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Betrayal and Guilt

eddie family dodge play

Central to the plays in this chapter are themes of betrayal and guilt, and the inevitably related issues of blame and responsibility. Miller and Shepard see the American tendency toward denial as self-destructive, and suggest that it is better for people to accept their guilt in order for life to go on. Eddie Carbone dies rather than accept his guilt in A View from the Bridge . It is possible that the characters in Buried Child face theirs and move toward a more hopeful future. However, there are also those who refuse to accept guilt and continue their betrayals, as in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes . Such is the venal amorality of the modern world, Hellman suggests, that this behavior goes unpunished, and possibly is even sanctioned.


Guilt and responsibility are concerns that Miller addresses in nearly every play he has written, but they are central to A View from the Bridge . Miller often presents us with ambivalent characters who cannot be easily categorized as heroes or villains, such as Eddie Carbone. They make mistakes, but they do not do so maliciously, and they often feel guilty for what they have done. But Miller wants us to realize that guilt is not the answer, because, as a passive reaction, guilt is destructive, as opposed to the active reaction of accepting responsibility. To passively accept guilt leads to complacency or even paralysis, but if we actively transform guilt into an acceptance of responsibility for our actions, Miller believes that we will be able to transcend it.


The working title for the script of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge was An Italian Tragedy . The Italian community in Red Hook was a close-knit group; the law of the land did not concern them as much as their own codes of honor and respectability did. This was a society in which blood was thicker than water and to betray a family member, as Eddie does, was the ultimate sin. The play was written at the height of the Red Scare, when the House Un-   American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings were whipping up anticommunist fervor, and friends were being coerced to inform on friends. When Miller was brought before the committee in 1956, he refused to give them any names. Using Eddie Carbone as his example, Miller shows that informing may have the law on its side, but it is morally indefensible and a dreadful betrayal of those against whom you inform.


In Sam Shepard’s Buried Child , the fragmentation of character and speech we witness signals the psychological fragmentation these family members experienced, having been raised in such an abusive home. Expressionistic exaggerations of character, event, and behavior result in an almost gothic sense of horror, although the set is intentionally realistic by contrast. The play transcends its naturalistic setting to become a mythic exploration of family guilt and betrayal, conveyed by a complex web of symbols. Although Shepard rewrote this play for a 1995 revival, this chapter refers to the original 1978 production, for it is that version that is most commonly available.


Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is unusual in that its central characters are predominantly horrendously selfish people. By their endless machinations and by their tenacity and quick thinking, perhaps even a grudging respect, they engage our interest, but they do not elicit our sympathy because they are hopelessly amoral. They go largely unpunished for their crimes, which are both moral and criminal. We watch as the expected bonds of affection between siblings, spouses, parents, and their children are continually broken and ignored, as the Hubbards connive and betray one another in their quest for wealth and power. Since they end up potentially richer than they began, we see that Hellman offers no satisfying moral conclusion, but a vision of materialistic ruthlessness that is set to sweep the nation.


In Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge , Eddie and Beatrice Carbone house two illegal Italian immigrants, Marco and Rodolpho. Related to Beatrice, they have come to America to find work. Eddie has an unacknowledged attraction to his wife’s niece, Catherine, who also lives with them, and when she and Rodolpho start to date, Eddie betrays both immigrants to the authorities. Trying to preserve his reputation, Eddie denies what he has done and fights Marco, resulting in Eddie’s death.


Eddie Carbone has a guilty secret; he wants to sleep with his niece. To get what he wants, he willingly puts others at risk: he tells the Immigration Bureau about Marco and Rodolpho so they will be deported back to Italy. That will prevent Rodolpho from taking Catherine from Eddie. Because Eddie refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, his guilt drives him toward his own destruction, and he pays with his life. He does not break any criminal laws, as the lawyer Alfieri is quick to point out, but there are moral laws that need to be upheld as well.


A moral responsibility toward others and the self lies at the core of Miller’s plays: to neglect either personal or social responsibility is self-destructive. But a moral responsibility can only be fully recognized by those who have an understanding of their own identities—as individuals and members of a society. Eddie recognizes the responsibilities he has for others, but goes against them anyway in a misguided belief about what his responsibilities are toward Catherine. By going against all he had previously believed, Eddie loses his sense of self, shown by his demanding his name from Marco, insisting that Marco has slandered his reputation by declaring that Eddie is the informer. This pits him against Marco, who, we know from the chair lifting scene at the close of act one, is far stronger than Eddie. By fighting Marco, Eddie is causing his own death by refusing to accept responsibility for what he has done.


