Death Of Salesman
Arthur Miller is one of the most renowned and important American playwrights to
ever live. His works include, among others, The Crucible and A View from the
Bridge. The plays he has written have been criticized for many things, but have
been praised for much more, including his magical development of the characters
and how his plays provide good theater. In his plays, Miller rarely says
anything about his home life, but there are at least some autobiographical
hints in his plays. Arthur Miller is most noted for his continuing efforts
to devise suitable new ways to express new and different themes. His play Death
of a Salesman, a modern tragedy, follows along these lines. The themes in this
play are described and unfurled mostly through Willy Lomans, the main
character in the play, thoughts and experiences.
The story takes place mainly in
Brooklyn, New York, and it also has some flashback scenes occurring in a
hotel room in Boston. Willy lives with his wife Linda and their two sons, Biff
and Happy in a small house, crowded and boxed in by large apartment buildings.
The three most important parts of Death of a Salesman are the characters and how
they develop throughout the play; the conflicts, with the most important ones
revolving around Willy; and the masterful use of symbolism and other literary
techniques which lead into the themes that Miller is trying to reveal. Arthur
Miller was born in Manhattan on October 17, 1915 to Isidore and Augusta Barnett
Miller. His father was a ladies coat manufacturer.
Arthur Miller went to grammar
school in Harlem but then moved to Brooklyn because of his fathers losses in
the depression. In Brooklyn he went to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln High
Schools and was an average student there, but did not get accepted to college.
After high school, he worked for 2 years at an auto supply warehouse where he
saved $13 of his $15 a week paycheck. He began to read such classics as
Dostoevski and his growing knowledge led him to the University of Michigan.
While at the University of Michigan, Miller worked many jobs such as a mouse
tender at the University laboratory and as a night editor at the newspaper
Michigan Daily. He began to write plays at college and won 2 of the $500 Hopwood
Playwriting Awards. One of the two awarded plays No Villain (1936) won the
Theaters Guild Award for 1938 and the prize of $1250 encouraged him to become
engaged with Mary Grace Slattery, whom he married in 1940.
Miller briefly worked
with the Federal Theater Project and in 1944 he traveled to Army Camps across
Europe to gather material for a play he was doing. His first Broadway play, The
Man Who Had All the Luck, opened in 1944. Since then he has written 13 award
winning plays and more than 23 different noted books. He had two children with
Mary Grace Slattery, Jane and Robert, but divorced her and in 1956 married
Marilyn Monroe. He then divorced her later that decade, and, in 1962, married
Ingeborg Morath and had one child with her, named Rebecca. He now lives on 400
acres of land in Connecticut and spends his time gardening, mowing, planting
evergreens, and working as a carpenter. He still writes each day for four to six
hours. His father always told him to read.
He once said, Until the age of
seventeen, I can safely say that I never read a book weightier than Tom Swift
and the Rover Boys, but my father brought me into literature with
Dickens(Nelson, Pg. 59). His fathers good-natured joking was used to
invent the character of Joe Kellers genial side. After the Fall (1947) is a
play written by Miller where he sneaks in some small autobiographical notes. The
character traits exhibited by the main woman in the play indicate his mothers
early encouragement to his literary promise. The Depression still troubles him
today, especially for the hard times that he went through as a child. In an
interview, he once said, It seems easy to tell how it was to live in those
years, but I have made several attempts to tell it and when I do try I know I
cannot quite touch that mysterious underwater, vile thing. (Welland, Pg. 38) His
parents could not afford college for him, so the Depression affected his life in
Miller hated the McCarthy Witch-hunt trials of the early 1950s,
and once was called before that tribunal but was acquitted of all charges. His
play, The Crucible, is a very powerful allegory to the McCarthy trials. He has
used the American industry many times in his works and criticizes such social
aspects of American society as its bad moral values and people who put too
much importance on material wealth. Miller especially admired Henrik Ibsen, the
great Norwegian master of the well-made, or tightly constructed, ordered
play. Miller was familiar with the works of Eugene ONeill, Clifford Odets,
and Thornton Wilder as well as that of such European Experimentalists as
All My Sons, Millers first drama to receive critical
acclaim seemed to largely follow Ibsens style and form, the theme and even
plot are based on some of Ibsens greatest works. Millers plays received a
broad audience and made the dialogue as plain as possible for the common
man to understand. One critic, Euphemia Wyatt, once said, I think the
closest parallel to Death of a Salesman is Ibsens The Wild Duck, where every
action in the present works toward revelation of the past (Welland, Pg. 38).
