Examine the role played by the female characters in Act 1 of the play and evaluate the effect they have on the audience.
Miller portrays women as both strong and weak characters which stir admiration and sympathy on the audience. The strength of women is displayed in the old lady whom Alfieri sought advice from and in Beatrice who challenges Eddie. Miller also uses Catherine to portray strength when she makes her own decision on what to with her life. On the other hand, Miller uses Marco’s wife to portray women as powerless. Finally, women are likened to “paper dolls” which don’t have much value.
The audience develops admiration for women through the old lady who displayed wisdom. The fact that Alfieri valued the advice of the old lady proves that women are not inferior to men. “Pray for him…” she said to Alfieri, and he does what he’s told. Power in gender roles is made in this scene because Alfieri who is a lawyer and thus highly knowledgeable, needed help in this situation and found a solution from a woman. Likewise, Beatrice asserts herself and tries to influence Eddie when she says, “Listen, you ain’t gonna start nothin’ here.” She speaks in a demanding tone which shows her high courage to express her ideas and feelings.
Catherine is presented as a strong character in the scene where she defies Eddie by saying, “I’m going with him, Eddie”. She shows Eddie that she has her own mind when she refuses to believe the negative things that he was saying about Rodolpho, “You marry him and the next time you see him it’ll be for divorce”. Catherine argues when she says, “Oh, no, Eddie, I don’t think so.” The more she struggles in her interaction with Eddie, who makes things difficult for her, the more she gains empathy from the audience.
On the other hand, Miller arouses sympathy from the audience with the way he portrays Marco’s wife. Miller doesn’t give Marco’s wife any words to say in the play which suggests that she doesn’t have a chance to express herself. She is presented as someone helpless as she is unable to improve her miserable situation. She is a pathetic character who is desperate about addressing the needs of her children. “… She feeds them from her own mouth….they eat the sunshine.” Miller describes Marco’s wife as someone who is desperately waiting for her husband, Marco to provide for the family, “My wife - I want to send right away maybe twenty dollars”.
Moreover, Rodolpho’s song uses the line, “I’m gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own”. The “Paper Doll” implies that women are like toys that men can get obsessed with, “It’s tough to love a doll that’s not your own”, “A doll that other fellows cannot steal.” Women are treated as objects of lust in the line, “Will have to flirt with dollies that are real”. Using paper dolls to represent women strongly suggests that men can just play with them and drop them when they’re done, “I’m through with all of them”. When they are likened to paper dolls, women are presented as only beautiful to look at and don’t have much value.
In summary, the most effective way that Miller affirms women is when he portrays them as having wisdom, assertiveness and courage to make their own decisions. Regarding the gender roles, women are not inferior to men because they can actually influence and earn the respect of highly educated men like Alfieri. Women cannot also be pushed around by domineering men like Eddie. Essentially, Miller presents men as weak in the characters of, Rodolpho who is motivated by superficial things; Marco, who can’t provide for his family; Eddie, who is insecure about losing Catherine.