Eddie dies still insisting that he has done nothing wrong, even though his desires for his niece and his betrayal of his wife’s cousins are apparent to all. Blinkered like a horse, he refuses to see things from any other perspective than that of his own innocence. Such a refusal is not enough to save him, although it may make him more sympathetic as a character. He intends to do good, but everything goes sadly wrong because he cannot handle his own emotions. When you betray all that you believe in, you betray yourself, which is what Eddie does. He knows that informing is wrong, and he knows that his love for Catherine is wrong, yet he cannot help himself. He tells Alfieri, when trying to imply that Rodolpho is too effeminate, that even a mouse can break a hold if it really wants to, yet at the play’s close he cannot break the hold Marco has on his knife arm. This suggests that Eddie wanted to die, rather than face the consequences of his betrayals.


From Catherine’s early years, Eddie has been overprotective of his wife’s niece; because he can never have her, he wants to ensure that no one else gets a chance. He would like her to remain a beautiful, innocent Madonna, pure and untouched, but he cannot prevent her emergence into womanhood. His shyness with Catherine turns into petulant resentment as his guilt grows, though he never consciously admits to his feelings for her. The only time the truth comes close to emerging is when he is drunk and kisses her. He casts doubts on Rodolpho’s manhood to try to make himself feel more secure, and he tries to convince others that Rodolpho is a homosexual so that he can convince himself, but all he has is very circumstantial evidence. He offers Catherine more freedom toward the end, but by then it is too late.


Eddie’s friends and neighbors act as a barometer of local opinion. They begin as close friends of his, admiring him for helping out his wife’s relatives. They even side with him against Rodolpho, although they have a growing respect for Marco. However, they turn completely against Eddie as soon as they learn about his betrayal. Eddie is fated to die, partly because of who he is and partly because of the world in which he lives. There is a sense that he is inevitably rushing toward his doom, and that there is little that can be done to save him: given the same situation, he would make the same mistakes and the result, therefore, seems preordained.

But failure, in Miller’s eyes, should not be blamed on an indefinable hostile fate or social system, but on individuals who refuse to accept their responsibilities and honor their connection to fellow human beings. Miller sincerely believes that humankind has free will, and it is the choices people make in their lives that determine their direction. It is easier to blame others, but the fault often lies in ourselves. It is the flaws in Eddie’s character that ensure his defeat, rather than any divine authority. Individuals are responsible for their own fate: they determine their destiny by the quality of the choices they make throughout their lives. Eddie chooses to act on his baser impulses, trying to keep Catherine away from other men and informing on his wife’s cousins. The deeper motivation for his actions is his lust for Catherine, an emotion he does not choose, but could choose to better control.

On more than one occasion, Eddie’s eyes are described as being “like tunnels” to convey the sense of inevitability in his destructive behavior. Also, the phone booth from which Eddie calls the authorities begins to glow as Eddie feels the temptation to make the call; this contributes to the sense of fate underlying the play. As Eddie approaches the phone, Alfieri disappears into the darkness and the phone lights up to place Eddie in the ill-fated spotlight that kills him, but it is a spotlight he freely chooses to enter. The sense that Eddie is the author of his own fate is finally underscored by the irony that he dies by his own treachery, on his own knife.

In Buried Child , Dodge and his wife, Halie, live in the same house but are apart. He sits immobile on the sofa for much of the play, while Halie is either offstage or reminiscing about a son who died, called Ansel. Their eldest son, Tilden, brings in produce from outside and another son, Bradley, cuts their father’s hair while he sleeps. Tilden’s son, Vince, whom Dodge has made his heir, arrives with his girlfriend, Shelley, and takes possession of the family homestead, chasing off Bradley and taking Dodge’s place after his death. At the close Tilden walks on carrying the corpse of the child Dodge had drowned and buried years previously, as Halie, offstage, comments on the wonderful crops outside.

Shepard depicts three generations in the lives of a grotesque family. Their bizarre behavior and outwardly exaggerated defects symbolize inner psychological defects and archetypal generational conflicts that have shaped these characters’ lives. On a mundane level, the plot relates how the family farm passes from one generation to the next and goes through cycles of decay and regeneration. But on the mythic level, the play tells a family story of guilt and betrayal, in which the older generations have abdicated their responsibility, and handed down an inheritance of emotional sterility that the younger generation needs to recognize, understand, and transcend.

