“A salesman is got to dream . . . . It comes with the territory.”
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was first produced in 1949 in New York. It was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Lee J. Cobb in an iconic performance as Willy Loman. The play is often cited as the tragedy of a ‘little’ man.
Overview of the Play in Context
Arthur Miller’s early childhood experience of having a father whose business failed seems like an obvious motivation for Death of a Salesman. Aside from growing up in a family with similarities to that of the Lomans Miller’s scathing social commentary is caused by the writer’s concerns for the society he found himself in as an adult. Death of a Salesman critiques the materialism of the post-war period in the US. In a time when every American was meant to be living a dream-life of consumerism and prosperity Miller clearly had concerns for pressures this place upon the human soul. Miller believed that the enforced positivity and competitiveness of modern life was corroding away at the individual’s sense of self. The original American Dream of working hard and being honest to make a life for yourself had been replaced by a false American Dream where success was only measured by how many possessions you had and the impression you made upon others. Miller’s characterisation of Willy Loman was been influenced by his own uncle who was a salesman possessed with the same aggressive competitiveness and who encouraged competition between Miller and his own son, possibly to the detriment of both boys.
When forced to face reality, Willy Loman knows that he has been an abysmal failure as both a salesman and a father, but he has created a facade based on lies about his past successes. The play finds its dramatic focus through an exploration of the attempt by Willy to reconcile the grandeur of his dreams for himself (and his family) with the drab reality of his life. Ironically, the one materially or financially successful action we witness him perform in the play is his death, which results in the redemption of his insurance policy for his wife and children. He believes that his death will represent a moment of triumph. However, this is hardly a moment of real triumph: no one attends his funeral and he has lost the adoration of his beloved son Biff.
Miller’s title itself seems aptly chosen for a twentieth-century drama. There is a certain pathos and irony in the blending of apparently opposite ideas. Salesmen are supposed to be bright, cheerful and optimistic; always ‘on the ball’ and ready to anticipate their clients’ wants and needs. If anything, they are supposed to manipulate others, not be manipulated by them. Image is everything for them.
We know from our reading of the play that Willy Loman does not live up to the image. He is not endowed with material success or personal charm. Neither does he have his wits about him with his partiality for private fantasies. In short, he does not exude the affable blend of self-confidence and aggressiveness that we associate with salesmen. He has little that would endear him to anyone outside his immediate family (he confesses at one point in the play that Charley is his only friend).
Moreover, and this is the crux of his dilemma, he is a victim of his own delusions. He does not ever take up challenges by the scruff of the neck and carve out his own destiny. He drifts. He is, in this regard, the very opposite of the American hero, who is supposed to pioneer his own way of life. This anti-hero status is revealed in his contentment with ambling along in his profession (which he considers to be his life). He makes whatever he can in the commissions that come his way, but he has not changed his job in thirtysix years. From such a crisis in an ordinary man’s life, Miller has wrenched a number of profound themes affecting us all, themes that may be seen as dualities.
Of course, Willy is never really interested in the whole truth. His life has been built on the shifting sands of lies and fabrication, even to the extent of borrowing money from Charley to cover the fact that he hasn’t been drawing a salary and can no longer earn commissions. What is thematically interesting for Miller is the exploration of the boundary between permissible dreams about the future and harmful illusions about the present and the past.
One cannot help noticing that, throughout the play, Willy is happiest talking about the future and the past, and is decidedly uncomfortable in addressing the present. His high points of life are always somewhere else. There is no catharsis for him, as there was for Lear, because he refuses to recognise that anything is other than he would like it to be.
Truth is also an issue in the context of Willy’s marriage: at one point it is revealed that he has deceived his wife, Linda. Willy lamely confesses, as an explanation and excuse for his faithlessness: ‘I was lonely, I was terribly lonely’ (p. 95). Willy’s infidelity causes Biff to relinquish his schooling. Willy has his pedestal well and truly pulverised, as his favourite son finds the words to call him what he is: ‘You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!’ (p. 95). In this case it is the son sacrificing the father for his infidelity (in the widest sense of that word).
By the conclusion of the play, Biff, the black sheep of the family, becomes a minor hero. This is due in the main to his developing a capacity for selfinsight. He acknowledges that his life has been one of petty thievery and lack of commitment, and presumably he will avert the sort of crisis that becomes the nemesis of his father’s life because of his self-knowledge. In addition, he has given himself a reprieve from a later bout of soul-searching angst by asserting that the truth is that he works as a farm hand because he actually enjoys that line of work. He cannot stand the thought of a mean little existence, suffering ‘... fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella’ (p. 16). The trigger for Biff’s admission is his theft of Oliver’s gold fountain pen – a symbol, if ever there was one, of success in business: ‘And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, maki ng a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!’ (p. 105) (author’s emphasis)
The most quintessential exchange of the whole play occurs after this, which makes us realise that Biff’s discovery about himself may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth.
