Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller wrote his play Death of a Salesman in 1949. The play received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award for best play. Written in the early stages of Miller's career, the play focuses on capitalism and its effects on the common man. This topic evokes Miller's true feelings on capitalism and uncovers some inherent biases in Miller's thinking. Miller grew up during the Great Depression. His father went out of business, and his early life was riddled with economic problems. His family lived in a small apartment building in Brooklyn. He also lived during the time period when economic giants, such as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, were public icons of success. The urban culture that emerged in America besmirched the career of a craftsman and forced people to give up the pastoral life. This new culture placed a heavy emphasis on success and circulated the myth that anyone can achieve. However, the reality of capitalism challenges the myth, which Willy slowly finds out during the course of the play. Willy struggles to retain elements of the pastoral life while trying to succeed in urban America. Industrialization caused the devaluing of the common worker. Biff tries to explain to Willy that he is “a dime a dozen” (Miller 132). Willy is the “little man” in the capitalist system who searches for his purpose in life, eventually realizing that he has amounted to nothing. Forced to face reality in the closing scenes of the play, Willy stays steady in his false beliefs and dies believing that Biff, his son, will succeed where he has failed. In Death of a Salesman, the capitalistic success myth shapes Willy's reality by influencing his choices and ultimately deciding his fate.
Willy Loman is mesmerized by the American success myth. Arthur Miller presents the idea that any man can “strike it rich.” This success myth is embodied in many different characters who have all achieved monetary success through their own mechanisms. One such character, Willy's mysterious older brother Ben, “has apparently taken unusual and not entirely approved means to realize the goal” of success (Wilson 86). Ben became rich from diamond mines in Africa, as he tells Willy and his sons, Biff and Happy, “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one. I walked out. He laughs. And by God I was rich” (48). Ben left his family when he was very young, while Willy was still just a baby, to try to find his father, who had deserted the family. Willy, it seems, was left alone with only his mother. Ben grew up to be a hardened and immoral man, whose mantra is “never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way” (49). He “represents the spirit of Social Darwinism or laissez-faire” (Gassner 239). Ben is very concrete about success, which he measures in terms of money and material things. When Willy tells Ben that he is building something with his firm in New York, Ben asks, “What are you building? Lay your hand on it. Where is it?” (86). Ben offers Willy a job in Alaska, but Willy decides to stay in New York, a choice that leaves Willy haunted by the image of Ben and what could have been. Unwittingly, Ben's credo contributes to Willy's rationalized decision to end his life. “The voice of Ben speaks out more and more clearly: ‘Twenty thousand – that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there…It does take a great kind of man to crack the jungle…One must go in to fetch a diamond out.' Ben's words and example – grown to an obsession – directly lure Willy to his death” (Kennedy 38). Ben represents a road less taken, but one that can still lead to monetary success.
Dave Singleman, Willy's role model, represents a more mainstream example of success. Dave was an “old salesman who, at eighty-four, could, through the strength of his personality, sit in a hotel room and command buyers” (Weales 170). Dave Singleman was a gregarious and impressive man who left a mark on Willy. As Willy deliriously tells Howard, “he'd drummed merchandise in thirty-one states. And old Dave, he'd go up to his room… and pick up his phone and call the buyers…at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want” (81). The name Dave Singleman symbolizes that he was Miller's anomalous example; he was the single man capable of succeeding as a salesman. Thus, his singularity is a foreshadowing of Willy's failures.
Willy is driven to succeed, not only by the people he has met but also by the increasing preeminence of the corporate ethos in society. “Our culture has consistently exhorted the individual to strive for transcendent success… the strident nineteenth-century pronouncements of an Andrew Carnegie… or a Russell H. Conwell,” make us believe “the idea… that in this country of ours every man has the opportunity to make more of himself'” (Wilson 83). Willy grew up with this success incentive imbued in him. His goals and dreams were determined by society as a precursor to his existence; therefore, Willy represents everyman within the capitalistic system. His goals and mechanisms for achievement have, however, been distorted by the messages he has heard throughout his life which ultimately lead to his disillusionment.
Willy is seduced by the success myth, but he is often unsure about how to succeed. His confusion reflects the cultural changes that take place during his lifetime. “Willy Loman was born as the American frontier era drew to a close. Growing up in a transitional period, he found no suitable identity. His civilization made the choice between Wall Street and Walden Pond both necessary and costly, and the man who chose Walden Pond was often paid with his self-esteem. That civilization also made the career of a good craftsman somehow shameful” (Bates 68-69). Willy chooses to make his living on Wall Street rather than on the pastoral lifestyle. However, the audience is often left wondering whether or not he made the right choice. “Biff suggests ‘there's more of [Willy] in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.' And Charley seems to agree: ‘He was a happy man with a batch of cement.' The play is filled with references to Willy's pride in working with his hands, his desire for a garden” (Weales 176). These references suggest that Willy may have been happier as a farmer, but instead, was instead corrupted by capitalism in America; he was led to believe that success can only be valued in money and not in happiness or personal dignity. And in his corruption, Willy has sold his soul to be a salesman.
