Miller’s Death of a Salesman is iconic and representative since it takes place during a time of national catastrophe, the Great Depression. The author’s imagination was drawn to the seemingly insignificant lives exemplifying central themes, such as family relationships, financial wellbeing, and the shortcomings of the American dream (Churchwell 48). Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s most renowned salesperson in American theatrical history, gets fired from his career of over thirty-five years and abandoned by his two sons in a restaurant restroom (Bishop 402). Willy’s terrible death, suicide, resulted from the failure to attain his goals. To comprehend the complex characters in this poem, one needs to go further into external influences from the time depicted, such as the perception of the American Dream in the 1950s, consumerism culture, and the impact of progress on people’s lives.
The narrative’s reliability should be questioned because the characters cannot be trusted. For most of their adult lives, all three Loman males have told lies, large and little, whenever the situation called for it (Thompson 339). Biff confesses at one point, “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house” (Miller 138). For instance, Willy Loman does not tolerate reality, and because he is unable to do anything to change it, he continually shifts his thoughts about it (Miller 18). Some of his statements’ cadences are created by reality as if Willy were having an internal discussion about society’s nature. For an illustration, Biff is a lazy bum at one point, but at the next, he is never lazy, and an automobile and a refrigerator are both reliable and problematic (Miller 18). In his perspective, Willy is both a successful salesperson and a failure. It all relies on what story he’s presenting himself at the time and what mental need such words are meant to fill.
Aspiration and disillusionment cohabit, and the erratic fluctuation between the two drives Willy insane, demonstrating that he is suffering from a psychological breakdown; he modifies his memories to meet current demands; thus, the rotation of time negatively affects reliability. Willy wants to succeed without compromising the health advantages he connects with an Edenic nature away from the world of wealth (Bishop 407). Nonetheless, Willy is mentally unwell after all the years in the industry. Two psychiatrists studied the script for the play’s 1999 staging and decided that Willy is a manic depressive with hallucinating tendencies (Bishop 407). His recollections are neither flashbacks nor genuine recounts of the past but rather constructions (Miller 18). As a result, when he recalls his boys’ school days, he does so to emphasize his and their accomplishments.
Similarly, his brother, Ben, is less a reality than a symbol of the ruthless ambition and success he lacks in his life and partly feels he should want. In some ways, the stress Willy is experiencing corrodes the line between the actual and the imaginary (Miller 19). Furthermore, his ideas are as much current reality as the individuals he meets but whose lives he does not know. Stubbornly refusing to accept the loss of his expectations or embrace responsibility for mistakes, Willy nurtures illusions and devises tactics to alleviate his disappointment.
The American Dream
Death of a Salesman is commonly read as a broadside against the American dream. Nonetheless, it is realistic because it attacks the dream’s devalued version, one that postwar America was responsible for selling itself (Churchwell 49). Miller illustrates condemnation of a societal structure that allowed its ambitious political beliefs to devolve into rationales for egocentric materialism (Churchwell 50). The author explored how the American Dream impacted one’s expectations and viewed the Great Depression and the years that followed as a moral disaster.
Loman’s neighbors, Charley and his son Bernard embody the American dream in the play; their affluence and stability contrast with Willy Loman’s financial and psychological deprivation. Willy is jealous of Charley’s prosperity and says, “Someday, I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home anymore,” to which Happy responds, “Like Uncle Charley, heh?” (Miller 46). Charley and Bernard exemplify American meritocracy because they are truthful, diligent, and kind. Bernard’s legal profession embodies their sense of civic duty, representing the democratic principle of justice and equality of opportunity.
Willy’s sadness is that he has worked extremely hard and cannot comprehend why he has not received any benefits; instead, he has only failed. His occupation as a salesperson is symptomatic of the debased goal this older man pursues: the hollow aspirations of riches and prestige that engrossed mid-century America in every way, transforming it into a country of salespeople promoting tendentious kitsch (Churchwell 50). The play’s subject and tone are still relevant because Willy, like so many Americans nowadays who feel ‘left behind,’ is the archetypal American who cannot quite grasp why the dream has avoided him.