This family constantly argues over minor things to avoid having to face the big issues, including their own failures and complicities. The number of times characters cover themselves or each other with blankets, coats, or corn husks   symbolizes the extent to which all are complicit in hiding from the truth and each other. This is a family so buried in guilt that they have lost the power to communicate, even on a daily basis. Halie’s infidelity (past and present) and Dodge’s drinking have greatly contributed to the breakdown of this family, and they bear the brunt of the guilt. Dodge is evidently worn out from the start, a picture of ill health, showing how the effects of guilt wear a person down until there is hardly anything left. His impotence (and eventual death) are signaled by his prone position on the sofa, and his burial under Tilden’s corn husks.

Unwilling to move on, Dodge tries to deny the possibility of new growth, even as Tilden covers him with the corn he has picked. Dodge’s drinking is a classic reaction to guilt, as a person attempts to obliterate the memory of past deeds with alcohol. What Dodge has done—drowned his wife’s illegitimate child—we do not learn until near the close of the play. It is implied, though never with certainty, that the child is the result of an incestuous relationship between his youngest son, Ansel (now dead), and his wife, Halie, although it is also possible that the father was Tilden. There is also uncertainty about whether Ansel ever existed: he may be a figment of Halie’s imagination to help her deal with the death of the child that Dodge buried.

Halie’s emotional estrangement from her family is shown both by what she says and by the fact that she frequently speaks from offstage, creating as great a distance from her family as she can. Her black garb at the start suggests mourning, and she talks at length about her dead son Ansel, but it is more than him for whom she mourns: she mourns for her whole family. Her change to yellow clothing and the armful of yellow roses she carries in the final act contribute to the possibility of hope as the burden of death seems to have lightened, but Halie is drunk, and still ends the play offstage as she began, so any progress remains ambiguous.

Dodge’s oldest son, Tilden, displays no affection for his parents or for his own son, Vince, but his care for the land has rejuvenated the farmland. It is also he who embraces the body of the buried child, by which action he acknowledges the family crime, allowing them to move on. Bradley, Dodge’s next son, tries to dominate his father by cutting Dodge’s hair, but is displaced in turn by Tilden’s son, Vince, who throws away Bradley’s false leg (indicative of Bradley’s own impotence) and takes Dodge’s place on the sofa. Dodge has willed Vince all his property, disinheriting his own sons in favor of a grandson he hardly knows. One assumes this can only be an decision based on spite. The inheritance Dodge leaves his sons is shown in their inability to feel appropriate emotional responses—thus both intimidate and steal from their father and symbolically molest Shelley—Tilden by stroking her fur coat and Bradley by sticking his fingers in her mouth.

Vince left this “home” at sixteen, and this is his first time back in six years. Dodge and Tilden pretend not to recognize Vince, and Dodge swiftly becomes argumentative and abusive to the visitors. When Vince departs to buy his   grandfather more whiskey, thoughtlessly leaving his girlfriend without protection, Shelley is manipulated by Tilden, Dodge, and Bradley, who play out a competitive game of confession and hostility toward each other and her. But Shelley survives, even showing an ability to care as she tries to understand their strange behavior, and slowly draws out the truth. When Vince returns, drunk, he pays his family back by refusing to recognize them, and his brutal behavior becomes an echo of theirs. It is uncertain if this family can escape this cycle of violence.

Tilden’s earlier entrances with crops reflect on his final entrance with the corpse of the buried child: all connect to suggest fertility and progress. Darkness and rain are replaced by bright sun, the rain creating new growth and suggesting that death can be replaced by new life. The “sun,” which brought out the crops, is echoed by the “son” in Tilden’s arms. If the buried child has been the source of the family curse, then its exhumation may signify the end of that curse, and an expiation of the sins of the previous generation. The dead son, which the family has avoided and denied, has been brought to light and faced, and the murderer, Dodge, has died, which allows the living son, Vince, to take charge with a clean slate. However, there remains the danger that Vince will not take the chance his father offers, and may instead fall into the ways of his grandfather, as he assumes Dodge’s posture at the close and seems about to lose his partner, Shelly, who has declared her intention to leave.

The Little Foxes relates the trickery and betrayals of the materialistic Hub-bard family, as they strive to finance the construction of a lucrative cotton mill in their hometown, which will further betray the township but make them a fortune. Brothers Ben and Oscar have made their contribution, but, to her annoyance, sister Regina’s ailing husband, Horace Giddens, refuses to invest in the scheme. Not wanting to risk an outside investor who may demand a controlling share, Oscar persuades his son, Leo, a bank employee, to take $88,000 worth of bonds from Horace’s safe-deposit box to use as collateral, intending to have them returned before the theft is discovered. Horace finds his bonds gone but instead of pressing charges, he plans to keep quiet to make his wife suffer from knowing their money financed the deal, but she cannot touch the profits. She reveals her contempt for her husband, refuses to fetch his heart medicine, and watches as he collapses, soon to die. Subverting her husband’s plan, she blackmails her brothers into a 75 percent share of their profits, but her daughter, Alexandra, leaves in disgust, refusing to watch her family’s predatory behavior.

