“Death of a Salesman” Detailed Analysis
Arthur Asher Miller (October 17, 1915 – February 10, 2005) was an American playwright and essayist. He was a prominent figure in American theatre, writing dramas that include plays such as All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge
Miller was often in the public eye, particularly during the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, a period during which he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Prince of Asturias Award, and was married to Marilyn Monroe.
It is important to bear that the story is told through the mind and memory of Willy Loman and there is a constant back and forth between two periods ,1928 and 1942.The first period is one of the happiness and contentment when Willy Loman is young and dynamic and the children ,Biff and Happy are running about in shorts ;the second is one of gloom and discontent -Willy is now old and ,virtually out of a job and the children are grown up and gone their different ways.
The play is thus structured in such a way to show the pleasures of the past ,the dreams and hopes the characters had and how these aspirations had turned sour. Willy Loman had built his life in such a way that he had finally trapped himself in an impossible situation.
Willy Loman ,the protagonist in the play was a travelling salesman in the services of the wagnor company for 34 years. When his old boss died ,his son Howard took over the administration of the company .Willy’s family consists of three other members ,his wife Linda, Biff,the elder son and Happy, the younger son.
Willy unexpectedly returned on the same day he had left for New England territory on a business tour. Linda felt that her husband is thoroughly exhausted both physically and mentally and he has almost reached the breaking point. Willy, who is 63, has driven the car off the road twice or three times and when he reached home he was found to be panic stricken ,desolate and shattered.
Willy liked his eldest son Biff,who was wellknown as a football champion. Though he is 34 , it is unfortunate that he could not settle in life. Inspite of the fact that three colleges offered him scholarship in recognition of his proficiency in football, he did not join any college . Happy, the women chaser also could not settle in life.
For the next two days, immediately after his unexpected return, Willy’s mind was rather disturbed with thoughts of today’s realities inter mingled with yesterday’s half forgotten episodes. He felt that it was mistake on his part not to have followed his elder brother Ben ,who dared his way into the diamond minds of Africa and amassed fabulous wealth . Willy’s guilty consciousness pricked him at the flash back scene of Boston hotel room, when his son Biff makes a surprise visit and finds his father having an affair with a strange lady .After this episode, Biff seemed to hold a grudge against his father and could never again bring himself to trust Willy. As suggested by Linda, Willy visits Howard, the young Boss and request for a change of job in the New York City office as he is physically and mentally incapacitated as a travelling sales man. When the request was unceremoniously turned down by Howard and Willy dismissed from service he protest “You cannot eat orange and throw the peel away; man is not a piece of fruit”. Willy is very much frustrated and disillusioned at the behavior of capitalists who lacked the human milk of kindness, sympathy and gratitude.
Biff’s attempt to raise a loan from Bill Oliver, the proprietor of sports goods company also failed. Oliver, who once liked Biff immensely, now refused to recognise him now because Biff has stolen a fountain pen, Charley ,Willy’s neighbour extended a helping hand in those days of adversity. He ,not only advanced a loan to him but also offered him a job to him. But Willy refused to accept it with a false sense of dignity. The two sons invited the father for a dinner party at a prominent restaurant in the city. But Happy picked up two call girls and left the place along with Biff, leaving Willy alone.
Willy felt humiliated and this experience was shocking and unbearable when Biff and Happy returned home, Linda ordered them out of the house by the next morning. She was planning to commit suicide on a particular night .Willy was left alone while all others went upstairs. He has insured his life for 20,000 dollars. Once he dies, the family will be entitled to receive the amount from the insurance company. So Willy got into his car and drove madly through darkness, only to kill himself. His funeral was attended only by Linda, the two sons, charley and his son Bernard. Linda could not stand the strain of separation from her beloved husband; but still she stooped down and dropped flowers on the grave of Willy.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN AS A TRAGEDY:
According to the traditional views based on Aristotelian cannons, the tragic hero was to be a person of high rank and status. So that his down fall could produce an inevitable emotional effect on the audience. In ancient Greek tragedies, fate or destiny is mainly responsible for the downfall of human beings. But Shakespeare and Marlow attributed human misfortune mainly to the personal draw backs of the tragic heroes themselves and hardly to the hidden forces which we describe as fate or destiny.