Miller believed that an ordinary person is able to serve well as a tragic hero
if he gives up everything in the pursuit of something he wants intensely.
Millers tragic heroes are usually confused.
For example, Willy is confused
about success and happiness. His solution to these problems of committing
suicide is a highly questionable one, at the least. But, Willy is planning on
committing suicide for the betterment of his family, which is an admirable
objective. He is willing to sacrifice everything he has, specifically his life,
for his convictions, which makes him, with using Millers definition, the
epitome of a perfect tragic hero. Miller used very creative and original formats
in almost all of his works.
For example, he has Willy holding two conversations
at the same time, which shows the problems going on inside of his head. When
Willy is reminded of the Boston hotel room incident, he relives the event and
feels all the pain like it had just happened. His language is sometimes
considered banal and lacking emotional power (Moss, 125). Some critics
believe that Miller has been too negative towards American society by showing
mostly only the worst of what people can do. Also, he has been criticized by
saying that he only shows the inhumane, mechanical workings of a business, never
the loyalty that a company shows to its hardest workers.
Some critics say his
common man heroes are little and in the worst case, just common
people. It has also been said that his heroes are not genuinely human enough to
qualify as tragic figures at all. He has also been criticized for using
untraditional techniques like the Act One Overture in The Crucible and the
Requiem in Death of a Salesman. Miller always tries to find new forms of
style to explore new and different themes. Among these themes Miller takes into
effect the vital contemporary issues of his time. Even those who disagree with
his literary, political, or social views say that he does care about society and
tries to tie in morals with his works.
Many also say his plays provide good
theater, that his stories effect them emotionally, as well as mentally, and
that they stir the heart. A critic who, while working for The New York
Times, once called Death of a Salesman one of the finest dramas in the whole
range of the American theater (Corrigan, Pg. 94) and John Gassner saw it as
one of the triumphs of American stage (MacNicholas, Pg. 106). So, it can
be stated that Millers works command attention. Death of a Salesman won the
Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics Circle Award and many others when it opened
in 1949. Symbolism, foreshadowing and conflict are 3 of the many things that
Miller does best.
All of these literary techniques have added a tremendous
amount to Death of a Salesman and many others of his works. The play begins when
Willy Loman, a salesman over 60, enters his house unexpectedly, and tells his
worried wife, Linda, that, on his way to appointments in New England, he kept
losing control of his car. She urges him to ask Howard Wagner, Willys young
boss, for easier work in town so he will not have to drive as far anymore,
Willy, dear. Talk to them again. Theres no reason why you cant work in
New York (Miller, Act 1, Scene 1). She also happily states that their two
grown sons, Biff and Happy, are upstairs and sharing their old room. Willy is
concerned that Biff, 34 years old, just quit another job out west.
conflict between Biff and Willy can be proven as starting at their meeting in
Boston. When Biff saw his father, the man he idolized, with another woman,
Biff’s faith in him was shattered. To Biff, Willy was a hero, but after this
scene, he denounces him as a fraud. When Biff gets home, he burns his University
of Virginia shoes, which represented all of Biff’s hopes and dreams. Biff no
longer has feelings for Willy as Linda says, “Biff, dear, if you don’t have
any feeling for him, then you can’t have any feeling for me”(Act 1, Scene
9). Linda believes that, since she loves Willy, Biff cannot come and just see
her because it would hurt Willy too much.
