Death of a Salesman

By Arthur Miller


Death of a Salesman is Miller's representation of the death of the American Dream. It puts paid to the notion of America's classless society and is the tragic struggle of one man and his family against madness and the exigencies of modern life. Willy Loman, a traveling salesman for the Wagner Corporation, has toured the streets of his native New England for thirty-four years. Loman has recently been put on straight commission pay and consequently cannot afford to support his family. Charley, Willy's oldest friend, loans him money to help him keep his head above water. The contradictions which we find within Willy Loman are also the contradictions within the American Dream. Willy is (literally) fatally flawed, and the audience is invited to read these personal contradictions in a more universal light. The play manages to capture brilliantly a once-proud man still trying to make himself a success - socially and financially - in the cutthroat capitalist world of forties America. Willy tells the story of a travelling salesman called Dave Singleton who was so adept at his job that he would seal many of his deals without leaving his hotel room. Willy reminds us wistfully that when Singleton died, people came from all over the country to attend his funeral. The dream of success therefore takes the form of a recollected 'Golden Age' based on jealousy and personal failure.

Willy's descent into madness is recorded in heartbreaking detail. Linda, his wife, tries desperately to tend to her sick husband and it is her patience, good humour, and inability to accept defeat which lends to the play some of its most touching moments. The play oscillates in time through the medium of Willy's mind. Sometimes he is in the present, sometimes hopelessly lost in past reminiscences. His sons, Biff and Happy, are confused characters - Biff caught his father having an affair with a woman whilst away travelling and has never forgiven him. Happy is materially wealthy but both brothers have the mark of their father's inability to accept reality upon them. The play centers on the need to be 'well-liked' - a constant refrain of Willy's. The struggle for the common man is therefore doubly hard: he has to be a success in his social life as well as in business. There is an irony here since Willy spends his time on the road alone or in superficial relationships so "well-liked" in his world is always a platitude except in the case of his family who he misunderstands or fails.

Death of a Salesman has the indelible mark of the Depression upon it. Miller's father was crushed financially and spiritually by the Depression and a profound lack of faith in material things is a continuous theme throughout the play. Miller uses rather basic symbolism and language, but it is as a work of huge emotional impact, rather than a great work of literature, that Death of a Salesman is recognized. When reading it, one must always have a sense of the time scale - it alternates between post- and pre- Depression. Miller is deconstructing the myth of America as a nation of equal opportunity and streets paved with gold where any man can become President. The minimalist stage setting makes the audience feel that this play is representational rather than specific, and symbolizes the death of more than just Willy Loman - but of the entire myth that is the American Dream.