Comparing and Contrasting "Beauty" in Miller and Eliot
Arthur Miller and T.S. Eliot are two 20th century American playwrights. While the latter is more commonly noted for expatriating to Britain and writing some of the most memorable poetry of the early 20th century, the former is noted for his famous depiction of the common man's struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in Death of a Salesman. As distinct as the two writers may seem, they both conceive of and treat the theme of beauty -- Miller analyzing its absence in Salesman, and Eliot analyzing its abandonment in several poems like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Wasteland." This paper will compare and contrast both writers and show how they deal with the theme of beauty in their works.
The Absence of Beauty in Salesman and "Prufrock"
Beauty is missing from Willy Loman's life in Death of a Salesman, and Miller represents this fact by contrasting Willy to his surroundings through various motifs. Motif is a literary device constantly used throughout Salesman to bring to light certain points (ideas such as peace, happiness, success, defeat, and awe). Miller, however, does more than merely employ motif to stimulate drama: he creates a character that is utterly unable to measure up to the kind of heroism and beauty as defined by men like Aristotle. Miller's Loman ("low man") may be the measure of inadequacy in the modern world. What is missing from Loman's life, it may be said, is the appreciation of Beauty -- or Truth, as Keats called it.
This absence of Beauty is observed in the cessation of flute music in the play's very beginning. The flute motif begins the drama, setting off Act One with a melody that is meant to evoke Beauty -- images of "grass and trees on the horizon" -- encouraging the audience to imagine pastures that appear, perhaps, greener on the other side. This motif is ironically juxtaposed, however, with the setting of the Act, which is the Salesman's house, outlined against a world of hard, towering high rises. As Willy Loman enters the scene and begins to speak with his wife, the flute dies out and the cessation of this motif tells us much about Willy's present situation, adding a kind of pathos to his line to Linda, "I'm tired to the death" (Miller 2). Miller indicates that the "flute has faded away," (2) which illustrates thematically the notion that Willy's life has lost its melody, its happiness, its sense of being -- and its beauty. Willy has, essentially, one foot out the door -- and his wife (literally) is surprised to find that he is still hanging on.
If Willy is barely there (as a person), so too is Eliot's Prufrock -- a character who cannot even rouse himself to the level of humanity. Indeed, Prufrock is as much a wisp of a man as Loman, and both seem to have abandoned the struggle to attain a higher peace or purpose in life. While Loman appears to be haunted by the fact in Death of a Salesman, Eliot's Prufrock appears to be content with what may be termed, essentially, his damnation.
Eliot's Use of Dante and the Old World as an Indication of Beauty
In fact, the idea of damnation -- that loss of the True Beauty, which in Christian terms is the attainment of and unification with God -- is present at the very beginning of "Prufrock." Eliot quotes one of the damned souls of Dante's Inferno as a preface to the poem -- and the quotation is indicative of the despair that fills Prufrock. What Prufrock "knows" is that there is no hope for the modern world -- it has been abolished -- and, thus, he is an empty shell of a man, on the cusp of old world religion and art, unable to pry open the doors of the beauty of the old world (even though it hangs in the galleries and "the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo") (Eliot 13-14, 35-36). For Prufrock, Michelangelo has been emptied out, because that which he represents -- an old world ideology -- has been repudiated by the ideology of the modern world, thus sealing off both Beauty and Truth as it relates to God, the ultimate source of all goodness and beauty according to the old world ideology.
Beauty in Eliot's conception of the modern world is essentially related to scientific constructs and technological advances and shallow pretensions: cars, houses, advertisements, models, galleries -- these things are deemed beautiful…but what is lacking is spiritual beauty. This kind of beauty existed in the old world because of the chance to work out one's salvation through Christ -- the spiritual antidote to the gloom in Eliot's eyes. In the modern Protestant world, however, one's salvation is simply granted by virtue of having "accepted" Christ: there is no sense of struggle (unless it is with one's faith -- and once this struggle is resolved the race is essentially over).
Beauty Replaced by the Dream in Miller's Salesman
Willy Loman's life is also steeped in gloominess and depression. However, Miller does not connect Loman's loss of beauty to the modern world's loss of Christ the same way that Eliot subtly does. Miller does, on the other hand, depict Loman's crisis as a kind of betrayal of the beauty of the human soul -- which Loman has traded for a measly salesman's life. This betrayal is represented in a second motif that Miller uses to establish the idea that Willy Loman's pursuit of the American Dream has been nothing more than the futile chase of an empty promise. The motif is found in the concept of scenery. Willy reveals early on his obsession with scenery: "I was driving along, you understand? And I was fine. I was even observing the scenery. You can imagine, me looking at scenery, on the road every week of my life…" (3). The sense here is that Willy has been driving through life for so long on automatic pilot that he has failed to take notice of the Beauty around him. Distracted and caught up in the lie of Success as Fulfillment (the American Dream), Willy has pursued his sales as though attempting to sell even himself this pitch.
However, as Death approaches, Willy suddenly begins to take more interest in his surroundings -- in the scenery -- in the world around him. This motif is reflected in Uncle Ben who speaks of going into the jungle (a symbol of life) and bringing out a diamond (a symbol of success) -- yet Willy's desire is no longer with diamonds, but with gardens: he wants to grow that which he sees in nature (he wants to reflect the Beauty and Truth he sees in the scenery -- even if he does not realize this is what he wants). The pursuit of the diamond does not satisfy him, which is why he so angry and distracted all the time. Miller portrays the anger of the common man at having been cheated of the American Dream. Eliot, on the contrary, portrays the despair of the modern man who accepts his disinheritance from the old world values, and confesses that he is content merely to "grow old" and "wear the bottoms of [his] trousers rolled" (120-121).
The difference between the two portrayals of the common modern man is the emphasis the two writers place on the theme of beauty. For Eliot, Beauty exists in the fragments of the old world that may still be collected and pieced together -- as in "The Wasteland." But for Miller, Beauty exists as a kind of ideal that is often lost in the commotion and rush of modern life.
Beauty and Christ in Eliot
To better understand how Eliot treats of the theme of beauty, however, one must examine the Christian connection since Christ is the center of Dante's Divine Comedy, which provides the epigram to Eliot's "Prufrock." The epigram from Dante is highly significant for two reasons: 1) it roots the poem in medieval Christian doctrine, and 2) it introduces the theme of despair (the epigram consists of the words of a soul who speaks only because he knows no one will ever hear): "If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement; but since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy" (Inferno 27.61-66). The words might just as easily be Prufrock's to the reader: they are a kind of admission of the pointlessness of Prufrock's (ironic) love song -- it is not intended to inspire anyone with hope: it is merely a statement of fact, the fact of modern-day de-signification and insignificance. As Mutlu Konuk Blasing states, "Prufrock does not know how to presume to begin to speak, both because he…