I originally wrote this discussion piece for the university course Theatre: History, Conventions in 2012.
Together with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller is considered to be one of the great American dramatists. His play Death of a Salesman is traditionally seen as Miller’s criticism on the American dream. This is evidenced by Willy Loman’s struggle to achieve success and his eventual failure in society’s eyes while he triumphs in his own eyes: for is it not through his sacrifice that his sons will have access to the life-insurance money and become magnificent? Is it not his ‘going in’ that will lead them to ‘be ahead of Bernard again’ on the road to success? (2.1429-30, p. 822). Although definitions vary as to what constitutes ‘the’ American dream, the common notion is that ‘any American can achieve material success and a comfortable life through hard work and a devotion to business’ (Murphy 5). In the Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller, Matthew C. Roudané argues that the play ‘presents a rich matrix of enabling fables that define the myth of the American dream’ (60) and mentions examples such as hard work, competition, self-sufficiency, public recognition and personal fulfillment which are both part of this dream and Willy’s values. In her article on the theatricality in the play, Andrea Most similarly argues that the play clearly rejects ‘Willy Loman’s “delusions” about himself and about American dreams’ (548), and that ‘the American dream of material success is presented in this play as a con, a cruel deception that destroys the common man’ (550)
Yet to argue that Miller fully rejects the notion of the American dream in the play through Willy’s character is too short-sighted. In Death of a Salesman the concept of the American dream is not absolute and negative. This discussion piece examines the ambiguous attitudes within the play and of the characters to the American dream and the capitalist society in which this dream originates.
Miller does not reject Willy’s right to strive to achieve his dreams and allows him a notion of honor and pride in his final sale: his life (or death) sold as a commodity for the life-insurance money. In addition, Miller argues in his essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ that the tragic flaw of a character ‘need be nothing – but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status’ (4). This quotation supports Willy’s right to fight the challenge to his dignity. It allows his room to lose himself in illusion, dreams, memory and lies to allow himself to spin the image of a successful businessman, even if, in society’s eyes he is not. Yet Miller presents a number of different dreams in his play which play out differently from Willy’s. Bernard and Charley’s vision for the future is different and require different values, yet they are both successful in their profession. Biff spends his life failing to live up to expectations, but finds an inner calm in his realization who he is and what he wants: ‘all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am’ (2.1364-5. p. 821).
Over his grave, Willy is accused by Biff of having had the wrong dreams, ‘all, all, wrong’ (Requim.24. p. 824). While he is quickly defended by Happy and Charley, Biff has a point. Critics have made the argument that Willy fails ‘because he never understands what is really needed to succeed in business’ by insisting on the impact and importance of personality, and the idea that it is important to be ‘well-liked’ (Murphy 5). Instead, as Charley argues, ‘the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell’ (2.590-1. p. 803) while critiquing Willy’s perspective with: ‘the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that’ (2.591-2. p. 803). Brenda Murphy and Susan Abbotson point out in their Student Casebook on the play that this line of argumentation insists that Willy ‘failed to comprehend American history and values’ and that therefore Willy’s character and understanding on the American dream and society is criticized in this play instead of the society itself (5).
A brief look at Bernard’s career quickly dispels the idea that there is no possibility for success in the Salesman’s society: through hard work, Bernard is about to ‘argue a case in front to the Supreme Court’ (2.545. p. 802), which is clearly meant to illustrate how successful Bernard has become. Likewise, Charley has funds enough to support Willy without ever expecting to be repaid. He even offers Willy a job, which includes not being sent on the road, something Linda has been pressuring Willy to ask for, out of friendship. Criticizing the play, Bert Cardullo names Bernard’s success a ‘deserved success for which Willy feels envy – as he does for the success of Bernard’s father’ (333). It is this envy, which Charley also repeatedly comments upon that is important, because it indicates that Willy himself knows he is failing even if he cannot identify why.
Willy himself is quite accomplished at working with his hands. He insults Charley when he finds out that Charley is not: ‘a man who can’t handle tools is not a man’ (1.716. p.776). Roudané mentions these two worlds of Willy: the industrialized world in which he wants to ft, and a pastoral world ‘in which he can use his hands to build a porch or plant seeds in a garden’ (76). Cardullo offers a similar perspective stating that ‘the only alternatives to the business ethos [in the play] are Willy’s love of tools and seeds, building and planting, and Biff’s love of the outdoor life’ (333). Yet Willy is a salesman and cannot find full satisfaction in the pastoral world – instead wanting to be acknowledged as successful in the industrialized capitalist society. He wants ‘to come out number-one man’ as neatly summarized by Happy over his grave (Requiem,43. p. 824).
As Roudané mentions, the idea that Death of a Salesman is a ‘critique of a capitalist society that brutalizes the unsuccessful’ is widespread (77). This is seen also in the imagery of his final sale: Roudané names this the completion of the ‘brutalization process by reducing himself to a commodity, an object, a thing, which enables him to make the last sale of his entire professional life’ (78). Willy’s final sale differs from the idea that salesman do not sell a product but themselves in the sense that he has reduced himself to a single product – his life insurance. Linda comments upon the fact that they are finally free – the mortgage has been paid off – over Willy’s grave. Most briefly comments that this freedom ‘is generally taken as a ironic comment on the steep price Americans must pay – with their bodies and souls – for the freedom to pursue material success’ (558).
The story of Willy Loman is a tragic tale of an ordinary flawed man. He deluded himself and the people around him by dreaming too big, corrupting his sons in the process dooming them to dream as him. In his final action, he believed he did the right thing: by giving his life his sons would finally be successful in the race to the top – in one blow they would ‘be ahead of Bernard again’ and achieve magnificence. In the end, that dreams falls to pieces as Biff has realized that his father’s dreams are no longer his, while Happy falls into the same trap as Willy. Linda is left alone in a house, free and trapped.
Bigsby, Christopher. ‘Introduction’. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. Cambridge Collections Online. Accessed 12 April 2012. p. 1-9
Cardullo, Bert. ‘Attention, Attention Must Finally Be Unpaid: Death of a Salesman and the Reputation of Arthur Miller’. The Cambridge Quarterly 40:4, (December 2011). 328-341
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. The Norton Anthology of Drama: Volume Two. Eds. J. Gainor, S. Garner and M. Puchner. New York: Norton, 2009. 759-824.
Miller, Arthur. ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ 1949. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. Ed. Robert A. Martin. New York: Penguin Books, 1978. 3-7.
Most, Andrea. ‘Opening the Windshield: Death of a Salesman and Theatrical Liberalism.’ Modern Drama: 50:4 (Winter 2007). 545-564
Murphy, Brenda and Susan C.W. Abbotson. Understanding Death of a Salesman: a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Roudané, Matthew C., ‘Death of a Salesman and the Poetics of Arthur Miller’ in The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. Cambridge Collections Online. Accessed 12 April 2012. p. 60-85