Arthur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman”
Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” is recognized today as one of the most important dramas of our times and for our American culture. Every fiber of Willy Loman’s being deals with his work as a salesman and becoming successful. His dream of success clearly shapes the form and intensity of his family relationships. The success that Willy Loman dreams of is derived from the almost stereotypical American Dream of success. From the critical perspective, Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is a story and a tragedy of an average man, Willy Loman, pursuing his success in family and work, two fundamental parts of an elusive American Dream.
A lifetime spent dreaming of success makes Willy’s American dream the most important part of his life – over and above the needs and desires of his family. Over time Willy’s values have become diminished – his family factors into his life only when it can increase his or his sons’ chances for success. His emphasis on his dream of success causes conflict with his sons. His dependence upon a success-oriented life leaves him floundering when he begins to fail. Every element of Willy’s life is expressed and linked to another as Willy’s illusions and reality are presented together with each event in Willy’s life showing the correlation between work and family as the past and present become one in Willy’s mind. As each person and event is presented, the relationship between work and family in Willy’s life is made clearer. Willy’s existence has been circumscribed by his work and family relationships and his understanding and perception of his experiences.
Willy Loman’s understanding of his American dream is embedded into his perception of success, which constitutes being “well-liked” to Willy. To be “well-liked” means owning the key to success thereby circumventing all problems in life. Willy tells his sons that he will be “Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not – liked. He’s liked, but he’s not – well liked” (30; act 1). He also imparts his ideology of the necessity of being “well-liked” in his conversations with Ben and Charley (49; act one; 97; act 2). Willy’s pursuit of success and his feelings about work have a religious quality to them as he is devoted to his ideal and will not change.
Pursuing American dream, Willy Loman sacrifices his family life and abandons it entirely revolving around work, success and achievement. Family relationships are secondary and have significance only in relation to work; every scene conveys this message. Miller uses symbolism to further his ethos of work and family, starting his play with the suitcases that Willy Loman carries which represent the heavy burden of his life. The road that his car will not stay on as he travels in Yonkers represents his life journey that will not remain on course. He does not finish his journey by car just as his life journey and goals cannot be completed. The car becomes a focal point and a significant symbol in the play to illustrate extreme contrasts in the Loman family’s life. The car that Willy drives symbolizes success and freedom in America and the American Dream. However, Willy can no longer handle or control the car and keep it on the road just as he can no longer take control of his own life.
American dream for Willy Loman is an ultimate lifetime achievement, and this message he tried to convey to his sons. He stressed popularity, physical attractiveness, and personality. Miller uses past events which demonstrate Willy’s emphasis on popularity and personality. Lighting changes help to establish the mood and emphasize the changes taking place within the family. Biff is seen in “a golden pool of light” (68; act 1), as Willy recollects Biff’s baseball championship when Willy refers to him as “…a young God. Hercules—something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him” (68; act 1). For life to be valued, there must be an outcome that can be measured in wealth—dollars and cents, diamonds, or gold. Family scenes that are not directly or indirectly related to these aspects of work and achievement are nonexistent in “Death of a Salesman.” All goals and dreams have significance only if related to success in work until brought to finality with Willy’s death which has relevance by accomplishing what he could not during his lifetime. The exaggerations and lies of a salesman that have taken over Willy’s life also impact his family life. His exhortations to his sons sound like the remarks of a motivational speaker at a sales meeting: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – because personality always wins the day (65; act 1). Willy uses salesmanship even in his relationship with Linda, impressing her with his talk, exaggerating his commissions, and lacking honesty even with Linda. On can conclude that his need to feel good enough is what leads to his affair as he could boast to other woman “without having his bluff called” (51; act 1).
Willy Loman obsession with his American dream is reflected in language Miller utilizes throughout “Death of a Salesman.” Miller uses an appropriately informal syntax and many casual repetitions such as “I can’t stop myself. I talk too much” (30; act 1). The grammar is informal, and Willy expresses himself through repetition and clichés such as “man,” “boy,” and “kid.” Willy’s childish attitude is reflected in his language and use of words like “gee.” Willy’s speech is very familiar and with a limited vocabulary. Others respond to his immaturity and refer to him as “kid” (84, 93; act 2) and question when he is going to “grow up” (89, 97; act 2). Repetition of words and phrases convey a sense of uneasiness or emptiness in Willy Loman’s life as he brings his problems at work into his family relationships. This is evident in the first dialogue between Willy and Linda:
WILLY. It’s all right, I came back.
LINDA. Why? What happened? Did something happen, Willy?
WILLY. No, nothing happened.
LINDA. You didn’t smash the car, did you?
WILLY. I said nothing happened. Didn’t you hear me? (12-13; act 1)
Willy’s sense of confusion is conveyed by contradictory statements. He reverses himself on his attitude about Biff’s life and Charley’s attempts to help him. Willy does not want to admit defeat for himself or for his children. These contradictory statements are also used by Miller to add to the pathos of his character. Miller’s characters use metaphors to underscore the significance of the statements they are making. The metaphors are used for the most painful lines. Miller employs metaphor when Willy tells Howard, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit” (82; act 2). Linda describes Willy as “only a little boat looking for a harbor” (76; act 2). Miller saturates the play with words that emphasize Willy’s concentration on work, the business world, success, and family support: work, accomplish, make, sell, worker, job, competition, money, succeed, future, initiative, business, commission, do, salesman, rich, tools, opportunity, start, enterprises, contacts, stock exchange, earned, dollar, cent, penny, pay check, salary, bucks, build, accomplishment, proposition, deal, dream, office, buyer, paid.
Willy’s at the end that his life discovers that he had wasted his time and energy on the wrong dream that meant nothing. He reasons that he is only worth the value of his insurance policy. In his pursuit of success at work, there was nothing left of his inner self. The suicide he had long been contemplating appeared the only redemption. When Willy Loman realizes the dream is over, he faces the realities of the economic system – he sells the only commodity he has left, his life. In the Requiem Scene Charley supports Willy’s right to dream, “Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory (138). Biff, on the other hand, blames Willy for dreaming the wrong dreams, “Charley, the man didn’t know who he was” (138). Charley’s and Happy’s final words are of Willy as a salesman; Biff now sees Willy as a broken man. Linda speaks of Willy in relation to being free from payments. But no one speaks of Willy as a husband and father – as part of a family. Thus, Miller reveals a tragedy of a man who in his quest and longing for an elusive American Dream looses everything and dies a man who “didn’t know who he was.”
Miller, Arthur. (1977). Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. 1949. Ed. Gerald Weales. New York: Viking.
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