In the opening of Arthur Miller’s Focus, Lawrence Newman awakens from a disturbing dream. “He was in some sort of amusement park. Before him stood a large carousel, strangely colored in green and purple patches. Somehow there were no people there. It was deserted for acres around him. And yet the carousel was moving. The brightly colored carriages, all empty, were going in a circle. He stood there perplexed, watching the shuttling of the carousel, and then he knew that underneath, below the ground, there was a gigantic machine operating: a factory, he realized. Something was being manufactured beneath the carousel, and trying to imagine what it was, he grew frightened.”1
Newman, a fastidious personnel manager, lives alone with his disabled mother in New York City during the final days of World War II. At the outset of the novel, an almost subconscious racism dominates his thinking. He watches a Latina woman being assaulted and does nothing, believing she deserves it. But his animosity is particularly directed toward Jews. He eagerly scans the subway pillars for anti-semitic graffiti on his way to work each morning. These posts on the social media of his day excite him, and he feels that they express a truth that society suppresses.
But Newman’s idyllic, if prosaic, existence takes a surreal turn when his deteriorating vision forces him to wear eyeglasses. After putting them on, he is shocked when he considers his reflection. “In the mirror in his bathroom, the bathroom he had used for nearly seven years, he was looking at what might very properly be called the face of a Jew. A Jew, in effect, had gotten into his bathroom. The glasses did just what he had feared they would to his face, but this was worse because this was real.”2
Not only does Newman think he looks Jewish in his new eyewear, but in a Kafkaesque turn, others think so too. They begin to notice and then react. They murmur behind his back that they always thought his surname suspicious. He loses his high-paying job and glass office because he no longer creates “the right impression.” His neighbors begin to ostracize him, and, finally, a local anti-semitic organization targets him for harassment and violence.
Ironically, at first, none of this makes him question his own bigoted beliefs. Instead, he responds only with desperation, trying to ingratiate himself to convince his enemies that he is not one of “those people.” He even goes so far as to attend a white supremacist rally, only to be roughed up and ejected because of his supposed ethnicity.
In a poignant scene, the Jewish proprietor of a local newsstand confronts him about his racist views. “‘You don’t understand,’ Newman said shortly, pressing his trembling hand against his stomach. ‘It’s not what you’ve done, it’s what others of your people have done.’ Mr. Finklestein stared at him a long time. ‘In other words, when you look at me, you don’t see me. What do you see when you look at me, Mr. Newman?'”3
Early critics failed to take the implied cultural critique seriously. They dismissed its plot as both absurd and “too pat” and felt its characters were poorly drawn.4 Others admitted, “Despite obvious faults, the novel manages to capture and hold the interest of the reader. But [it] gives the feeling of perusing a tract.”5 And while it has since been adapted to film in 2001, Focus remains one of Miller’s less well-known works to this day. But the novel has always struck me as one of his finest pieces, and I believe it deserves to be dusted off and read. Few books have ever tackled the specter of racism in American society with such candor and force.
Perhaps there is a grain of truth in the early responses to the novel. Its terse staccato style lacks the minimalist grace of Hemmingway or the lush grandeur of Thomas Wolfe. And to be sure, the characters are not well-rounded. Lawrence Newman is no Julian Sorel. There is something of the-man-in-the-grey-flannel-suit about him. He desires to be like everyone else and so has never had the courage to be himself. But Focus is a novel of ideas rather than a character study, and perhaps the kind of complexity these reviewers sought might detract from the force of its plot.
The novel exhibits a keen sense of urgency about racial justice that may resonate with us today more than it did in the 1940s. And toward the end of the story, Newman’s dream recurs to his mind. As he begins to accept the surrogate identity that has been foisted upon him, he realizes that the factory under the carousel is producing a monster. Beneath the quiet amusement park of our civilization, a Grendel of racial hatred and violence waits, ready to burst forth.
Miller himself wrote of the book, “I cannot glance through this novel without feeling the sense of emergency that surrounded the writing of it. As far as I knew, anti-semitism was a closed if not forbidden topic for fiction-certainly no novel had taken it as a main theme.” He goes on to tell us that his chief concern as a Jewish American was that the racist policies that fueled Nazism might spread to the United States.6
With the hindsight of history, we can forgive the novel’s contemporary critics for not fully comprehending the author’s sense of foreboding. But we have seen the crematoriums, the piles of eyeglasses and jewelry, the photographs of the emaciated survivors. We have heard heartrending accounts of those who bore witness to the Holocaust. We have understood how a society can go mad and turn itself into a factory for producing death.
And sadly, we know that such events are not confined to the pages of history. Leaders are ever ready to create new scapegoats, the better to manipulate the credulous and the fearful. Terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing have entered our common lexicon, and these horrific crimes can occur anywhere. The factory is still in operation, and the monster is very much alive.
Arthur Miller’s Focus examines the nascent racism in the American cultural landscape of its day. It offers us a warning that, if unchecked, bigotry ultimately leads to violence and oppression. And it provides us with a hope that if we identify with the other, the experience will change us, allowing us to grow.
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1. Miller, Arthur, Focus, Penguin Books, p. 1
2. Miller, p.24
3. Miller, p.168
4. Poore, Charles, Books of the Times, New York Times, Nov. 24, 1945
5. Clemmons, Lucy Lee, Phylon, Number 7, 3rd Quarter, 1946 pp.307-308
6. Miller, p.vi
The Monster Under the Amusement Park: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2022. All Rights Reserved.
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