Diamonds as a Motif in the Play
Diamonds, according to Willy, symbolize wealth, the American Dream achievement, and validation of one’s existence. Willy Loman describes Ben, his older brother when talking to Happy. Although Ben is a fabrication of Willy’s recollections and dreams, his image is a motivation to succeed. This man is Willy’s idol, who realized the American Dream by traveling to Africa and finding it rich in diamonds. Willy characterizes Ben as a brilliant individual who is willing to take chances and work hard towards achieving goals, making him an excellent role model for Willy’s boys. For instance, Ben says, “One must go in to fetch a diamond out” (Miller 141). Hence, Willy exhibits cheerful optimism in opportunity, hard effort, and achievement despite his failure because of Ben’s accomplishment: “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds” (Miller 141). Significantly, achieving dreams is not easy because “a diamond is rough and hard to the touch” (Miller 141). Diamonds can be perceived as the American Dream, the story’s overall meaning; nonetheless, Willy fails to achieve his goals.
Modernity and Progress
Modernity sets the sad events that would transpire in Loman’s life. Progress was a significant factor in exerting pressure on Willy Loman, causing him to commit suicide at the end of the play. The author’s purpose in including the tape recorder and the new car is to demonstrate that modern conveniences are central to Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream, yet they eventually contribute to his demise. Willy is undoubtedly not a casual consumer, with his washing machine, automobile, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, and home all purchased on credit (Bishop 405). He wishes he could afford the wire recorder because his boss Howard says that “this is the most fascinating relaxation” (Miller, 89). Consumption has become a lifestyle choice for Willy, as it has for many twentieth-century Americans.
Significant postwar improvements in personal and social income, combined with a vast and sparsely inhabited continent, enabled many Americans to get the most recent consumer items. Between 1935 and 1975, over four million farms were abandoned due to increased automation and the centralization of agriculture (Bishop 404). These developments in food production, of course, resulted in an increasing number of Americans, like Willy, living in or near congested cities, far from the industrial farms where their reasonably priced food was produced (Bishop 404). As the tragic situation of Willy demonstrates, the desire for health and wealth likely motivated many middle-class Americans to work harder within a consumer society (Bishop 417). Thus, they could have the fancy new washing machines and refrigerators, vacuums and cars, and the rehabilitative joys of a tightly defined existence. Willy discusses going broke and being unable to afford new goods throughout the play: he tells Linda, “that goddam Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car” (Miller 51). He is left behind and cannot survive with the advent of progress and sophistication without money.
Internal and External Conflicts: Willy and Biff
Willy’s oldest son, Biff, is determined to follow the siren’s song of the American West, a fascinating area that has become a poetic, pure, and uncomplicated way of life for him (Thompson 335). In essence, he aspires to be a man like his Uncle Ben. The internal conflict is that the lingering guilt he experiences from his father’s demand for corporate fame and metropolitan money continually draws Biff back to New York City, a place he despises and avoids (Thomson 336). Biff is cheerful for a while out in the West, but suddenly the guilt emerges. Willy, on the other side, promises Linda: “I’ll get him a job selling,” and yet, immersed in corporate glory fantasies for his first-born son, he never bothers to ask Biff what he hopes to accomplish, what brings him happiness, contentment, and peacefulness (Miller 34). Nonetheless, it is always about Willy’s desires for Biff because he does not care about Biff’s actual goals.
The external conflict and the play’s climax occur when Biff speaks truthfully and ruins Willy’s fantasy. The last encounter at the family home, directly after the ill-fated restaurant supper, serves as the climax of this dispute. Happy takes flowers to his mother, which does not get the anticipated emotion. When Willy arrives, all of the disagreements that have plagued this family explodes into an open battle. Biff emphasizes to Willy: “Dad, you’re never going to see what I am, so what’s the use of arguing?” (Miller 136). Afterward, he decides to leave the house for good and forge his path in life.
Notably, I was astonished by the realism that permeates the play. As evidenced by Willy and Biff, the characters face real-world issues such as a lack of money and family disputes relating to each protagonist’s interpretation of success or the American Dream. The plot revolves around an unpredictable and psychologically unstable salesperson who strives to embrace change in himself and society. The author tackles the human condition in the play by portraying his lead character Willy as a man whose dissatisfaction with his existence leads to his disappointing end, namely suicide. Consequently, Death of a Salesman is a social tragedy that illustrates a critique of consumerist culture.
Bishop, Andrew. “Health or Wealth? Environmentalism and Consumerism in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Midwest Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, 2019, pp. 402-418. EBSCOhost. Web.
Churchwell, Sarah. “Requiem for an American Dream.” New Statesman, vol. 148, no. 5460, 2019, pp. 46-50. EBSCOhost. Web.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin, 1998.
Thompson, Terry W. “‘All I Want Is Out There’: The Wild West Subtext in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Midwest Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 3, 2018, pp. 331-342. EBSCOhost. Web.