The modernist movement in writing was characterized by a lack of faith in the traditional ways of explaining life and its meaning. Religion, nationalism, and family were no longer seen as being infallible. For the modernist writers, a sense of security could no longer be found. They could not find any meaning or order in the old ways. Despair was a common reaction for them. The dilemma they ran into was what to do with this knowledge. Poet Robert Frost phrased their question best in his poem “The Oven Bird.” Frost’s narrator and the bird about which he is speaking both are wondering “what to make of a diminished thing” (Baym 1103). The modernist writers attempted to mirror this despair and tried to superimpose meaning on it or find meaning in it. The old frames of reference were no longer meaningful. Newer ones had to be sought. This belief gave them license to create new points of reference, which at least held some meaning for them, or to comment on the remains of the old. These writers referred often to shattered illusions, feelings of alienation, and the fragmentation of the remains of tradition. Although society was making technological advances, many of these writers felt that it was declining in other ways. They saw this progression as being made at the expense of individuality and the individual’s sense of true self-worth.
Arthur Miller’s writings are characteristic of this movement. Miller is a playwright whose works reflect the major themes of modernism. Death of a Salesman, which is perhaps his best-known piece, is a perfect example of this. In it, he addresses the common modernist themes of alienation and loneliness through both his portrayal of society an...
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Baym, Franklin, Gottesman, Holland, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1994.
Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Arthur Miller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Costello, Donald P. “Arthur Miller’s Circles of Responsibility: A View From a Bridge and Beyond.” Modern Drama. 36 (1993): 443-453.
Florio, Thomas A., ed. “Miller’s Tales.” The New Yorker. 70 (1994): 35-36.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro. Arthur Miller Criticism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1969.
Martin, Robert A., ed. Arthur Miller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Miller, Arthur. The Archbishop’s Ceiling/The American Clock. New York: Grove Press,
---. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1965.
---. Eight Plays. New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1981.
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