Miller generally departs from both these concepts of tragedy as in the tragic hero in the Death of a sales man belongs to the middle class. He does not hold the view that tragic effect can be produced only by the downfall of a highly placed individual in society. It matters not at all whether hero falls from a great height or small one, whether he highly conscious or dimly aware of what is happening ,if the intensity is their ‘America grows like a giant in unimaginable proportions ‘.
Willy symbolically stands for all the low men in American business community not just salesmen -who in a way sell themselves. Willy sells himself and in the process wears himself out and he is finally discarded when he is no longer useful. Willy begins as a salesman 36 years ago, opens up unheard of territories to their trade mark, but in his old age they take his salary away. It is pity that once Willy’s energy is exhausted by the work that society has assigned to him, he is thrown aside and dismissed by the son of his old boss. Willy protests, “you cannot eat the orange and throw them peel “. Man is not a piece of fruit no doubt ,Willy loman is a superannuated employee, but he is rejected and ill treated by his employer at the end of his career. Even a change of job with less travelling was denied to him.
But still it may not be fully correct to say that Willy is wholly a victim of the prevailing social system. His own responsibility of his tragedy is by no means insignificant or negligible. In the first place he failed to realize his own limitations and short comings Willy has the conviction that success depends on personality, contacts and good cloths and that these will bring everything one wants in life. Obviously Willy is a prey to that magical book of Dale carnegie’s ‘How to win friends and influence people ‘ we know that mistake is that Willy had chosen a wrong profession for himself under the impression that the selling profession is the best in the world.
Secondly the sense of guilt which he carries with him due to his past infidelity to his wife has also serious repercussions in his mental stability .His affair with the woman in the hotel when he was visited by Biff hangs on his conscience. Biff’s discovery of Willy’s infidelity marks the crucial turning point in the relationship between the father and the son .There after Biff no longer believes Willy .
Another point to be noted is Willy’s incurable optimism .He has had higher expectation about the future of his elder son Biff who looks so charming as the Adonise in Greek mythology and who has earned high reputation as a good football champion. Biff has become disillusioned .For Biff ,life came to be an end with his match. He could neither make a mark in business nor could he go back to school to finish his course. Ironically Bernard who never represented University of Virginia, Bernard who pleaded to carry Biff’s helmet or shoulder guards , prospered. Bernard wins glory by pleading before the supreme court ,but he does this without any pushing from his father. According to Willy, they ought to be success at all; for both Charley and Bernard were not well liked. These tragic experiences shatter Willy’s conception of American dreams. No human or super natural agency interfered his life .The sense of frustration and psychological neurosis upsets his mental equilibrium and shatters him to pieces.
WILLY LOMAN: An insecure, self-deluded traveling salesman. Willy believes wholeheartedly in the American Dream of easy success and wealth, but he never achieves it. Nor do his sons fulfill his hope that they will succeed where he has failed. When Willy’s illusions begin to fail under the pressing realities of his life, his mental health begins to unravel. The overwhelming tensions caused by this disparity, as well as those caused by the societal imperatives that drive Willy, form the essential conflict of Death of a Salesman.
BIFF LOMAN: Willy’s thirty-four-year-old elder son. Biff led a charmed life in high school as a football star with scholarship prospects, good male friends, and fawning female admirers. He failed math, however, and did not have enough credits to graduate. Since then, his kleptomania has gotten him fired from every job that he has held. Biff represents Willy’s vulnerable, poetic, tragic side. He cannot ignore his instincts, which tell him to abandon Willy’s paralyzing dreams and move out West to work with his hands. He ultimately fails to reconcile his life with Willy’s expectations of him.