Willy chooses to follow the path of Dave Singleman, a monetarily successful and beloved salesman. He does not predominantly envy the money that Singleman has amassed, but he is more interested in the sentimental success of the “master salesman” (Wilson 82). Dave Singleman is able to “effortlessly…move his goods and earn a comfortable living” (Wilson 82). He is “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” and that is what Willy strives for (Wilson 82). Willy yearns for love and admiration by his peers, which is why he places such an emphasis on being well liked. This is also one of the reasons contributing to Willy's failure in the capitalist world. He is more concerned with being “well liked” than with monetary success. “Willy has heard the truth from the capitalists, but he has chosen to believe in the Dave Singleman myth” (Murphy 7). He is mesmerized by Singleman's cultural success, and so he chooses not to follow Ben, who offers a more guaranteed monetary gain. “I thought I'd go out with my older brother and try to locate him, and maybe settle in the North with the old man. And I was almost decided to go, when I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman” (81). Willy chooses Singleman over Ben, metaphorically choosing companionship over money.
The reality in a capitalistic world is that not everyone can succeed, especially someone like Willy whose values and ideas about selling are all wrong for his time period. Willy demonstrates a man who strives to be at the top but never makes it. Within any capitalistic economic system, there are bound to be successes and failures, making it therefore, “inevitable…that some salesmen should fall by the wayside. Willy was just such a failure” (Fuller 241). His society encourages everyone to succeed and eventually, “American emphasis on success…outruns the availability of means for achieving success” (Wilson 83). Based on the inherent rules of capitalism, it is impossible for everyone to succeed. Even if someone works hard and does what he perceives is right, he may still fail. Willy tries to “do what is expected of him [but after] having played by the rules as he conceives them and having held a bright image of achievement in mind, he is unfairly deprived of his just reward” (Wilson 84). However, for every failure there is a success. Ben and Charley represent the successful members of Willy's generation. Ben and Charley succeed while Willy fails because both buy into the ideals of capitalism while Willy strives to be “well liked.” “Charley and Ben, are hard-nosed capitalists, who have never allowed themselves to succumb to the sentimentality of the Dave Singleman myth as Willy has” (Murphy 7). Charley tells Willy that “the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell,” but Willy still hopes for more; he truly believes that companionship is a part of selling even when he is empirically proven wrong (Murphy 7).
Willy, drunk in the myth of monetary success, struggles to succeed but finds himself failing. He tells his family that he is well liked all over New England and that he is a great salesman. “They know me, boys, they know me up and down New England…I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own” (31). Willy brags about his success as a salesman, but when he does so, he discusses his friendships rather than how much money he made. However, “The play shows quite clearly that from the beginning of his career Willy has lied about the size of his sales, the warmth of his reception, the number of his friends” (Weales 171). Willy's failure is fairly typical of his time period. “Men like Willy Loman, sixty-three years old in 1948, were being displaced by the younger generation everywhere” (Murphy 5). Willy was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Willy, born during a transitional period in American business, is misguided by the values and strategies he has learned and, therefore, falls victim to remaining stagnant during progressing times. When Willy first started as a salesman, personality “was considered the salesman's greatest asset” (Murphy 3). And, the job was primarily based on making “friends with the buyers and merchants, so they would buy what he was selling. The product itself was not all that important” (Murphy 3). The job of a salesman later changed but, “Willy's generation remembered the time when there was ‘respect, and comradeship, and gratitude.' In business” (Murphy 3). Willy was raised believing that personality was the “be all and end all” trait for a salesman, as he tells his boys, “Be liked and you will never want” (33).
During Willy's lifetime, the job of a salesman changed. “During the forties and fifties, the professional salesman became increasingly driven by things like market studies and demographics… Students were taught in business courses that the salesman's job was to learn everything he could about his product, and about the market” (Murphy 6). In Willy's own words, “Today it's all cut and dried.” (Murphy 6) Howard, Willy's young boss, is the embodiment of these changes, as; “Howard Wagner…is pragmatic and impersonal in his treatment of the aging salesman” (Murphy 5). For example, when Willy asks Howard for a job in New York, Howard refuses to find him one and then fires him. Howard explains his mentality to Willy claiming that, “It's a business, kid, and everybody's gotta pull his own weight” (Murphy 5). Willy's inability to adapt to the changing society in America is exemplified when his outdated values contradict Howard's. “Willy's plea for loyalty and human treatment…is irrelevant to Howard's way of thinking” (Murphy 6). Willy frantically screams at Howard, “I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance! You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away–a man is not a piece of fruit!” (82). But Willy's pleas fall on deaf ears, Howard can understand Willy's way of thinking no better than Willy can understand Howard's. To add to the schism between the two, Howard lives lavishly while Willy can not even afford the cost of living. Howard was raised by capitalism; he believes in competition and survival of the fittest. Willy, on the other hand, becomes a victim of capitalism; he tries to make friends while others are trying to cut his throat.
