Eddie Carbone: a tragic hero?

‘The tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the Kings or the Kingly.’

Traditional tragic heroes are characterised by several components, one of which is their noble status. Aristotle emphasised this in Poetics, specifying the tragic hero as ‘one of those who stand in great repute and prosperity.’ This defining quality is a vein which runs through the works of original Greek playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus to Shakespeare to the Neo-classical Racine. Yet by the eighteenth century, a Bourgeois uprising was beginning to taint the tragic hero’s nobility of blood, with George Lillo’s The London Merchant defying convention and creating a protagonist as mundane as its title. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge also boasts a tragic hero of modest background: longshoreman Eddie Carbone. Whether such ordinary characters should be permitted a title so long associated with nobility is subject to debate. However, with Carbone conforming to every other characteristic of the tragic hero, this discrepancy may be forgivable, or perhaps even welcome in our modern times.

In the first scene, Miller’s protagonist is ‘highlighted’ amongst his friends through a symbolic utilisation of lighting. We go on to witness the reverence with which Carbone is regarded in his own home, as niece Catherine greets him excitedly before seeking his opinion on her new skirt. In light of his disapproval, Catherine is ‘almost in tears’, revealing the importance of his judgement. Not only is Carbone loved by his family, he is also a respected figure within the Red Hook community, for his adherence to its Italian values. We see this in friend Louis’ admiration of his willingness to conceal immigrants, Marco and Rodolpho: ‘you got a lotta credit comin’ to you.’ Thus it is clear that, as with all other tragic heroes, Eddie is a highly-regarded character. Admittedly, Carbone is less powerful than the monarchs of Macbeth and Antigone, but we must bear in mind that the capacity to influence is relative to one’s society; within the tight-knit, isolated Red Hook community, Carbone is of the highest esteem possible, making him just as suitable for the role of the tragic hero as any Greek King.

Carbone’s importance is underpinned by lawyer Alfieri, who acts as the Greek Chorus of A View from the Bridge. His narration rarely strays from Carbone and only incorporates other characters on the basis of their relationship with him. A cardinal function of the Greek Chorus is to bridge a connection between the audience and the protagonist; the tragic hero must be one with whom we can relate, as Aristotle said. This is certainly true of Carbone, who Alfieri eulogises as having ‘allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him.’ In this respect, Carbone could be at an advantage over the likes of Oedipus and King Lear: the very fact of his ordinariness enables greater scope for audience empathy. After all, our ability to relate to prestigious tragic heroes is limited by their rank and situation; only their inescapable humanity enables us to identify with their plight.

Vital to the tragic hero is their fall. And one cannot deny the thoroughness with which A View from the Bridge skins Carbone of his glory. By the end of Act Two, having informed on Beatrice’s cousins, he is despised by both Marco and Rodolpho; Catherine has finally shaken her dependency on him; Beatrice, although still faithful, has lost all respect for him. He is pathetic- a fact enhanced by the symbolic stage directions, whereby his former sponsors gradually abandon him: ‘LIPARI and wife exit…EDDIE calls after LOUIS and MIKE.’ Even by his own standards, he is repulsive (earlier in the play, he condemned a similar betrayal by young Vinny Bolanzo who ‘snitched to the Immigration.’) And then comes the ultimate downfall: the hero’s demise. Carbone’s death leaves no doubt as to whether Miller has fulfilled this particular criterion of the tragic hero. Yet there is still a point of contention: how far can an ordinary person really fall? Arguably, the degradation of nobility, as witnessed in traditional tragedies, exposes Carbone’s descent as a mere trip off the curb; he has much less to lose than, for example, Oedipus. Nevertheless, in any fall from grace, it is those closest to the subject of defamation that are most important: although Oedipus may feel shame before his kingdom, it is the reactions of his family and friends which cause the audience to cringe on his behalf. Thus, whilst traditional heroes may experience dishonour on a grander scale, the likes of Carbone provoke just as great an audience reaction.

Hamatria is also intrinsic to the tragic hero: translated as ‘the tragic flaw’, it is what causes the great man’s fall. Carbone’s hamatria lies in his incestuous feelings for Catherine and, perhaps more importantly, his denial of them. Having suppressed these unnatural urges, Carbone feels justified in his struggle against Rodolpho; it is possible that he has convinced even himself that his objections to his niece’s engagement are innocent. Were he to acknowledge his perverse desires, it is possible that Carbone could prevent his downfall: he is not a bad man so, if enlightened, may coax himself out of any feelings of jealously. As it is, Carbone succumbs to the ‘battle to secure his rightful place in the world’ (what Miller deems the generic hamatria), thus signing his own death certificate. This concept is captured in the symbolism of Carbone dying, literally by his own hand: ‘MARCO grabs [EDDIE’S] arm, turning the blade inward and pressing it home.’ To presume that only a figure of nobility can have such fatal flaws is clearly mistaken: ‘in no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts and such actions’ (Arthur Miller.) In this respect, therefore, Carbone is just as fitted to the role of the tragic hero as any Shakespearean conception.

From the play’s first utterance, Carbone is fated to fall. Alfieri’s opening narration predestines a ‘bloody course’ and this ominous atmosphere is later reinforced with the assertion that he could have ‘finished the whole story that afternoon.’ Meanwhile, Carbone’s discussion of the aforementioned traitor, Vinny Bolonzo (in which we learn that ‘they spit on him in the street, his own father and his brothers’ before he was never seen again) overtly foreshadows his own humiliation. Of course, this is essential to the tragic hero, for there is no tragedy in chance misfortune: it must be inevitable.

It is plain, therefore, that Eddie Carbone epitomises the tragic hero in all but rank. Yet this seems to matter little: the concept of nobility representing ‘the people’ is of dubious relevance today. When aiming to create a microcosm of society, contemporary writers are now inclined to use ordinary characters, as opposed to royalty. Thus it seems that, whilst Oedipus may have thrived in Ancient Greece, Carbone is of far greater relevance today: he is the modern tragic hero. If theatre is to retain a high level of significance within our world, the rules of tragedy must be regarded as flexible. And Miller seems to agree, slipping Alfieri the ambiguous line: ‘the law has not been a friendly idea since the Greeks were beaten.’

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