What do I need to know about ... Gender Roles?

Brief Description

Traditionally in the play, men work and women stay home and do house work and because Catherine wants to start work, Eddie is very against this. However, from a women’s point of view, they want to work since Beatrice argues with Eddie that “someday (Catherine) could be a secretary.” It is interesting that this aspiration for Catherine, which is said in a tone that suggests this is almost a hope beyond hope, will still nonetheless see Catherine subservient to men as their secretary.

Eddie is very much against Rodolpho who he says gives him the “Heebee Jeebee’s.” Rodolpho’s speciality in singing, making dresses and cooking makes Eddie suspicious and he is angered by his effeminate traits. In the 1950s, people like Eddie follow the roles laid down for men - that they must be physically strong, emotionally tough and superior to women. This perhaps accounts for Eddie's disgust by the feminine way in which Rodolpho acts. Rodolpho challenges the accepted gender roles that Eddie lives his life by, he hates him.

In the end of Act 1, Eddie tests Rodolpho’s manhood by challenging him to learn to box. This, combined with kissing Rodolpho on the mouth, seem to be acts of desperation on Eddie's part to prove that Rodolpho is not a man. This shows that Eddie would do anything possible to break up the relationship between Catherine and Rodolpho, although he eventually fails.

Eddie is the only male in the Carbone household, before Marco and Rodolpho arrive. He is superior to Catherine and Beatrice, and his masculine character controls the females and thus we see that whether or not Catherine takes the job, depends on Eddie's approval. This male dominance stays unchanged throughout the play however: Act 1 ends when Marco subtley threatens Eddie by raising the chair over his head. The play also ends on a fight over the male concept of honour, and the females are passively watching, which reinforces the typical gender roles in the 1950's. So even though the man in power may vary there is nonetheless invariably a man in power.

Men are dominant and are the “leaders” of the family. Women, in this case exemplified by Catherine and Beatrice, have to follow Eddie and do what he wants. This does change at the end when Marco and Eddie fight and Catherine, who has been treated like a “baby”, becomesmore self aware and assertive calling him a 'rat' for his betrayal of Rodolpho and Marco, revealing perhaps the struggle of women to be treated equally to men.

In the play, there are many types of male views of women. Some think of them (for instance Eddie) view women as objects of sexual desire while others think of them (Rodolpho) as, love and possibly a method by which he can become a citizen of the United States. Eddie represents the general desire of men to control female sexuality as he is a very overprotective man who attempts to prevent other men from finding Catherine attractive, to the extent that his life is taken for this at the end. This is symbolised by the lyrics of the song
Paper doll
Paper doll
per doll.”

These lyrics portray women as “paper dolls” and a paper doll, is an object of desire. It shows that a “paper doll” can only belong to one person and no one else; they must find other “paper doll(s).”
This song not only shows how men believe women are treated, but it reflects Eddie’s situation. In addition, the fact that Rodolpho sings and is called "Paper Doll" represents his weakness, being like a 'paper' which is delicate, and can be blown away easily.

Key Quotations

  • "The guy ain’t right Mr Alfieri” Eddie p46
  • “He’s stealing from me!” Eddie 49
  • “Just get outa here and don’t lay another hand on her unless you wanna go out feet first.” Eddie p65
  • “Catherine, I don’t want to be a pest, but I’m tellin’ you you’re walking’ wavy.” Eddie p14

