, Eddie kisses Rodolpho on the lips. Many critics think that this kiss is a sign of Eddie's own suppressed homosexual feelings, an easy parallel with his kiss with Catherine. Miller seems to take no stand either way, and the sexuality of Rodolpho or Eddie is unclear. However, the stereotypes of the gay man and societal implications of being gay are obvious. Louis and Mike, when talking about Rodolpho, clearly think there is something wrong with him and Eddie speaks directly to Alfieri about the specific things that bother him about Rodolpho.
The idea of what makes a woman or what defines a woman is very prevalent in the text. Catherine and Beatrice talk specifically about the terms in their conversation in Act I. Beatrice thinks Catherine needs to grow up and become a woman. To do this she needs to decide by herself whether she wants to marry Rodolpho. She needs to stop walking around the house in her slip in front of Eddie, and not sit on the edge of the tub while Eddie shaves his beard. In essence, being a woman means reserve and modesty in front of men, and independently making decisions. The idea of independence or separation from Eddie is coupled with the decision to find another male to attach to, a husband. Catherine's attempt at womanhood is deciding to marry Rodolpho and follow his rules rather than Eddie's.
Community is a powerful context for the play; it dictates very specific norms and rules for the family that controls the actions of the characters. All of the characters are forced to reconcile between American culture and the Italian community culture that surrounds. The cultural and moral difference between the two provides one of the great conflicts in the play. The tight community around them also creates great tension in the Carbone family because they are constantly being watched. The neighbors knew when Marco and Rodolpho arrived, saw Marco spit in Eddie's face and Eddie die by Marco's hand. The community is the watcher; the group controls and monitors the behavior of every member. Although Eddie takes a substantial turn away from the community by calling the Immigration Bureau, he still needs acceptance and spends his last moments fighting Marco for his good name in the community.
For Catherine, high heels are representative of womanhood, flirtation and sexiness. She has just started wearing high heels around the community and to school and obviously enjoys the attention she gets from men. They are also symbolic as a rite-of-passage to womanhood. As Eddie strongly disapproves of her wearing them, Catherine purposefully rebels against her uncle every time she puts them on. The high heels give her sexual power over men—they look, stare and gawk at her beauty. Eddie thinks the heels are threatening for the same reasons Catherine loves them. Eddie is fearful that, if she looks attractive, some man will ask her out and she will leave the house. Eddie has a powerful reaction when she wears the high heels, as if she must take them off so they do not arouse him or anyone else.
The Brooklyn Bridge is symbolic of a pathway of opportunity to Manhattan and also the linkage between American and Italian cultures. The bridge, which is very close to the Red Hook community, is a constant reminder of American opportunity and industry. From the bridge, one can see the community below and, like the title of the book, one can see the entire community and seek greater abstract meaning from his viewpoint. Alfieri is symbolic of the person on the bridge looking down upon the Red Hook community or, perhaps, he is the bridge himself, allowing the people to cross into Manhattan and modern, intellectual American culture. Alfieri attempts to unite the American laws with Italian cultural practices and negotiate a place in between the two. Alfieri, narrating the story from the present looking back to the past, has the same vantage point as one looking from the bridge. After some time passes, he is able to process the events and see the greater societal and moral implications it has for the community as a whole.
The origin of the majority of the people in the Red Hook community, Italy represents homeland, origin and culture. What the country means to characters greatly varies. Catherine associates Italy with mystery, romance and beauty. Rodolpho, on the other hand, is actually from Italy, and thinks it is a place with little opportunity that he would like to escape from. All of the characters, as much as love the benefit of living in the U.S., still strongly hold to Italian traditions and identify it as home. Italy is the basis of the cultural traditions in Red Hook and unites the community in common social practices and religion.
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