Friday, July 13, 2012

Death of a Salesman

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The purpose of this brief essay is to examine Arthur Millers play, Death of a Salesman, with respect to its reflection of the impact of American values and mores as to what constitutes success upon individual lives. George Perkins has stated that this play has been described as possibly the best play ever written by an American (Perkins, p. 710). The play marks a brilliant fusion of the ideas and problems central to Millers artistic and creative life; among those problems are the relationship of selfishness to altruism and the need to define an achievable code of morality for oneself (Perkins, p. 710).

Willy Loman, the dominant central character of the play, has defined morality in terms of his capacity to provide financially for his family. Frederick Karl (p. ) states that Willy Loman is an outgrowth of a Depression ambiance, which suggests that he defines success with respect to income, retaining a job, and fiscal security (all elements of mans work that literally disappeared overnight during the Great Depression). Loman is a commercial cowboy, whose travels are days and weeks spent out on the range in pursuit of one more big sale. Arthur Miller himself argued that Lomans situation - that of the formerly successful and now unemployed salesman unable to find a reason for continued life - was so general a quality of American life that he (Willy) was victimized by our being what we are (Karl, p. 0).

According to Perkins (p. 710), Willy Lomans fatal flaw has been variously interpreted as a pitiable blindness to the realities of the American Dream, as the unrealistic hope of a doting father for his sons advancement to levels he himself never achieve, and the bad luck of a salesman working a tough territory. Each interpretation has a certain degree of validity. Taken together, they reflect a critical perception of Willy Lomans life and concerns as typical of a society in which material success is valued over other types of success. Willy may be an exploited victim of an indifferent capitalist system (Perkins, p. 710), but he clearly values that very system and has bought in to its norms and mores. Thus, when he finds that the one thing which had defined him as a man, a husband, and a father has been taken away from him (e.g., his job), he regards himself as a failure.

When Willy Lomans act of sacrificial suicide is completed, it is Linda Loman who is left to cope with the supposed benefits of his act of love meant to redeem his house. The character of Linda Loman reflects Willys own perception of himself; she recognizes that her husband, Willy, is only a little boat looking for a harbor (Miller, p. 76). Her sons and her husband are unable to communicate openly; she serves as the conduit through which they express their emotions, worrying throughout the play about her husbands long slow decline into professional failure. It is her tragedy as well as his. The men with whom she lives (and whom she loves with a desperation that is in and of itself tragic in tone) are hateful to each other (Miller, p. 76), a condition that her best efforts and intentions cannot cure.


It is Willys tragedy that Linda responds to throughout the play. He is, she tells their son Biff, a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid (Miller, p. 56). Willy is, as Linda knows all too well, a small man who, upon losing his salary as a salesman, can no longer understand the terms of his life. Her tragedy (a consequence of his failure as a husband) is that in spite of his shortcomings, his failures, his bombosity, and his arrogance, she loves him and her world revolves around him. Lindas fear is that he will go through with a suicide to save their home; this is a legitimate fear, which is realized when Biff and Willy have their final confrontation and Willy is told, once and for all, that he and his son are nothing but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all of them (Miller, p. 1). This confrontation between father and son serves to convince Willy that he has failed as a father - failed to inspire his son to greatness or even ambition, and failed to provide for that son the model of a successful father.

Willy, says Linda, was so wonderful with his hands (Miller, p. 18). His death will, in her mind, become just another sales road trip. She will continue to expect him to return to the free and clear home that she will occupy alone, perpetually waiting for him. Lindas fate, which is to be a widow always listening for the sound of her traveling husbands voice as he return from another trip, is not of her making. It is solely the result of Willys inability to face a future devoid of the possibility of one more big sale, one more grand and successful score in the world of the traveling salesman. Because he cannot face his future (or the knowledge that his future was preordained by his life), Linda is left alone to endure her own. Thus, because Willy cannot confront his failure as a husband and provider, Linda Lomans life is irrevocably shattered.

Nevertheless, Miller allows Willy one triumph also in keeping with his staunch belief in the American - financial - dream. His suicide does provide economically for his wife by ensuring her a roof over hr head. Although Willys attempt to rescue Biff with his insurance money is generally regarded as an act of self-deception, Willy is not entirely deluded in his death (Perkins, p. 710). He has learned that Biff was aware of his marital infidelities on the road, and that despite this knowledge his son has not stopped loving him. This realization reflects Willys tentative grasp if a special reality - that his son has not judged him a failure because he never made that final big score and Biff had continued to love him regardless of his self-imposed sense of failure.

Willy Loman stands in, so to speak, for every American male who defined himself as a man, husband and father with respect to his success the workplace and his capacity for grabbing a share of the material American dream. Willy Loman is a man who has deluded himself and has judged himself more harshly than his wife or his son. His tragedy is that he comes to an understanding of this delusion too late to make any changes in his life. Whether or not we as readers or as members of the audience agree with his judgment is irrelevant. It is Willys own failure that is important in this play.

Works Cited

Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 140-180. New York

Harper Collins. 185.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. London Penguin, 18.

Perkins, George. Editor. Benets Readers Encyclopedia of

American Literature. New York Harper Collins. 11

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