  • "He sings, he cooks, he makes dresses..." [Eddie PAGE 55]
With this quotation, Eddie is questioning Rodolpho's sexuality. Singing, cooking and dressmaking were not considered to be typical "men's jobs" in 1950s USA; because Rodolpho is able to do these things, his credibility decreases in Eddie's eyes. However, it can be argued that Eddie's questioning of Rodolpho's sexuality stems from his jealousy towards Rodolpho as a result of Catherine's attentions towards him. Perhaps Eddie feels that by persuading Catherine (and Beatrice) that Rodolpho "ain't right" [PAGE 46], Catherine will no longer be in love with Rodolpho. The use of the triad in this phrase also helps to strengthen and further emphasise the point that Eddie is making.
  • “I’m responsible for you” [Eddie to Catherine, PAGE 14]
Although both Eddie and Beatrice are Catherine's legal guardians, it is quite significant that it is Eddie who voices the fact he is responsible for Catherine's wellbeing, even though Beatrice is equally eligible for this role and is indeed Catherine's blood relation. Eddie has taken on the role of being Catherine's surrogate father and as he is also the breadwinner of the Carbone family, his magnified importance as head of the family means that he is responsible for Catherine.
  • "I do what I feel like doin' or what I don't feel like doin' " [Eddie to Beatrice, PAGE 69]
As head of the family and also the husband (and therefore dominant over the wife, in their society), Eddie feels that he can tell Beatrice what he wants or does not want to do. Beatrice simply replies "Okay", showing her submission to her husband's wishes. Moreover, Eddie's personality is reflected in the lexis that Arthur Miller carefully chooses in order to accurately portray the characters. Eddie's forcefulness is matched in the words, and his simple, layman's English (and Brooklyn accent) is illustrated in words such as doin', used instead of doing.
  • "I'm just afraid... you'll be mad at me" [Beatrice to Eddie, PAGE 17]
Again, we see evidence of Beatrice's submissive nature before her husband in her constant fear of receiving criticism from Eddie. She is afraid to act without her husband's permission, once again highlighting the magnitude of the husband and breadwinner's role in their society.
  • "I betcha there's plenty of surprises sometimes when those guys get back there [to Italy], heh? ... They count the kids and there's a couple extra than when they left?" [Eddie to Marco, PAGE 52]
Eddie attempts to make a joke of the fact that Marco's wife may be unfaithful to him. This gives women a bad image and suggests that Eddie holds men in higher regard than women, as he jokes about Marco's wife being unfaithful but mentions nothing of the fact that Marco himself may commit adultery. Once again, Eddie's character is brought to life by Miller's choice of diction -- for example, deliberate grammtical errors and the usage of the improper English word "betcha" hints that Eddie is relatively uneducated (the reason why he wants a better future for Catherine) and belongs to a low socio-economic class, i.e. the working class. *The blurb at the back of the book indicates that Eddie is illiterate*
  • "Girls don't have to wear black dress to be strict... it might be a little more free here but it's just as strict" [Eddie to Rodolpho, PAGE 52-53]
This quotation is another indicator of the status of women in the society at the time. Eddie concurs that women were freer in America -- historically the land of freedom especially to immigrants from Italy and elsewhere -- than in Italy, where they were forced to conform to the rules set down by society, in particular the Catholic religion. Nonetheless, as Eddie mentions, it is still "just as strict" despite females not having to wear a "black dress" and although America may give them their freedom, they must not forget their place, role and status in society and neither should men. It should be noted that men are hardly ever under the same rigorous conformity in any society at any point in history.
  • "If I was a wife I would make a man happy" [Catherine PAGE 63]
Catherine criticises Beatrice for complaining to Eddie, and makes clear to Rodolpho her interpretation of a woman's role: the sole aim of a wife is to make her husband happy. Growing up in the Carbone household, she was most likely influenced by Eddie's views (being the head of the family and a male, he would have voiced his opinions far more than Beatrice or Catherine, who are females and economic dependents). His views would again have been influenced by the previous generation, when females had even less freedom and suffered even more inequality.
  • "I don't know anything" [Catherine to Rodolpho, PAGE 63]
Catherine admits that she knows little of the world, as she has probably spent most of her life in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Also, because Eddie is notably very protective of her and rarely allows her out of the neighbourhood area or even the apartment, (for example, he is displeased with Rodopho for taking Catherine to the Brooklyn Paramount) she would have a very restricted view of the world, or even the city around her. Furthermore, Catherine's use of language throughout the play is notably more grammatically correct and accurate in enunciation; this is because, thanks to Eddie, she has received a proper education. Yet, despite him giving her an education, he hopes that she may one day become "a secretary or something" -- a secretary is deemed a good enough job for Catherine. Neither Catherine nor Eddie have probably ever considered the possibility of Catherine doing a "man's job" such as lawyer or doctor, because it went against the expectations of the society at the time: at the time, a woman's place was predominantly in the house.
  • "It just seems wrong if he [Eddie]'s against it so much" [Catherine to Beatrice, PAGE 42]
Like Beatrice, Catherine seems afraid of Eddie's displeasure at her actions and is eager to seek his agreement before making any decisions. Not only does this phrase outline Catherine's meek nature and anxiety about doing wrong, or indeed doing anything without Eddie's clear consent, but it also suggests that Catherine's fundamental principles of right and wrong are based on Eddie's opinons and not her own. This indicates once again that Catherine does not think for herself or give her own opinions very often; as a result of being treated like a baby, she is almost like a baby herself, unable to take care of herself or think for herself. Because Catherine's very ideologies of right and wrong rely almost solely on Eddie's opinions, this shows that he was certainly a most influential character during the course of her upbringing and as a result she has come to look upon him (at least at the beginning of the novel) as not only a father and protective figure, but also a trustworthy mentor who can tell right from wrong. In addition, the fact that she is told about right and wrong, and not shown, that she herself is not challenged to think these things through for herself, suggest that Eddie probably feels that she cannot think for herself, another reason why he still treats her like a baby or a young child despite her being almost 18.
  • "If you wasn't an orphan, wouldn't he [Rodolpho] ask your father's permission before he run around with you like this?" [Eddie to Catherine, PAGE 40]
In many cultures and societies, the female's father is still consulted during courtship or dating. This was the case in the society portrayed by Miller in this play; men were seen to "own" their daughters (this is somewhat related to the act of fathers "giving away" their daughter to the groom at weddings, a tradition prominent in many societies). Eddie's incorrect usage of English grammar ("if you wasn't..." and "before he run around with you...") can again be seen in this quotation. It is also important to note that Eddie speaks of Catherine's (real) father in the third person. From this, we can infer that despite Eddie's efforts in Catherine's upbringing and his fatherly/parental affections for her, and Eddie being a better surrogate father to her than Beatrice is a surrogate mother (women would perhaps feel more strongly about adopted children who are not really their own than men would, as women are the child-bearing sex), for various reasons (perhaps his other feelings towards her, or because he does not wish for her to forget her real parents, or again the conforms of society?) he still does not consider himself to be her true father. Catherine, on the other hand, mentions in the play that "he's like a father to me".