Biff had believed in his father as
being a great man, and he realizes that he was wrong. When Linda asks Biff what
is wrong between him and his father, Biff recoils and says that it is not his
fault. Biff does not want to tell Linda that the whole problem is because of
Willy’s betrayal of her, so he just keeps it to himself and becomes the object
of her anger. Willy’s problem with society is that modern business is
impersonal. Even though “business is business”(Act 2, Scene 2), Willy
should have been treated like a human being, not just a faceless employee.
Howard, the owner of the business that Willy works for, believes that if an
employee does not bring in profits, than that they are expendable. He takes no
interest whatsoever in Willy’s past selling records, his association with his
father, or with pledges made years ago. Howard’s only concern is with the
efficient operation of his firm, and he represents the cold, practical
impersonality of modern business.
Charley tries to tell Willy about this,
“Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You
named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world
is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you
don’t know that”(Act 2, Scene 6). It was hard for Willy to hang onto his
personal dignity and to live with himself as being such a poor supplier of his
family’s needs. He was trapped in a situation and saw himself as a failure.
Society forgot Willy Loman existed and did not help him when he needed it, and
his mental state made it impossible for him to help himself. Willy believed that
he had to sell himself more than he had to sell his products.
His whole outlook
on life was wrong; he believed in attributes that a good salesman would be
attractive, a good storyteller, well liked and that when he died everyone from
far and wide would go to his funeral. He got this idea from the story of Dave
Singleton, who represented, to Willy, the epitome of success as a salesman.
Willy is having mental problems, delusions of his long-dead brother Ben, whom he
has many advice-searching conversations with. Ben represented success to Willy
by Ben’s dignity, status and wealth, not his attributes, “There was a man
started with the clothes on his back and ended up with diamond mines”(Act
1, Scene 4).
The lies he keeps telling other people and the dreams he has for
success actually begin to convince Willy that he was a great salesman who was
known everywhere he went, “…’cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can
park my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their
own”(Act 1, Scene 3). His deteriorating condition is exposed many times,
but is most prominent when he is talking with both Charlie and Ben at the same
time. Another example of the conflict inside of Willy is his repeated references
to suicide. In Charley’s office, Willy says, “Funny, y’know? After all the
highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth
more dead than alive”(Act 2, Scene 6). Willy has already been contemplating
suicide, but this is the first, straight-out mention of it.
He takes suicide to
be an honorable thing, something that would help his family greatly. His mental
condition makes him forget the fact that suicide is a cowardly option for
getting out of his responsibilities. The climax of the story is after Happy and
Biff return home from the dinner with Willy and the whole family has a big
argument. Biff tells Willy that he is sorry for hurting him and says, If I
strike oil Ill send you a check. Meantime, forget Im alive (Act 2,
Scene 14). The father-son conflict between them ends in this conversation. It is
the most emotional part of the play and where Willy is relieved of some guilt.
The denouement of the play is when Willy realizes that Biff loves him and has
always loved him.
Willy also believes that Biff could one day be a very wealthy
man, if only he had some money to start with. Willy believes that the twenty
thousand dollars that his life insurance policy is worth is enough. With these
thoughts, and his mental problems affecting his thinking, he takes his car and
commits suicide. The conclusion to Death of a Salesman takes place at Willys
funeral where only his closest friends show up. This only proves even more so
that Willys dreams were unrealistic. Biff offers Happy a chance to break away
from their fathers far-fetched dreams, but Happy does not take the offer.
Charley tries to comfort Linda, but she wants to be alone with Willy.
leave and Linda tells Willys grave that the mortgage on their house is
finally paid off and that she is hurting that he wont be there to share it
with him. The right term for the language in Death of a Salesman is probably
describing it as Modern American. The speech is in the relaxed talking
language of modern America, Gee, Id love to go with you sometime, dad
(Act 1, Scene 3). The Lomans live in Brooklyn, but the famous Noo Yawka
accent is barely heard. The characters use the common speaking slang of
conversation. But, when Happy tries to impress the two prostitutes at the
restaurant, he speaks in a more formal tone, Why dont you bring-excuse me
miss, do you mind? I sell champagne, and Id like you to try my brand. Bring
her a champagne, Stanley (Act 2, Scene 7).
