After the Fall by Arthur Miller: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Jay Simons

Jay has taught college writing and literature and has a PhD in English.

In this lesson you'll read about Arthur Miller's intensely introspective play After the Fall. Following the summary is a brief analysis revealing the theme of the play, and how it contains actual people and events from the life of the playwright.

The Setup

Arthur Miller's play After the Fall takes place in the mind of the main character, Quentin, who is a lawyer. His scenes with his latest love, Holga, take place in the present; all other scenes are memories from his past. Characters suddenly recede and others emerge as Quentin's mind proceeds from one thought/memory to another. This is a technique known as stream-of-consciousness, which attempts to reflect the workings of the mind as it moves from one thought to the next.

The most prominent piece of scenery on the stage is a burned-out tower from a German concentration camp. Quentin and Holga are visiting the camp in the present. However, the tower also reflects the personal sins and guilt underlying the other scenes from his memory.

Two Storylines

The two main storylines that can be followed through both acts have to do with:

  1. the series of women in Quentin's life, and
  2. the decision Quentin has to make regarding whether to represent a client blacklisted for being a Communist.

The Women

Let's take a closer look at the women in Quentin's life.

Mother -- a sensitive, intelligent woman whose husband kept her from fulfilling her potential. She thinks the world of Quentin the child and encourages his talents. Quentin relives a childhood memory of her insulting and fighting with his father. As an adult, he and his brother Dan are faced with the difficult task of having to inform their ailing father of her death.

Felice -- repeatedly appears briefly to raise her hand and bless Quentin. She was a client of his who was divorcing her husband, and was immensely appreciative of Quentin. She is one of the few women Quentin hasn't harmed and/or been harmed by.

Louise -- Quentin's first wife. He recalls her dawning realization that he didn't take her seriously (their relationship in many way parallels that of Quentin's parents). She also points out Quentin's inability to connect with women, to communicate with them on a real, emotional level. He cheats on her with Maggie before their marriage completely falls apart.

Maggie -- an attractive woman whom no one takes seriously. We would probably call her ditzy. She becomes a successful actress, claiming that she was inspired by the fact that Quentin helped her to see herself as more than an object. After carrying on an affair, they eventually marry. The more successful she becomes, the more Maggie drinks and takes sleeping pills. This leads to erratic behavior that contributes to the failure of the marriage. She ultimately dies of an overdose, and Quentin feels guilty that he wasn't able to save her from herself.

Holga -- a German woman Quentin has recently fallen in love with. Visiting a former concentration camp, the guilt and inhuman actions it brings to mind become intertwined with Quentin's memories of his treatment of women and subsequent guilt. Because of his past failures, he is somewhat hesitant to allow himself to marry Holga. But she does represent the possibility of change and hope for a happy life.

Lou's Lawyer

Another memory thread pertains to a period in Quentin's professional life. He is faced with a dilemma. He can legally represent his friend, Lou, accused of being an un-American Communist, and risk losing his job at his law firm. Or he can throw Lou to the wolves (because nobody else wants to be blacklisted for associating with Communists) and keep his job. The decision is agonizing. But then Lou commits suicide, and Quentin is in the clear. Although he had nothing to do with Lou's death, Quentin feels guilty that he is relieved that he does not have to put his job on the line.

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