Death of a Salesman
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play by Arthur Miller and is considered a classic of American theater. Viewed by many as a caustic attack on the American Dream of achieving wealth and success without regard for principle, Death of a Salesman made both Arthur Miller and the character Willy Loman household names. The play raises a counterexample to Aristotle's characterization of tragedy as the downfall of a great man, whether through (depending on the translator) a character flaw or a mistake he has made.
The play centers on Willy Loman, a salesman, sixty-three years of age, who is beginning to lose his grip on reality. Willy places great emphasis on his supposed native charm and ability to make friends. According to him, he was once well known and liked throughout New England as a travelling salesman whose skills were unparalleled. His sons Biff and Happy (a nickname for Harold) were the pride and joy of the neighborhood, and his wife Linda was picturesque, smiling throughout the day. Unfortunately, time has passed, and now his life seems to be slipping out of control due to a mental breakdown.
Willy has worked hard his entire life and feels he should be retiring, living a life of luxury and closing deals with contractors on the phone. Instead, all of Willy's aspirations seem to have failed, none of Willy's old friends or previous customers remember him, and he remains useful to the company only as a traveling salesman. Increasing episodes of depersonalization and flashback are impairing his ability to drive, yet Willy is forced to endure the long trips in order to make ends meet. After a bout of anger before his boss, Howard Wagner, Willy is fired from his job. Howard is a much younger man whose father was in fact a friend of Willy - the elder Wagner had sought Willy's help in naming Howard. He further suffers the indignation of being pleading unsuccessfully for his hated job (which didn't pay enough anyway) but Howard (callously) reminds Willy that his sons are "well-liked" and should be successful so they can help him out.
Willy is now forced to rely on loans from his next-door-neighbor Charley to make ends meet. Charley is the closest thing Willy has to a friend, but Willy still harbors jealousy and contempt toward him for being more successful. Out of pity, Charley even offers the now-unemployed Willy a job, one that pays more and does not require him to travel, but Willy is too proud to take it (see below, as Willy is still believing the American Dream and accepting would destroy what he lived for). Biff, his 34-year-old son, has been unable to 'find himself' as a result of his inability to settle down (caused by Willy constantly insisting that he needed to 'make it big within two weeks'), and Happy, the younger son, lies shamelessly to make it seem as if he is the perfect Loman son. In contrast, Charley (who, Willy tells his boys conspiratorially, is not 'well-liked'), is now a successful businessman, and his son, Bernard, a formerly bespectacled bookworm and friend of Biff, is now a brilliant lawyer.
We are told how Willy had at least one affair while out on business trips, one that Biff walked in on and discovered. This terrible ordeal broke Biff's faith in his father and sent him on a downward spiral. As Willy had gave The Woman stockings, considered a luxury at the time, this explains why he is continually haunted when his wife Linda mends stockings that he urges her to discard.
Willy is also haunted by the memory of his dead brother Ben, who made a fortune in Africa in the gem trade. Ben then offered Willy a position overseeing some gold-rich land in Alaska, which Willy turned down (a choice he has regretted ever since). Ben has constantly overshadowed Willy, and he is in many ways the man that Willy wanted to be. Ben's approach is heralded by idyllic music, showing Willy's idolization of him, and in flashbacks we see Willy asking for Ben's advice on parenting.
The American Dream
The depths of the problem are gradually revealed. Willy's emphasis on being well-liked stems from a belief that it will bring him to perfect success—not a harmful dream in itself, except that he clings to this idea as if it is a life-preserver, refusing to give it up. In high school, his boys were not only well-liked but quite handsome, and as far as Willy is concerned, that's all anyone needs. He pitches this idea to his sons so effectively that they believe opportunity will fall into their laps. (In this way, Biff and Happy can be considered forerunners to the culture of entitlement.)
Of course, real life is not so generous, and neither are able to hold much in the way of respectable employment. Willy witnesses his and his sons' failures and clings ever more tightly to his master plan, now placing his hopes vicariously on them: he may not succeed, but they might. His tragic flaw is in failing to question whether the dream is valid. Happy never does either; he has embraced his father's attitude, and at the end of the first act, he convinces Biff to seek financial backing in a get-rich-quick scheme. But when Biff tries to do so, he realizes his father's mistakes, and finally decides not to let Willy fall prey to the unrealistic dream again.
Father and son confront each other at the play's climax; Biff confronting Willy's neurosis head-on, while Willy accuses Biff of throwing his life away simply to hurt Willy's feelings. Despite a raggedly emotional battle of words, neither is able to make much headway, but before Biff gives up, he breaks down in tears: "Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" Willy is touched that Biff still cares for him after all, but fails to understand the deeper meaning of his words, and resolves to do everything possible to leave him with the right opportunities to strike it rich.
As the rest of the family goes upstairs to bed, Ben reappears over Willy's shoulder. Willy proclaims that in taking his own life, the attendance at his funeral would make a show to his doubting son of how popular he was in life, and that, if handled to look accidental, the payout from his life insurance policy will allow Biff to start his own business. This final action can be viewed as his attempt to leave a tangible legacy for his family. Willy acknowledges that, "Nothing grows here anymore" and his vain attempts to plant seeds during the darkness express his desperate desire to leave something behind. The neighborhood is drawn out of bed by the roar and smash of Willy's car, despite Ben's warnings that the insurance policy won't be honored in the event of suicide. Thus Willy's grand gesture — and indeed his earlier assertion that one is often "worth more dead than alive" — leaves his family (and especially his wife, Linda) in even worse a position than before.
The end of the play is a Requiem. The Requiem takes place at Willy's funeral, which is only attended by Biff, Happy, Linda, Charley, and Bernard. Nobody else turns up and this shows the reader that regardless of how well liked Willy claimed he was to his children, today nobody liked or remembered him.
At the graveyard, Biff says, "He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong." Being unable to understand Biff's point of view, Happy insists that "Willy Loman did not die in vain" and vows that he will fight on for his father's goals. Biff realizes that reasoning with his brother is hopeless, as Happy is just a clone of Willy and will never realize that the dream is corrupted. Charley is the one who is perhaps best able to defend Willy's dream as Biff accuses Willy of not knowing what he really wanted in life. In a moving speech, Charley explains that, as a salesman, all Willy ever got by on were his dreams, and they cannot blame him for having them.
In the last lines of the play, Linda, unable to cry, gets on her knees for the undertaker, delivering a final brief monologue. Willy's dream of owning his own house is realized in the requiem but only after his death as Linda paid the last payment on the mortgage that morning. This adds irony to the play, and shows us that the American Dream, for many, was just out of reach; the wrong dream to aim at.
As a salesman, Loman produced nothing (unlike the 'masses' that only have their labor to offer), but the fruits of Willy Loman's labor - and that of every other American salesman - were hopes and dreams.