Most of the action takes place
inside of Willys disturbed mind, as he relives crucial scenes from the past
even while groping through present-day encounters. The rest of the action takes
place in the kitchen and two bedrooms of Willys modest Brooklyn home. It was
once in a suburban area but is now crowded in by high apartment buildings,
The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks (Act
1, Scene 1). The kitchen has a table in it with three chairs and a refrigerator.
No other fixtures are in the kitchen. There is a living room in the house, which
is not fully furnished. The boys bedroom has a bed with a brass bedstead and
a straight chair. On a shelf over the bed is a silver athletic trophy. This
setting shows the monetary restrictions on the Loman family.
is filled with expensive things that make him feel rich. This setting is
another way for Miller to show the spite he feels towards people who put too
much emphasis on material gain. One of the things in his office is a recording
machine which Howard is obsessed with, This is the most fascinating
relaxation I ever found (Act 2, Scene 2). Franks Chop House is a small,
family run business with a small dining room. This setting is important because
it serves as the location where Biff and Happy desert their father. The Boston
hotel room has a bed, bathroom, and a small dresser. This setting serves as the
place where Biff loses all his faith in his father, You fake! You phony
little fake! You fake! (2, 13) Willy is a broken exhausted man in his 60s,
soon to end his life. He exaggerates and lies throughout his life to appear more
This stems from his feelings of failure. He worked steadily for
thirty-six years at a job and has paid off a long-term mortgage. Even though he
has supported his family, his own huge aspirations make him feel like he has
been a failure. He also has bad moral values and continuously gives his children
the wrong advice. Willy had, at one point in his life, been a very confident
man, but is now weak of both mind and body, as Linda expresses here, But
youre sixty years old. They cant expect you to keep traveling every
week. (1, 1). He wants Biff to love him but knows why Biff is so angry with
him. He wants Biff to have a good life so decides to kill himself and get the
insurance policy for Biff and Happy.
Once he sees that Biff loves him, he says
Biff, he likes me (2, 14), with a great look of joy on his face. Biff
probably changes for the best as the play progresses. From a lying, stealing
person in the beginning he changes in the end to where he is reaching for a more
realistic idea of what his life is all about. Biff cared for his father and was
deeply hurt to see that his father, the man he admired most, was capable of
infidelity and lying to his wife. He tended to go to extremes, though. His
passionate insistence, toward the end, that he is nothing, or that he and
his father are both a dime a dozen, still sounds a little like the
uncompromising disclaimer of the younger Biff who had sobbingly burned his
sneakers. Now he sees his fathers dreams as All, all wrong. Yet
although he still talks a little like the sports hero, he is now groping toward
a more realistic, more mature self-appraisal.
He realizes that neither Willy nor
Happy will ever even get that far. Happy, at first, seems to understand life
better than either Biff or Willy, but then it is shown that he is a very
accomplished liar. He has all but convinced himself that he is slated to become
his stores next merchandise manager. He cannot quiet his own scruples, he
knows he is wrong when he takes bribes, and he has some sense of guilt regarding
the seduction of other mens fiances, but does not stop either practice. He
refuses to face unpleasant truths and is always trying to impress people.
Whatever occasional admissions he makes, he will not give up his dream world or
his shabby sexual affairs. He may talk of changing his ways or getting married,
but he never sounds convincing. He is finally seen rejecting Biffs invitation
to start anew and prefers to justify Willys illusive dream of coming out
number-one man (Requiem). Unlike Biff, Happy learns relatively little from
witnessing his fathers collapse.
