The Role of Irony in the Relationship Between Philip and Sylvia in the Play Broken Glass by Arthur Miller



World War II presented an unforeseen experience for Jews everywhere, with the persecution and murder of many Jews in Germany. Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass is based on the period around the war, with the main protagonists being Jews living in America. Phillip Gellburg and his wife Sylvia are the basis of the book, including how their lives are full of ironic situations, with the two on opposite sides of their belief about Jews. Phillip does not accept his Jewish identity, while his wife is sympathetic of what the Jews in Germany are going through during the war in Germany. The play also highlights the marriage between the two and their challenges, including a lack of physical relationship, Sylvia’s disability, and Sylvia’s extra-marital affair with the doctor entrusted her care to, Dr. Harry Hyman. It is essential to understand the relationship between the couple and their feelings about their identities to understand the situational irony they portrayed.

Gellburg’s marriage is full of situational irony through energies and traits. Phillip goes to Dr. Harry Hyman for help to find his wife’s treatment even though he was the reason that she is paralyzed in the first place.

HYMAN: I would like you to give her a lot of love. Fixing Gellburg in his daze. Can you? It’s important now. (Miller 30).

Hyman suggests that Phillip could cause Sylvia’s paralysis, and he should give her to cure her paralysis. Sylvia apologizes to Phillip for her paralysis and not helping out, but it should be him apologizing to her for putting her in that situation.

SYLVIA: I am so sorry about this. (Miller, 37).

Sylvia is apologetic to Phillip for making him work extra and take care of her, but she is in a bad physical condition and needs the help of her husband in every aspect. Phillip is the one responsible, making the apology even more ironic. Phillip entrusts his wife’s care to Dr. Hyman, who begins a relationship with her.

HYMAN: I want you to imagine that we have made love. I’ve made love to you, and now it’s over, and we’re lying together. And you begin to tell me some secret things. Things that are way deep down in your heart.  (Miller 67).

Phillip’s lack of love and affection causes his wife to be paralyzed and begin an affair with the doctor Phillip eventually hires to take care of her.


The couple has differing views on the Jews’ situation in Germany and their identities as Jews. Phillip has very strong opinions about Jews, who do not believe they are good enough.

GELLBURG: these German Jews won’t take an ordinary job, you know, it’s got to be pretty high up, or they’re insulted. And they can’t even speak English. (Miller, 18).

Phillip shows disgust for Jewish people, especially German Jews, calling them lazy, yet he is Jewish. Sylvia is worried to death about the Jews when she looks at the photos on Nazism in the paper, which is ironic since she is the one who is paralyzed.

GELLBURG: About these Nazi-carryings on. I noticed she started looking at them in a very peculiar way… and, I don’t know. I think it made her angry or something. (Miller, 24)

Gellburg’s quote shows that Sylvia considers the war very repulsive, especially what is happening to her fellow Jews. She gets angry to the point Gellburg believes that is when she begins to get sick. Gellburg finally begins to accept himself when he tells Sylvia how he has truly felt.

GELLBURG: I’ve always been more afraid than I look. (Miller, 122).

The confession presents situational irony because Gellburg accepts his identity just as he is about to pass away. The couple has differing views on how Jews are treated and has accepted their identity in different ways. Therefore, there is the irony that Sylvia is there when Phillip accepts. He has been hiding how he feels about the situation in the world.


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Phillip and Sylvia attempt to mend their relationship during Phillip’s last moments on earth. Philip tells Hyman that he wants his wife back when he knows he is very sick, showing the irony of the situation.

GELLBURG: I want my wife back. I want her back before something happens. I feel like there’s nothing inside me. I feel empty. I want her back. (Miller, 117).

Phillip attempts to get his wife back before his health deteriorates. The irony is that it is already late, and he could have told Sylvia about the issue before he fell sick. The irony of the couple finally talking about the issues they have had to keep inside is that they would not be together after this conversation.

Gellburg’s breathing begins to labor.

Sylvia: alarmed. Phillip.

GELLBURG: God Almighty. Sylvia. Forgive Me. (Miller, 123).

Phillip’s last words on earth apologize to his wife when he takes his last breath. Ironically, that is when he attempts to hash out the issue. The conversation between Hyman and Gellburg sees Hyman indicates to Phillip what he believes was his issue, such as his lack of awareness about his Jewish heritage.

GELLBURG: So, what’s the solution?

HYMAN: Nothing. I guess the mirror. But nobody is going to look at themselves and ask what am I doing. (Miller, 120)

Hyman tells Phillip that to truly understand aspects of himself and let go of the issues burning inside, he needs to look at himself first, which is the hard part, understand what he could have done better, and forgive himself.


           Arthur Miller’s play highlights various concepts of human beings’ growth in society, with the most important being the need to understand yourself. Phillip’s journey from the start of the play to the end is intriguing as he moves from being the selfish husband to finally realizing his mistakes and owning up to them including his views on his Jewish identity and how he treats his wife. Sylvia begins the play without much love, leading to her paralysis but the change in how Philip treats her makes her start walking. The situational irony in the play highlights important concepts of identity and love.