LINDA LOMAN: Willy’s loyal, loving wife. Linda suffers through Willy’s grandiose dreams and self-delusions. Occasionally, she seems to be taken in by Willy’s self-deluded hopes for future glory and success, but at other times, she seems far more realistic and less fragile than her husband. She has nurtured the family through all of Willy’s misguided attempts at success, and her emotional strength and perseverance support Willy until his collapse.
HAPPY LOMAN: Willy’s thirty-two-year-old younger son. Happy has lived in Biffs shadow all of his life, but he compensates by nurturing his relentless sex drive and professional ambition. Happy represents Willy’s sense of self-importance, ambition, and blind servitude to societal expectations. Although he works as an assistant to an assistant buyer in a department store, Happy presents himself as supremely important. Additionally, he practices bad business ethics and sleeps with the girlfriends of his superiors.
CHARLEY- Willy’s next – door neighbor. Charley owns a successful business and his son, Bernard, is a wealthy, important lawyer. Willy is jealous of Charley’s success. Charley gives Willy money to pay his bills, and Willy reveals at one point, choking back tears, that Charley is his only friend.
BERNARD – Bernard is Charley’s son and an important, successful lawyer. Although Willy used to mock Bernard for studying hard, Bernard always loved Willy’s sons dearly and regarded Biff as a hero. Bernard’s success is difficult for Willy to accept because his own sons’ lives do not measure up.
BEN – Willy’s wealthy older brother. Ben has recently died and appears only in Willy’s “daydreams.” Willy regards Ben as a symbol of the success that he so desperately craves for himself and his sons.
THE WOMAN – Willy’s mistress when Happy and Biff were in high school. The Woman’s attention and admiration boost Willy’s fragile ego. When Biff catches Willy in his hotel room with The Woman, he loses faith in his father, and his dream of passing math and going to college dies.
HOWARD WAGNER – Willy’s boss. Howard inherited the company from his father, whom Willy regarded as “a masterful man” and “a prince.” Though much younger than Willy, Howard treats Willy with condescension and eventually fires him, despite Willy’s wounded assertions that he named Howard at his birth.
STANLEY – A waiter at Frank’s Chop House. Stanley and Happy seem to be friends, or at least acquaintances, and they banter about and ogle Miss Forsythe together before Biff and Willy arrive at the restaurant.
MISS FORSYTHE AND LETTA – Two young women whom Happy and Biff meet at Frank’s Chop House. It seems likely that Miss Forsythe and Letta are prostitutes, judging from Happy’s repeated comments about their moral character and the fact that they are “on call.”
JENNY – Charley’s secretary
THEMES, MOTIFS & SYMBOLS
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Willy believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream- that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Oddly, his fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. Willy’s interpretation of likeability is superficial-he childishly dislikes Bernard because he considers Bernard a nerd. Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life.
Willy’s life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy’s father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy’s zealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy’s adultery. Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank’s Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cups of greatness, Biff shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.
Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him. Willy believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him. When Biff walks out on Willy’s ambitions for him, Willy takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with “insult” and “spite”). Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff’s ego-crushing rebuff ultimately reflects Willy’s inability to sell him on the American Dream-the product in which Willy himself believes most faithfully. Willy assumes that Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with The Woman-a betrayal of Linda’s love. Whereas Willy feels that Biff has betrayed him, Biff feels that Willy, a “phony little fake,” has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Willy’s tendency to mythologize people contributes to his deluded understanding of the world. He speaks of Dave Singleman as a legend and imagines that his death must have been beautifully noble. Willy compares Biff and Happy to the mythic Greek figures Adonis and Hercules because he believes that his sons are pinnacles of “personal attractiveness” and power through “well liked”-ness; to him, they seem the very incarnation of the American Dream.