Linda is primarily a wife rather than mother
in this play. If she is seen as motherly, her ministrations are for Willy rather
than her sons. She is forever soothing, flattering and tactfully suggesting
courses of action to Willy. She is almost always patient and kind to him,
ignoring his minor outbursts and considerately accepting with grace such obvious
deceptions as the burrowing of money from Charley. Linda loves Willy and regards
his suffering with compassion. But she humors him as a child rather than meeting
him squarely as an adult. Yet the same mild-mannered, gentle Linda can be
surprisingly blunt and harsh, though, when she talks with her sons. She once
tells Happy to his face that he is a philandering bum (Act 1, Scene 9).
After the restaurant disaster, she denounces both her sons fiercely, flings away
their flowers and imperiously orders them out of the house. Her one thought is
Willy. If their presence cheers him or helps him in some way, she is glad to
have them around, but if what they do further upsets her already disturbed
grown-up child, then the sons must go and not return. Bernard and Charley
contrast strikingly to the Lomans. Unlike Willy, Charley lays no claim to
greatness, but is content. He goes along calmly and quietly, undistinguished but
relatively content. His salvation, he once declared, is that he never took any
interest in anything. That, of course, is not literally true for he shows
unusually generous consideration to Willy and wants to help him, I am
offering you a job (Act 2, Scene 6).
He set himself a modest goal and is
satisfied with modest achievements. Bernard is no match athletically to the
Lomans, but gets good grades and is forging ahead brilliantly. When he is last
seen, he is heading to Washington, DC to plead a case in front of the Supreme
Court. Willy stands in wonder as Bernard leaves and asks Charley why Bernard was
not bragging, Charley replies, He dont have to- hes gonna do it (Act
2, Scene 5). Charley, on his part, takes issue with Willy on such vital matters
as the importance of being well liked. Yet it is he who in the end defends Willy
to Biff in almost melodic terms. Willy sneered at Charley, insulted him, and
then borrowed sizable sums from him, but Charley can say with vehemence,
Nobody dast blame this man (Requiem). This father-son combination is an
exact opposite of Happy and Willy, they understand right and wrong. The
symbolism in Death of a Salesman is a major aspect of the story.
One of the
symbols, specifically, Biffs sports shoes with the University of Virginia
printed on the sole, represent his confident dream of a bright future through an
athletic scholarship. When his dreams are shattered, he destroys the shoes in a
fit of angry bitterness. The stockings mentioned throughout the play stand for
infidelity. They represent Willys attempt to look impressive outside the home
by giving a box of brand new ones to the woman he has an affair with. Linda
darns her own stockings and that makes Willy feel like a bad provider for his
family along with reminding him of his affair. Bens African cache of
diamonds, to Willy, stands for his insurance policy.
It is the great pile of
gold waiting for him if he takes the opportunity. Ben is always seen looking at
his watch and this symbolizes the time that Willy has to take the opportunity.
Finally, Ben says, Time, William, time! (Act 2, Scene 14). With that, Ben
is telling Willy to go through with his decision. The opportunity that they keep
mentioning is Willy committing suicide. Another symbol, Dave Singleman, the
famous salesman, stands for success. He was everything that Willy ever dreamed
of being. Willy wanted his funeral to be like Singlemans, with hundreds of
people showing up and telling each other how great Willy was.
technique that Miller used well in Death of a Salesman is foreshadowing. One
time, Willy says to Charley in his office, Funny, yknow? After all the
highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth
more dead than alive (Act 2, Scene 6). Charley realizes what Willy is
implying and replies to him, Willy, nobodys worth anything dead (Act 2,
Scene 6). This shows how Willy has already made up his mind to commit suicide.
