Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller is a tragic fiction play about the final day in the life and death of a salesman. The main character, Willy Loman, is a traveling stocking salesman near retirement age. Although he has had moments of success in his career, the recent years have been difficult and his mental condition has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer functionally cope with his condition/relationships and he takes his own life. The story is tragic in that Willy is unable to resolve his relationship and economic issues and resorts to taking his life. Willy’s emotions travel from highs to lows in a matter of moments, and he retreats into delusions and memories to escape reality. The main theme of the story is that excessive pride, deceit, betrayal, and unrealistic expectations are contributors to the tragic demise of Willy, the salesman.
Willy is in a ridiculous competition to demonstrate his success in terms of money and outward appearances. This alienates him from his sons as they cannot live up to his exaggerated expectations and deceitful interpretation of their accomplishments. Willy has passed on some of his tragic traits to his sons, Biff and Happy, but they have moments of recognition and search for resolution to their emotional conflict. They are both in their thirties and are home visiting on the last day of Willies life. Biff had been athletic and good looking as a high school kid, so his dad made him out to be a huge success, even though he failed math and did not graduate. Happy has had to live in Biffs shadows, but at least he has been able to hold a job as an adult. They admit in a conversation to each other in Act I that neither one is actually happy or satisfied with their lives, but they pretend otherwise. Willy excessive pride prevents him from working on his problems and he refuses to take a job from his friend Charley because he has always viewed himself as superior to Charley.
Miller uses a lot of symbolism in the story to support his theme. He sells women’s stockings and had had an affair while he was traveling. He had given new stockings to his mistress, but his wife, Linda has an old torn pair which she mends. Willy has betrayed his wife and he knows the pain of betrayal, as his own father had abandoned his family when Willy was young. He also has trouble with his refrigerator and automobile, that serves as a kind of technological betrayal or betrayal of the belief in materialism as a measure of success. Linda, Willy’s wife has the most realistic view of everything that going on, but she is powerless to change anyone and ends up taking Willy’s abuse. Linda’s lecture to her sons in Act 1 serves as a warning and foreshadowing of how both the business and the boys have taken advantage of Willy of the years and now abandoned him in his time of need. Miller uses Willy’s psychotic flashbacks as a way to introduce the past and develop how Willy has over exaggerated and deluded himself and his family for a long time. This adds an element of self - responsibility to Willy’s tragedy. He not just a victim of an emotionless profit driven industry, but he has contributed to his condition. Miller uses foreshadowing in the title of the play, so we are prepared for the salesman’s death. Linda is already aware that his recent car accidents may not have been accidents and that he was perhaps going to asphyxiate himself with fumes from the furnace when she fides a rubber hose connected to the appliance.
Willy and his sons are all developed by direct characterization, and lesser characters like Bernard and Ben are developed with indirect and direct characterization. Willy is very insecure in who he is because he lies to himself and other people about his success. It is Biff and Linda who sees the truth about who they are and try to bring the others back into reality, but the task is difficult and they get caught up in the hope that Willy’s reality has a chance. Biff is the most dynamic character in the play because he confronts the delusion and exaggerated image his father has created of him and there is hope that can break out of the family mold. Happy on the other hand is a fairly static character. He is superficial and pretends his job is more important than it is, but he is more financially successful than his brother who has spent time in jail for stealing from an employer, but he also seems more ingrained in self-delusion like his father. The characters do seem like real life people.