BIFF: Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!
WILLY: [turning on him in an uncontrolled outburst] I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman! (p. 105)
Beneath the apparent ordinariness of these lines lurks a home truth for Willy as well. Individuality matters whether one has made a success of one’s life or not. It is our moments of crisis that bring this to the fore – that is the positive side of such times. Success is constantly defined by Willy in the way other people view him and his family, whereas the truth may be that it is just as much a question of how the individual views himself.
Willy never allows himself to be a complete success as either a salesman or a family man because, in the manner of Hamlet, he ‘thinks too precisely on th’ event’. He cannot end life as a failure, and that is why the beauty and simplicity of suiciding to redeem his insurance policy for his family’s benefit appeals to him. It is, in a perverse fashion, his one heroic moment, because he fervently believes that friends will come from far and wide to attend his funeral. They will, he believes, pronounce him to be a most misunderstood man: ‘But the funeral ... will be massive ... that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized – I am known!’ (p. 100). This is, as we quickly see, empty and sad posturing. Of course, no one comes to the funeral. He is, as he probably realised subconsciously, a nonentity, whose passing is not noticed by the world in general. The tone struck at the end is a pathetic one, but it lifts the play above the level of a domestic tragedy.
Many of the characters in the play believe Willy Loman is a good man struggling to succeed in an unkind system. Is this a fair reading of the play?
Biff, Happy and Willy all exhibit a suggestion of a true self that is more connected with nature. Consider the way the play contrasts city life as inauthentic compared with life in the country.
The myth that ruins the Lomans benefits Howard, the capitalist. What does the play say about the morality of the corporation as represented in the character of Howard?
There are many female characters in Death of a Salesman. Consider their reality, their dreams. Is there any suggestion that they can ever attain their true nature or that they yearn for authentic expression?
Is the ‘reality’ of the past idealised in the play?
To what extent has Miller shown us the potential destructiveness of dreams at the expense of reality?
Miller’s Death of a Salesman reveals that the ‘great American Dream’ is as real as Willy Loman’s grip on reality. Discuss
Discuss the types of realities as reflected in the imagery and symbols:
the wilderness; women’s stockings; the absent father; seeds; the flute; diamonds; Alaska; house; appliances; skyscraper; wire recorder; the chevvy; funerals; flowers.
Reality versus the American Dream
- Find out about the American Dream.
- Comment on Linda’s role in discouraging Willy from going to Alaska with Ben.
- Has America ever lived up to tis promise?
- How does the play discredit the American Dream
- How does the Loman family persistently lie to themselves and to each other? Why? Examine in character in detail.
- Are the surviving Lomans ever likely to be ‘free and clear’ (p.121)?
- Do all families create their own realities to some extent? Discuss
- Examine how all of the Lomans are trapped in the prison of their own subjectivity.
- How does Miller use setting to symbolise this entrapment?
- Willy says, ‘They don’t know me anymore’ (p.66). What does this tell us about Willy’s reality?
- How does Miller elicit sympathy for Willy despite his faults?
- Do you think that each of us has the capacity for self-deception? Can such a tendency ever serve a positive or hopeful purpose?
- How do each of the remaining Lomans view Willy’s suicide
Illusion, delusion and memory
- Biff angrily calls Willy’s behaviour, ‘spweing out that vomit from his mind (p.44). What does this comment reveal?
- Discuss the implications of Willy’s admission, ‘I still feel – kind of temporary about myself’ (p.40).
- What is the significance of Willy’s preoccupation with his garden?
- Is the temptation to take refuge in illusion when reality is too hard to bear always ultimately dangerous or destructive
Read through the section on pages 57 to 61, from ‘Wonderful coffee. Meal in itself’ to ‘Be careful!’
- What does this passage suggest about the Lomans’ capacity to deceive themselves?
- How much of a difference does it make to the persistence of an illusion if it shared with someone else?
- Comment on the use of imagery in this passage. In particular, what is suggested by Willy’s seeds and Linda’s silk stockings?
- What does being ‘in a race with the junkyard’ (p.59) tell us about post-war American society?
- How does Miller foreshadow the tragedy to come?
Focus on the text’s stylistic features
As well as drawing on ideas from Spies in your writing about Whose Reality? remember that the language and style of your writing may also be inspired by the structures and features of the text. For example, the following aspects of Death of a Salesman may influence how you choose to use language in the texts you create.
Non-naturalistic stage setting facilitates the imaginative blurring of time and space.
Non-liner structure emphasises the effects of the past on the present, as well as the way in which memories may become a refuge when present reality is unendurable.
Evocative use of lighting and music contributes to mood and signals transitions.
Detailed stage directions give further insight into the personalities, thoughts and emotions of the characters.
The use of imagery and symbolism – silk stockings, the flute, seeds, the Chevvy, funerals, flowers and appliances are some of the most significant – enriches our understanding of key themes of the play.
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