Willy is unable to cope with change and is blind to the fact that his way of doing business doesn't work anymore. “Willy is a dinosaur” (Murphy 7). He fails to adapt and dies because of it. Willy goes through life believing, (and dies believing), that personality will win the day. Unfortunately, “in the contemporary United States occupational conduct is more clearly governed by ‘universalism' (not who you are, but what you can do) and ‘functional specificity' (not the valuing of the total man, but of his specific skills and contributions to some enterprise)” (Wilson 85). Willy knows nothing about his product. In fact, Miller makes it a point to never even mention what Willy sells. This lack of knowledge by the audience reinforces that Willy does not know how to sell. Willy is “an American naïf bemused by the worship of uncreative success and hollow assumptions that ‘personality' is the summum bonum” (Gassner 233). In reality, personality had become one of the least important elements of a business transaction. When Willy stops succeeding, he blames his likeableness as the cause. Willy complains to Linda saying things such as, “You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don't seem to take to me,” and, “I'm fat. I'm very-foolish to look at” (36, 37). Willy fails by placing too much emphasis on his character. It is ironic then that he blames his character as the source of his failure, and in doing so, he further augments his problem leading to even greater failure.
Willy's values, the ones he has passed down to his children, have become so warped by the success myth that he refuses to accept his and his son's failures. When met with business failure, Willy becomes increasingly neurotic to the point of insanity. He can not face the future and so he lives in the past, often daydreaming and hallucinating about things that once were. Willy's, “hallucinations constitute the return of the repressed” proving that his mind is very unstable due to repressed thoughts of the past and of success (Wilson 79). Willy's memories coupled with his current failures lead to his insanity. As the audience, “we witness a human being coming apart before our eyes. In Willy's own words, ‘the woods are burning!'” (Wilson 80). Willy constantly fantasizes about Ben, who has been dead for years and Biff when he was child. He looks back to what he considers to be the “good old days” in an effort to forget the present. Willy is fed up with modern civilization. He loathes his apartment building often complaining that, “they should've had a law against apartment houses” (17). Willy is “diminished and constrained by [his] environment,” because of this we are “constantly aware of the influence of this civilization upon the tormented occupants of the [Loman] house” (Bates 61). Willy would have been happier as a farmer; throughout the book there are references to the pastoral life that he could have chosen. However, Willy chose New York and with it came the frustrating and claustrophobic atmosphere of the city. Urban culture shapes Willy's values and forces him to hyperbolize the meaning of his life. The epitome of this attitude is exemplified in Willy's final speech when he frantically screams, “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” (132). Willy fails to realize that the names are meaningless, that no one will remember him when he dies. He has failed to make his mark on civilization, and he has failed at capitalism. Willy Loman is nothing but a sad story: a poor, delusional, little man who struggled as hard as he could but never prevailed. Willy Loman is a hero of modern tragedy.
Willy's life never satisfied him. He was constantly chasing after a dream that he couldn't reach, and in the end, he kills himself. Throughout his life, Willy performs labor that is “not personal to himself,” and he therefore “does not fulfill himself in work, but actually denies himself” (Bates 65). Willy hates his job and furthermore, the “products of Willy's labor are never concrete and observable” so he doesn't even have a physical connection to the ends of his labor (Bates 65). Biff, on the other hand, recognizes his love for the pastoral life and chooses it over Willy's unfulfilling dreams. Willy can not cope with the fact that Biff does not want his dreams and his lifestyle; Biff's withdrawal from urban society contributes to Willy's death. “Willy never ceases to believe that Biff is magnificent,” and it is “imaging ‘that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket' that Willy goes to his death” (Murphy 7). So who did kill the salesman? Some interpretations claim that it was Ben and the image of what could have been that drove Willy insane. Other interpretations cite Biff as the one at fault for never amounting to anything. Still others claim that Willy fell victim to the past; he never adapted to the changing times and so he became obsolete. Miller may be “trying to undermine democracy” (Kennedy 34). He, “has stacked the cards against Willy and used his single tragedy to point an unjustifiable finger at Salesmanship itself. If Willy died…Arthur Miller killed him” (Kennedy 34).
