Incident at Vichy | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Incident at Vichy | Themes

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Incident at Vichy is a drama of relentless, highly charged emotions in which the themes are the opposing emotions of fear and hope, guilt and responsibility. Racism is a dominant theme that inspires these opposing emotions, and the play offers little resolution between the opposites until the end. The characters wrestle with the reasons for the racism and the crimes committed against millions of people.

Fear and Hope

The play opens in an atmosphere of high anxiety among six men and one boy sitting on a long bench. Lebeau is one of these men. He is an ambitious painter who wants to be a great artist. He is overwrought with dread and "charged with the energy of fear ... it makes him seem aggressive." This is an insightful observation about what the emotion of fear can generate in a person. When the authorities take Lebeau off the street they measure his nose, his mouth, and his eyes. He is a Jew. He is sure this is why they have taken these measurements. He badgers the electrician Bayard who sits next to him. Bayard is not able to calm Lebeau or offer him any hope. The officers in charge deceptively assure the men that they have been brought in to confirm that their documents are legitimate. The men keep looking at their papers and holding them up to the light. They show them to one another for assurance. They want to feel hope even though they fear the worst. The businessman Marchand says, "I don't see anything to fear if your papers are all right." The men try to hold onto the hope that if their papers are good they will be released. Their underlying belief is that they are there because they are Jews. Their fear obliterates their hope which is a phenomenon that invites the audience's empathy.

Guilt and Responsibility

Major experiences guilt about his role at the place of detention. He responds to this feeling with arrogance and anger. These are opposing emotions to which people can potentially relate. He does not like the professor who claims to have a degree in racial anthropology. The professor is tasked with the job of routing out the Jews in Vichy France. Major does not condone rounding up men off the streets and measuring their facial features. At one point he asks the professor, "Wouldn't it be much simpler if they were just asked whether they ..." Major does not complete the sentence. He is used to the black-and-white nature of a battlefield where the enemy is clearly defined for him. He does not condone murdering innocent people based on their so-called race, but he will not resolve his guilt. He must do his duty or he will face punishment from his superiors. He will not sacrifice his own life for the detainees. Major must choose who he will be responsible to. He is a military man and cannot escape his training and experience. He chooses to be responsible to the regime.

Von Berg responds differently to the guilt he suffers. He began to experience guilt in Austria when he watched indifferent Austrians participate in the Jewish persecution. Von Berg loves music, and in his home he witnessed the Nazis arrest a brilliant musician. Von Berg wrestles with the contradiction of people appreciating the arts at the same time that they kill innocent people. He debates with Leduc when the two of them are the only ones left in the detention center. The others have gone into the office and not come out. Von Berg feels guilt because he knows that he will survive and Leduc will not. He keeps offering shreds of hope to Leduc, but this approach only makes Leduc angry. Von Berg tells Leduc that he was close to suicide in Austria which makes Leduc even angrier. Von Berg tells Leduc that there are people who would rather die "than stain one finger with this murder. They exist. I swear it." It gradually dawns on Von Berg that standing by and watching these crimes makes him complicit. He understands when Leduc tells him, "It's not your guilt I want, it's your responsibility." Von Berg takes this to heart. When he leaves the Major's office with a white pass that releases him, he gives the pass to Leduc. He thereby transforms his guilt into responsibility. In an instance of situational irony, Leduc is now the one who bears the guilt. His recognition of this switch is shown when he "backs away, his hands springing to cover his eyes in the awareness of his own guilt."

Racism

Racism is a dominant theme in Incident at Vichy. It is the reason the men have been brought to the detention center. The characters have intense discussions and debates about race. Lebeau brings the subject up when he says to the group of detainees, "You don't get any ... special flavor, huh?" He is more explicit with his next remark, "Well like ... some racial ... implication?" Some of the detainees want to believe that if their papers are in order they will be released. They want to believe they are not there because they are Jews. Lebeau cannot contain his anxiety and tells the rest of the men, "I'm walking down the street before, a car pulls up beside me, a man gets out and measures my nose, my ears, my mouth, the next thing I'm sitting in a police station—or whatever the hell this is here." Lebeau is not only terrified but humiliated.

Leduc continues the discussion about race by telling the men, "Jews are not a race, you know. They can look like anybody." The detainees pay no attention to the doctor because his statement is meaningless to them. They are all sitting there because they are the victims of racism. It does not matter to them whether race is a biological fact distinguishing one human from another or a political construct invented by a government to subjugate a group of people. The detainees are victims of racism no matter how it is defined.

Leduc argues that not all governments have racial laws that condemn a certain group. Monceau counters this argument by citing nation after nation that condemn groups of people based on their differences. The tension builds until Leduc finally accepts what he has not wanted to believe. He says, "Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction. Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews." Leduc almost absolves individual racists by concluding that all humans are racist. He claims this is because all humans recognize their differences from others more than they recognize their similarities.

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