Willy’s mythologizing proves quite nearsighted, however. Willy fails to realize the hopelessness of Singleman’s lonely, on-the-job, on-the-road death. Trying to achieve what he considers to be Singleman’s heroic status, Willy commits himself to a pathetic death and meaningless legacy (even if Willy’s life insurance policy ends up paying off, Biff wants nothing to do with Willy’s ambition for him).
THE AMERICAN WEST, ALASKA, AND THE AFRICAN JUNGLE
These regions represent the potential of instinct to Biff and Willy. Willy’s father found success in Alaska and his brother, Ben, became rich in Africa; these exotic locales, especially when compared to Willy’s banal Brooklyn neighborhood, crystallize how Willy’s obsession with the commercial world of the city has trapped him in an unpleasant reality. Whereas Alaska and the African jungle symbolize Willy’s failure, the American West, on the other hand, symbolizes Biff’s potential. Biff realizes that he has been content only when working on farms, out in the open. His westward escape from both Willy’s delusions and the commercial world of the eastern United States suggests a nineteenth-century pioneer mentality-Biff, unlike Willy, recognizes the importance of the individual.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Seeds represent for Willy the opportunity to prove the worth of his labor, both as a salesman and a father. His desperate, nocturnal attempt to grow vegetables signifies his shame about barely being able to put food on the table and having nothing to leave his children when he passes. Willy feels that he has worked hard but fears that he will not be able to help his offspring any more than his own abandoning father helped him. The seeds also symbolize Willy’s sense of failure with Biff. Despite the American Dream’s formula for success, which Willy considers infallible, Willy’s efforts to cultivate and nurture Biff went awry. Realizing that his all-American football star has turned into a lazy bum, Willy takes Biff’s failure and lack of ambition as a reflection of his abilities as a father.
To Willy, diamonds represent tangible wealth and, hence, both validation of one’s labor (and life) and the ability to pass material goods on to one’s offspring, two things that Willy desperately craves. Correlatively, diamonds, the discovery of which made Ben a fortune, symbolize Willy’s failure as a salesman. Despite Willy’s belief in the American Dream, a belief unwavering to the extent that he passed up the opportunity to go with Ben to Alaska, the Dream’s promise of financial security has eluded Willy. At the end of the play, Ben encourages Willy to enter the “jungle” finally and retrieve this elusive diamond-that is, to kill himself for insurance money in order to make his life meaningful.
LINDA’S AND THE WOMAN’S STOCKINGS
Willy’s strange obsession with the condition of Linda’s stockings foreshadows his later flashback to Biff’s discovery of him and The Woman in their Boston hotel room. The teenage Biff accuses Willy of giving away Linda’s stockings to The Woman. Stockings assume a metaphorical weight as the symbol of betrayal and sexual infidelity. New stockings are important for both Willy’s pride in being financially successful and thus able to provide for his family and for Willy’s ability to ease his guilt about, and suppress the memory of, his betrayal of Linda and Biff.
THE RUBBER HOSE
The rubber hose is a stage prop that reminds the audience of Willy’s desperate attempts at suicide. He has apparently attempted to kill himself by inhaling gas, which is, ironically, the very substance essential to one of the most basic elements with which he must equip his home for his family’s health and comfort-heat. Literal death by inhaling gas parallels the metaphorical death that Willy feels in his struggle to afford such a basic necessity.
The play ‘Death of a Salesman’ revolves mainly around a conflict
What are the reasons for Willy’s failure as a business man?
American dream in the play ‘Death of a salesman’.
What is the central theme of the play ‘Death of a salesman’.
The father son conflict in the play ‘Death of a salesman’.
The hotel scene in the play ‘Death of a salesman’.
The role of mother Linda Loman in the play ‘Death of a salesman’.
Why did Biff Loman leave the school?
The significance of the title’Death of a salesman’.
Why did Willy commit suicide?
The flash back scene in the play ‘Death of a salesman’.
Miller’s play as a critique of the American way of life.
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