Death of a Salesman is the story of Willy Loman, a middle-class salesman who, in the course of a single day, comes to realize that the American Dream, which he has pursued for 40 years, has failed him. Willy’s relentless, but naive pursuit of success has not only affected his sense of his own worth but has dominated the lives of his wife Linda and his sons Biff and Happy. In the course of the play he realizes that his true wealth lies in being loved and known by his family, and in one final attempt to secure his personal dignity and provide a future for his sons through his life insurance, he commits suicide.
Willy Loman is, for Miller, the antithesis of the classic tragic hero. As his name implies, he is a `low man’, an ordinary man, whose dreams and expectations have been shattered by the false values of the society he has put his faith in. Unlike the heroes of classical tragedy, he is not a man of stature or noble purpose but he commands our respect and pity because he pursues his dream with a passionate intensity that makes him unique and gives him a heroic quality. While Willy is flawed in many ways, it is not simply this, but the social forces beyond his control that lead to his downfall.
In Death of a Salesman, Miller is not so much calling into question the pursuit of the American Dream, but the dream itself. For Willy, his adventurer / explorer brother, Ben, and his salesman hero, Dave Singleman, are images of success, but the character of Ben is fantastical and the achievements of Dave are idealised and exaggerated. Using these as his benchmarks, Willy can never achieve the success he so desperately craves. Through a series of flashbacks in the play, where we witness Willy’s persistent efforts to make the American Dream a reality for himself and his family, Miller launches a scathing attack on the very notion of the dream.
He questions the values upon which American society is based and the way in which these contribute to the destruction of a man such as Loman. Willy’s obsession and lack of insight thwart all his relationships and cause him to betray his own set of values. His loyal and loving wife, Linda, supports him in both his fantasies and failures and her life seems to be entirely absorbed into his. Unable to achieve the desired success in his own career, he becomes preoccupied with ensuring the success of his two sons, in particular that of Biff who, he is convinced, is destined for greatness in his sporting, professional and social life.
Sadly, his over-zealous attempts serve only to reinforce Biff’s sense of inadequacy and lack of identity. Willy realises toward the end of the play that he doesn’t need to `sell’ himself to his family, who loves him despite his failings. His suicide, an act in defiance of the system, which until now has defeated him, is also a tragic attempt to salvage something of his dream. According to Miller, it is this readiness to lay down his life to secure his dream that makes Willy a tragic yet heroic figure and one to whom, in Linda’s words, “attention must be finally paid”.