Trapped in the Mirror

After the Fall (1964)
by Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

Arthur Miller was intuitively aware of the role played by the shadow in the lives of his characters. Many of his protagonists struggled with aspects of their false self or their past behaviors that they could not accept and that they then repressed into that part of their unconscious called the shadow. Since everything in our unconscious can be projected, we experience these aspects of what we could call the ego or false self in the Other.

Stories that continually cycle through our minds can keep us trapped in the illusions of our remembered past. It’s as if we are surrounded by mirrors in which ghostly images continually threaten and torment us. In truth, we create the images in a never-ending storyline that many of us don’t know how to stop. Guilt, shame and regret are kept alive by a continuous replaying of imagined events that may or may not have happened as we remember them but which, in any case, no longer represent our life in the present moment; no longer, that is, unless we keep them alive by our reactive and tortured remembering. Quentin, the protagonist in After the Fall, is plagued by those ghostly figures that he keeps alive by giving energy to the story that doesn’t exist anywhere but in his mind.

Miller stumbled onto the little understood dynamic of the shadow called the positive or golden shadow. Sometimes, not often though, the false self will identify with its negative qualities and repress the positive ones. We then project these admired or desirable qualities on another person. In this case the Other becomes the object or our love and affection.

The protagonist Quentin reveals “receiving” a positive shadow projection from one of several women with whom he has been involved during his life. Felice loves Quentin but “she meant so little to me.”[i]  Felice, on the other hand is projecting her golden shadow onto Quentin which he senses. “I feel like a mirror in which she somehow saw herself as glorious.”[ii]  Such are the pitfalls of romantic love so fraught with illusion, projection and counter-projection, pain and suffering.

Quentin has a brief insight into present moment awareness—the NOW. “How few the days that hold the mind in place. Especially the day you stop becoming; the day you merely are instead of the general gray of what ought to be you begin to see what is. Even the bench by the park seems alive. The word “now” is like a bomb through the window, and it ticks.”[iii]

We have selected a smattering of lines written for Quentin, over two pages of script that reveal a person in a state of ennui (boredom or lethargy) not uncommon for someone his age. “It all lost any point. Although I do wonder sometimes if I am simply trying to destroy myself.  Well, I have walked away from what passes for an important career. I’ll harness myself to something again. That I was moving on an upward path toward some elevation. And all that remained was the endless argument with myself—this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. Which, of course, is another way of saying—despair.”[iv]

Whether we call such periods in life midlife crises or points of transition, most of us reach them and they are thought of by psychologists as developmental stages. We are, however, often looking for something more profound than a change in career or a change in life’s direction—we are looking for a different world—a shift in worldview. Because this possibility is not part of P-B, most people do not have sufficient insight into their predicament to take advantage of this opportunity to begin to move toward Self-realization. Quentin is a lost soul and indeed is headed for despair.

Many of us have from time-to-time the intuitive awareness that there is a different option than the traditional rat race. Again, Quentin: “With all this darkness, the truth is that every morning when I awake, I’m full of hope! I’m like a boy! For an instant there’s some—unformed promise in the air. If [only] I could corner that hope, find what it consists of and really make it mine”[v]  This is the universal hope of humanity but day after day, century after century, millennium after millennium we repress the expression of that inner wisdom and settle for self-destruction and despair.

Trapped in the Mirror

[i]     Miller, Arthur. All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and After the Fall. New York: Penguin Books, 1995, page 480.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Ibid., page 516.

[iv]    Ibid., pages 476-477.

[v]     Ibid., page 478.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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