Following in the tradition of the classic Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller is concerned above all with the relationship between the individual and society. His investigations range from his portrait of the industrialist Joe Keller in All My Sons (1947), who sacrifices the safety of World War II fighter pilots and ruins his business partner to satisfy his desire for financial success, to examining the connection between the dysfunctional marriage of Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg and the rise of Nazism in Broken Glass (1994). In Death of a Salesman, Miller focuses on the relationship between society and the individual’s concept of self. As a consequence of living in a capitalistic society that emphasizes materialistic values, Willy Loman has a defective sense of self. He is obsessed not only with financial success but also, more specifically, with appearances and impressions and with being considered important and “well-liked” by others. Willy passes these superficial values on to his two sons, Biff and Happy. In the course of the play, Biff becomes more aware of his real needs and feelings and frees himself from this destructive concept of self. Only then is Biff able to care more deeply for his father, and he breaks down and cries in his arms. Willy is moved by his son’s love, but his understanding is incomplete, as becomes clear when he commits suicide under the impression that this is the only way to give Biff financial prosperity. At the play’s end it is clear that Biff will heal himself and go back out West to find work that suits his genuine concept of self, while Happy will probably repeat the misdirected life of his father.
Miller’s plays often mix his characteristically realistic style with expressionistic techniques. In Death of a Salesman, he enhances the theme of self-awareness by using techniques to distort time and space and to represent the working of Willy’s mind. While playing cards with his neighbor Charlie, for example, Willy imagines that he sees his brother Ben, who appears on the stage as if he were a real person. By allowing the past and the present to intermingle freely, Miller represents the confusion and distress in Willy’s mind. In fact, Miller’s working title for the play was “The Inside of His Head” and his original concept for the stage set was a model of an enormous face, inside of which the action was to take place. In having the action follow and portray Willy’s meandering mind, Miller creates a psychological quality that reflects Willy’s confusion about identity. As Willy’s mind wanders in his past, talking to his brother Ben or remembering building projects around the house, Willy’s true self is revealed. He is a man who loves to work outdoors with his hands, the kind of man that Biff finally comes to accept as his true self. As Biff says over Willy’s grave, “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”
Death of a Salesman is of crucial importance to literature because it once again raises the question whether tragedy is possible with a common hero. The Aristotelian concept of tragedy, which dominated dramatic literature until the nineteenth century, insists that only characters of noble birth or soul can be tragic heroes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, an increasing number of plays with tragic endings were written about common people. In 1949, concurrent with his play’s appearance on Broadway, Miller published a defense of the play as a genuine tragedy in the essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in which he argued that all that is required for tragic stature is a hero willing to “lay down his life” to secure “his ’rightful’ position in his society.”
Miller won a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1949 for Death of a Salesman, and for many years thereafter he was considered, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights. Of his many subsequent plays, perhaps only The Crucible (1953) and After the Fall (1964) had comparable popular and critical impacts. Undoubtedly his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman remains Miller’s most enduring work.
Self-absorption is the main reason for this inability, because he only sees life from his own point-of-view. He makes decisions without fully understanding the repercussions that his actions will have on others lives and consequently his own.
One of his greatest selfish decisions is his affair. Although Witalec argues that Willie truly believes he cheats “out of loneliness for his wife, Linda. But [in fact]… he is driven by feelings of inadequacy and failure to seek himself outside of himself, in the eyes of others. ‘The Woman’ makes him feel that he is an important salesman and a powerful man” (Witalec, 234).
Willy only looks at the benefit he will get from his decisions. In the case of his affair, his benefits are words of affirmation and carnal pleasure. Unfortunately, because Biff discovers the affair, Willy becomes very aware of the immense pain that results.
In a criticism written by Marowski and colleagues, it expresses this betrayal by declaring that, “the trust Biff had given Willy now seems misplaced. Indeed, according to the flashbacks within the play, the young Biff and Happy had nearly idolized Willy, so this betrayal while Biff is yet an adolescent is particularly poignant.” (Marowski). The affair results in a strained relationship with his son, and though Biff never tells the secret, the family dynamic is forever changed. Ironically, what makes Willy feel like a successful salesman causes him to feel insecurities regarding his fatherhood and other aspects of his life as well.
His greatest insecurity is that he is never as successful as he feels he should be. It is, as Witalec says, “his vision of success [that] perpetuates crippling feelings of inferiority and inadequacy [which ultimately]… drive him to destroy himself” (Witalec, 236). He creates his view of success based on three men that he idolizes: his father, his older brother Ben, and old Dave Singleman. These men represent who he wants to emulate.
Willy’s father is the least represented in the play, because his father abandons him at a very early age. Though Willy’s father is rarely mentioned, there is a sense that his memory is always present. Whenever Willy is experiencing a flashback, Miller represents his father’s memory through a flute playing offstage. His father’s flute playing is one of the few sensory memories that Willy has of him (Witalec, 148). In fact, the only times his father is mentioned is during conversations with his brother Ben. Ben describes his father as a “Great inventor… With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like [Willy] could make in a lifetime.” (Miller, 2347). Although it is clear that Willy feels a sense of pride for his father when Ben boasts this, it is important to note that his brother is also insulting him. Rather than encouraging Willy in becoming successful like his father, he is stating that he is not capable. Since this statement is coming from someone who Willy idolizes, he is more apt to believe that it is true; he cannot make that much money.
Willy’s idolization of Ben also hinders Willy in his quest for the American dream. In Willy’s mind, Ben is the personification of the American dream. He symbolizes the riches that he could attain. Willy covets the qualities in Ben that makes him successful, such as toughness and unscrupulousness. (Witalec, 148) Although Willy does not realize he has his own strengths and tries too hard to emulate his brother. Willy, unlike his brother, is honest. Although he makes some bad choices such as infidelity, he chooses to work hard and take care of his family.
As shown earlier, he also does not recognize another one of his great strengths, which is Linda, his own personal cheerleader. Ben does not have a person in his life that encourages him and loves him. Willy neglects to notice.