Their role in the novel

The typical role of male and female is starting to change as the play progresses towards the end. Eddie who portrays the accepted 1950s gender status has been destroyed by the arrival of Marco and, particularly, Rodolpho whose effeminate nature challenges the idea that there is only one way for a man to behave.

It can also be argued that gender roles are one of the underlying foundations of society, and was key in characterising the hierarchy and structure of society. Gender roles play an important role in the novel, as they are indirect causes of the events and conflicts outlined in the play. Though they may not be seen as direct catalysts for change, they certainly contribute to the course of events. For example, Eddie Carbone, as the male head of the family and breadwinner, no doubt feels challenged by the presence of Marco and Rodolpho. At first, his negative feelings are directed towards Rodolpho, who 'takes' Catherine away from Eddie without his permission, and ultimately turns her against him. Thus Eddie is made to feel that he has lost the position of the "alpha male" in the household because Rodolpho is disrespecting him. In return, Eddie begins to question and challenge Rodolpho's sexuality. Eddie's suspicions are further aroused by Rodolpho's ways and actions which defy the male ideology, and the traits of the "ideal male", as stated by society.

Although Rodolpho and Catherine represent the younger generation in the play who have more modern views on the treatment of men and women, they have undoubtedly been shaped by the views of their elders. Tradition runs strong in many Italian immigrant communities, and Catherine has inherited clear views on the role of women/wives in the household; similarly, Rodolpho makes clear his opinion that although women can work, ultimately it is the men who must provide for them and care for them.

Gender roles are again reinforced in the play's ending. In the fight scene, it is the men -- Eddie and Marco, both heads of families and breadwinners -- who fight for honour and for their family name, and the women (Beatrice and Catherine) who stand passively and watch helplessly because it is not for them to interfere in the course of events in a world dominated by males. At the very end Eddie dies in Beatrice's arms and she covers him with her body, an image that serves to reiterate the theme that women are portrayed as caring and protective.