Willy has passed down his values and failures to his sons who are crippled by them. Happy becomes moderately successful, but he is lost and is anything but happy. Happy conforms to the goals and mechanisms for achievement in urban society. He works hard and “gets…what he thinks he wants, but his life is somehow flavorless, without bite or savor” (Wilson 87). Happy's success is an empty one. He is without a wife or children to support, and his own family vaguely notices his achievements. Unlike Willy, Happy “represents no such dramatic struggle” (Kennedy 37). At best he is, “a marked-down version of his father, with not even a grand dream to cover his grossness” (Kennedy 37). Happy struggles, but he is like a misguided soldier because he does not know what he is fighting for. He is lost and remains lost throughout the play. It seems that Happy is “destined to remain a sexual predator and a frustrated failure in business” (Bates 67). He expresses his misdirection at Willy's funeral, saying, “He had a good dream… He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him” (139). Happy doesn't realize the fruitlessness of false dreams; he follows down the same path that betrayed his father. The truth stares him in the face, and yet still he persists with misguided dreams of hollow success.
Biff withdraws from the capitalist society altogether and chooses the pastoral life instead. Unlike Happy, he is able to see past the façade of happiness worn by businessmen. He is, “less strongly bound by the success dream than Happy…and he is clearly less at home in the city” (Bates 64). Biff believes that working in an urban business center is, “a measly manner of existence endured for the sake of a two-week vacation” (Bates 64). And so, Biff follows a pattern of retreat; he withdraws from urban society and goes back to the pastoral life. All of the Lomans love the outdoors, but Biff is the only one who admits that he would be happy as a farmer or a craftsman, “having experienced a meaningful pastoral life, Biff is eventually able to break the bondage created by his father's dreams” (Bates 64). Biff has an epiphany as he, “runs from Bill Oliver's office,” and he realizes, “'all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.' Hence Biff embraces one part of his heritage and rejects another; choosing the pastoral life, he denies those social forces which lure American men into the marathon pursuit of wealth. He becomes a more conscious and a more human man” (Bates 64). Biff is enlightened; he is the only Loman who is not lost at the end of the book. His ability to admit the truth separates him from the other members of his family and provides a clear contrast between himself and Willy. Biff tells Willy in their final fight of the play, “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you” (132). This seemingly simple yet incredibly profound statement shows Biff's departure from his father. It shows that he is not willing to lie anymore and wants to finally face the truth. Biff begs Willy to give up his unsatisfied dreams, and in one of the most dramatic lines in the entire play, Biff roars, “Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (133). Biff's salvation comes from his abandonment of the capitalistic world and his rejection of his father's dreams.
Willy's reality is based around the capitalist success myth, which he fails to reach, and in doing so motivates his own suicide. Willy Loman, educated in the American success myth, has been taught by both the people he has met and his society itself. He wants to succeed monetarily, but Willy possesses an even stronger urge to be loved. However, he fails to realize that he can't look for companionship in a cutthroat economic system such as the one that existed in twentieth century America. Since Willy's values and strategies on selling are wrong and ineffective, he does not succeed. However, Willy's failure miraculously has the ability to touch everyone in the audience. Willy represents the “little man” is business. He embodies every father who toils endlessly and can barely afford to pay his insurance. Willy, “gave all his life to a business only to be thrown on the scrap-heap” (Gassner 233). And, the Lomans represent every family, who beguiled by the success myth, put all their faith into their work, only to fail. Since Willy represents everyman, he engages the audience's “interest and sympathy” (Gassner 233). We can imagine what it must be like for Willy to struggle his entire life only to fail. However, in addition to evoking the tragic mood in an audience, Death of a Salesman also makes an interesting point about capitalism. Arthur Miller's message is an ambivalent one. On one hand, he teaches us that education is an important factor in success by using the character of Bernard. He also uses Charley, Ben, and Dave Singleman to show that success is a possibility in the capitalist world. However, the play focuses primarily on Willy and his failure. Willy's death, in addition to the title Death of a Salesman, casts an ominous outlook on salesmanship. Miller also appears to suggest in his play that the past was a better time. He makes references to Willy's father, who is always accompanied by a flute. Miller makes the point, in Biff's enlightenment, that the pastoral life is the way to salvation. Miller seems disappointed with urban civilization and capitalism, and, when Miller's past is examined, we find it riddled with economic problems. His father owned a clothes/coat manufacturing business that failed during the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Miller's family was very poor and lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn, which might explain Miller's contempt for apartment buildings as infused through the voice of Willy Loman, who when describing his apartment claims, “They boxed us in here” (17). Despite Miller's personal bias in creating the play, he still conveys a timeless but dismal message that life is hard. When Willy dies, not even his faithful wife, Linda, can cry. And despite Linda's constant pleas, “attention” is not paid (56).

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