The ruthless Hubbard siblings break both moral and criminal laws in their ruthless quest for ever more money. Not content with cheating and gouging the townsfolk on interest charges, they strive to exploit them even further with insulting wages and heavy-handed management. The new mill will bring prosperity to no one but the Hubbards, which can be seen as a betrayal of the town, but what shocks us even more is their capacity to betray one another. From the start, we should see that there is little trust between brothers and sister; even as they scheme together, they are constantly vying for the upper hand and checking on one another. Yet they trust even less anyone outside the family.

Regina begins the trickery by using the unavailability of her husband—pretending that Horace is holding off investing as he wants a larger share of the profits—to persuade her brothers to increase her share. The truth is, she has heard nothing from her husband. But her brothers are no less conniving, so we hardly sympathize with the way she treats them. For a while it looks as if they might have the upper hand as they “borrow” her husband’s bonds and cut her out of the deal entirely, but they underestimate her opportunistic ingenuity and her capacity for betrayal. Deliberately hastening Horace’s death and threatening her brothers with legal action over the theft of the bonds, she forces them to give her the lion’s share. In some ways it is hard not to admire the way she turns the tables and rectifies her father’s sexist decision to leave his money to his sons alone.

It is unsurprising that Regina is so hard, given her family background. Her declaration that there are not enough people in the state who have not been cheated by her brothers to make up a jury tells us all we need to know about their business practices. The eldest, Ben, who is unmarried, keeps Oscar under his thumb by promising to leave his wealth to Leo. Ben reacts expediently and without conscience to every change in circumstance, swiftly stripping away part of his brother’s share to keep Regina satisfied and pressing for the cousins Leo and Alexandra to marry to keep the money in the family. Ben suspects foul play in his brother-in-law’s speedy demise, but has no evidence to support his suspicions, though we can be sure he will not settle for being bested by his sister and will betray her the first chance he gets.

Oscar is even worse; betraying his responsibility as a parent, he encourages his own son’s thievery. He married Birdie for her family’s plantation and abuses her mentally and physically. She is continuously belittled and berated; we even see him slap her when she interferes with his plans. Having long since turned to drink, Birdie confesses that in twenty-two years of marriage she has not had a single happy day. She is from the old, defeated Southern aristocracy, and the Hubbards belong to a new Southern order, having risen from trade, and they never let Birdie forget this.

Regina’s marriage is no less of a sham. She married Horace out of desperation and has long been unhappy with him, even lying about a medical condition so that she will no longer have to sleep with him. When first we see her, she is flirting with the married Chicago businessman who will become their business partner. The only satisfaction she gets from her own marriage is the control she thinks she exerts. Careless of her husband’s heart condition, she tricks him into returning home from the hospital, not so she might tend him as a loving wife but so she might better cajole him for money. When Horace tries to ruin her financial opportunity, she viciously turns on him. She calmly watches as he struggles to rise from his wheelchair and climb the stairs to retrieve his life-saving medicine, which may not be murder in any legal sense but is by every moral code. It is also certainly a betrayal of the marriage vows.

Horace is no saint. He has gone along with his in-laws for many years, lending them money from his bank for their business practices; he has had mistresses to make up for his wife’s withdrawal of affection; but his illness has caused him to reassess his life. Tired of his grasping, argumentative in-laws, and declaring himself content with what he has, Horace refuses to invest in the greedy scheme, wishing to die with a clean conscience. He still loves his wife, but realizes that she has no love for him and only holds him in contempt. It is less a betrayal than a justified form of revenge when he tries to arrange it so that his bonds are used for the deal in a way that ensures that she will gain no benefit from it. He tries to hurt her where he knows it will actually do some damage—financially. Because of his earlier than anticipated death, his plan fails, but he does manage to gain one victory over his wife—by convincing his daughter that she must leave the family immediately before she too becomes corrupt.

The younger generation offers little hope in the play. Leo is evidently as cruel and corrupt as his father; his own mother detests him. Alexandra may leave, but this is a slight moral victory as the family will continue with their exploitative plans regardless of what she does. As Ben suggests, there are people like them all over the country and they will always come out on top because they are so ruthless, holding nothing sacred in the pursuit of business, prepared to betray anyone for their own advancement—even spouse, sibling, or child.

Betrayed (1988) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique [next] [back] Betrayal (ABC, 12/3/1974, 90 mins)

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