Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a predicament about the disparity between the dreams of the Loman family and the reality of their lives. Miller used the play to criticize the American Dream and the competitive yet materialistic American Society of the 1940s. The play is widely considered as one of the greatest to be ever written by an American playwright and is often ranked high with other legendary classics. Just like these classics, the major themes in Death of a salesman can still be applied in modern-day America. The harsh criticism of American capitalism could still be useful in a similar manner it was used when the play first premiered. The play is a sequence of dreams, arguments, memories, and confrontations that comprise of the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life. The plot features Willy as an average fellow who attempts to conceal his failures and averageness behind delusional hallucinations as he struggles to become a “success.” Willy is trying to chase an American Dream, which is not his dream. This paper takes a deeper look into Willy Loman, the main character in the play, his motivations and the conflicts that come his way. Miller uses Willy and his traits to pass a clear message to the American audience. We’ll be able to get deeper insights of the play’s significance in the society by understanding Willy and what he goes through.
Willy Loman is a sixty-year-old salesman that lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is depicted as a mercurial and gregarious man with a great desire to succeed. However, he feels defeated by his difficult family life and lack of success after thirty-five years as a traveling salesman in New England. He has an admirable wife, but his relationship with Biff, his eldest son, is tainted by his unending failures. His dematerializing career, guilt over cheating on his spouse, and estranged relationship with Biff cause him to have anxiety and depression. Nonetheless, Willy concentrates on personal details rather than actual measures of success and believes that it is personality and not high returns that define success in the business world. As a salesman, he’s subject to the impulses of the marketplace and can only perform in the world of business. On several occasions, Willy loses the ability to differentiate between his (past) memories and the present. Willy can’t even afford to secure a loan for his son Biff, and that makes him desperate. He ponders about the love his kids have for him and the insurance money Biff would get if he were to die. He then decides to take his life, having realized how little he had accomplished in life (Zheng).
Miller uses Willy’s character in the Death of a salesman to address the loss of people’s identity and their inability to accept change within themselves and the society. He does this by mainly using the theme of the American Dream. In the play, nothing supersedes Willy’s quest for the American Dream. He firmly believes in the idea that people who work hardest get rewarded hardest. He tells Linda (his wife) in act I that “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff— he’s not lazy…… I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time.” (Miller, p. 8). He also lives in the fantasy of having an all American “perfect” life as a businessman with a son in a football team, and a wife as well as a mistress. Willy admires the wealth of his brother and strives to have a perfect life, but he continuously fails to achieve his dreams despite his great potential. Willy has been used as a significant case of self-deception conjoined with misguided life goals (Tracy& Robins, p. 57). As a salesman his whole career, he considers the goal of life as gaining material success and being well liked. Despite his failure to achieve his poorly chosen life goals, he holds on tight to the American Dream and the belief that anyone charismatic can make it big. Willy is an insecure person who tries to make himself feel better by lying to himself and his family. He has lied to himself his whole life yet tries to live vicariously through his unwilling son, Biff. However, Biff exposes his dad’s lies when he discovers he had an extramarital affair. Willy, tormented by his failures avoids facing reality and opts to alienate his son. He spirals downward in the worst way possible.
The author also uses Willy to criticize individuals in the society who live a fictitious life. Willy’s own make-belief notion of magnificence was actually his real. He lived a lie. During his time, a salesman was one of the least educated members of the society. Despite this fact, Willy perceived himself as a big businessman, in a similar fashion as the self-made millionaires of today see themselves. The reality of Willy’s life was a torn marriage, dysfunctional family, poor parenting skills, and an unprosperous career.
Miller also indicates how Willy deals with his predicament in the wrong way. Willy, whether willingly or not fights against himself and even the society. He fights against the society even though a typical salesman has no other way than to depend on circumstances including the market, the trend, the business, and the clients. Willy spends his entire life and career to build support he could rely on to no success. He could not be able to rectify the past, better the present or build the future. Regarding fighting oneself, Willy denies his talents and freezes his own son’s talent despite Biff proving to be no better than his father. He did all this because he wanted to portray an image that was not up to his standards. At the end of it all, Willy commits suicide in what Miller wants the audience to believe that he had finally accepted that he had accomplished so little in comparison to his big dreams.
Miller, Arthur. Death of A Salesman. 1st ed. New York: Viking Press, 1949. Print.
Tracy, J., & Robins, R. (2003). "Death of a (Narcissistic) Salesman:" An Integrative Model of Fragile Self-Esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 57-62. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1449043
Zheng, Dan-qing. "Who is to Blame for Willy Loman’s Death? — On Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman." Dx.doi.org. N.p., 2007. Web. 16 Apr. 2018.
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