Also Willys Chevrolet and the rubber tube serve as the means for him to do
that. These two things also are hints to the outcome of Willys life.
literary technique Miller used is called flashback. The flashbacks are used as
revelations of things mentioned in the present-day conversations. They serve as
a tool to help the reader understand the background to the story. Willy is often
caught reliving the Boston hotel room scene, and is also sometimes reminded of
the better times he had with his family when he was younger. A final literary
technique Miller used well is irony. The reader sees that the problem between
Willy and Biff is that Biff has lost all faith in his father. Linda often
wonders why Biff hates his father so much, and never knows what is really going
on. Biff: Because I know hes a fake and he doesnt like anybody around who
knows! Linda: Why a fake? In what way? What do you mean? Biff: Just dont lay
it all at my feet. Its between me and him-thats all I have to say.
(Act 1,Scene 9) Linda has no idea of what is behind Biffs dislike for his father,
and is sometimes confused by it. One theme Miller expresses in Death of a
Salesman is the corruption of modern business. Willy has worked for over 30
years for the Wagner Company, and, even though, to Howard, Business is
business (Act 2, Scene 2), Willys plea of slightly more consideration as a
human being is wrenching and serves to underscore this theme. Even Charley says
that personal association does not count for much, but contradicts this when he
offers his broken friend a job. Another theme expressed is unethical practices
and questionable morality. Willy seems undisturbed by the news that Biff has not
been studying. He passes off some of Biffs actions, such as his cheating on
exams and stealing the football, as being examples of initiative. Willy
also tries to excuse his infidelity by saying Shes nothing to me, Biff. I
was lonely, I was terribly lonely. (Act 2, Scene 13). Willy also says nothing
to Biff when he tells him that he stole a football from his school locker-room
and also Olivers personalized pen. Willy, Biff, and Happy all lie repeatedly
throughout the play, with only Biff feeling bad about what he had done. We see
that this family falls apart and that this theme should serve as a moral to
anyone who reads it. A final theme seen in Death of a Salesman is family
solidarity. Early on in its history, it is seen that the family is very happy
and that the two sons admire their hard-working father deeply, We were
lonesome for you pop (Act 1, Scene 3). As the play progresses, it is shown
that the whole family is unhappy, and that the bond between them all is
unraveling as time passes. To resolve their problems, and if they wanted to help
each other, they would have tried to discuss their problems instead of keeping
them inside and arguing with each other.
Willys mental problems affected
this, because he could only talk to his dead brother Ben about his family
problems. If the family had stuck together, they might have pulled through
Willys terrible problems. If the play All My Sons signaled the arrival of
Arthur Miller as a most promising playwright, Death of a Salesman raised him to
the rank of major American dramatist. He has been considered by many to be the
greatest of American playwrights. Some of Millers contemporaries, who are
themselves considered as being some of Americas leading writers, have
bestowed high praise upon him and his works. Gilbert W. Gabriel described Death
of a Salesman as a fine thing, finely done (Corrigan, 95). Also, one of
the most noticeable writers of all time, Euphemia Wyatt, termed it as being the,
great American tragedy (Corrigan, 96).
After reading this play a few
times, the reader is left in an awe-inspired state. It is mind-boggling to
actually see the pure essence of Millers meaning. He develops themes and
morals so well in his works, especially Death of a Salesman, that it is taken
for granted. The messages are easily seen, but never fully understood until the
reader first understands the story. Millers craftsmanship in this play is
indisputable of being on the level of a masterpiece. Every aspect of the play is
done magnificently well, and Miller blends these separate ideas together
brilliantly. The symbolism and irony, especially, are two of the greatest
aspects of the play. Millers unorthodox style adds even more to the greatness
of the play. The flashbacks he uses are, at first, a confusing part of the play,
but, when read over, only enhance the powerful messages told in it.
understands easier the problems that Willy faces because of Millers style.
Without the flashbacks, the background to his mental problems would not have
been easily seen. The reader also sees the importance of the play in American
society. Death of a Salesman, among other of his works, is used as a messenger
of things Miller would like to see done away with in American society. He
criticizes material wealth, the lack of American family values, and the lack of
mutual responsibility between people. Miller, with just putting these themes
into a great story, can be considered a good writer. Everything else that he has
done in his works makes him a true master of plays.