Return to the Nature — an Ecocritical Interpretation of Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman, the masterpiece of Arthur Miller, depicts a story of common American family—Lowman’s family. Willy is a man with hugh ambitious but finally failed in the fierce competition of his business. Linda, his wife, is a loyal , considerate and strong wife who always takes good care of the whole family and always stands in the back of his husband. Biff, Willy’s elder son, is a real weak and sticky-fingered man who are loved by his father but always disappoint him.
Happy, Willy’s second son, is a man who just like puffing but never did something successful.
It was a story of a sixty-four-year old salesman Willy Lowman keeps travelling and selling everyday to afford his family all because of the inaction of his two sons. He has a hugh dream that he wants to start his own business, but he failed because of his faulty idea that personality can make fortune. Linda worries his husband a lot that she tries to persuade him to ask his boss Howard for a position in New York so that he doesn’t have to travel.
Finally, Howard fired Willy for his unsuccessful business. Full of desperation, Willy lays his last hope on Biff that he hopes Biff can find a good job and start their families’ business.
However, Biff can’t give up his bad habit to steal others’ things and finally let his father down one more time. To find no way out of the desperation, Willy ends his life in his car. Arthur Miller wrote this drama based on his own experiences which have been considerably influenced by the Great Depression. During the 1930s, the United States went through an all-around economic depression. The collapse of financial system resulted in terrible situations: factories bankrupted millions of Americans jobless, homeless and hopeless.
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But for Miller, it was more like a psychological disaster which influenced a lot on every American people. This play came into being in 1949, and the prototype of Willy Lowman was Miller’s uncle Manny Newman. Miller still remembered well the encouter with his uncle, “I could see his grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day’s business. ”(Miller: 130-131) And Miller also remarks, “Newman was a competitor at all times, in all things, and at every moment. (Miller: 122) And Manny’s death also inspired Miller of the his writing of the tragedy. It was not only Manny as the prototype of Willy Lowman, but a lot of other victims in the real society. His story of the salesman was just a projection of the whole society. 1. 2 A Brief Introduction to the Theory of Ecocritcism Ecocritism as a critical theory appeared along with the stressful environmental crisis. In 1962,Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, and it stirred a powerful and far-reaching ecological movement. She reminded us that we can solve the ecological problem through the change of our world viewpoint instead of assisting by war or violent revolution. ”(Lu: 27) In 1978, “ecocriticism” was firstly raised by William Rueckert in his essay Literature and Ecology: an Experiment in Ecocriticism to encourage the connection between ecological concepts and the study of literature. In 1991, Modern Language Association held a special session entitled“Ecocriticism: The Greening of Literary Studies”in which ecocritics’ enthusiasm of building a new study ran high.
At the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in 1992, a new Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was founded “to promote the exchange of ideas and information pertaining to literature that considers the relationship between human beings and the natural world” and to encourage “new nature writing, traditional and innovative scholarly approaches to environmental literature, and interdisciplinary environmental research”. (Glotfelty: xviii) From then on, ecocriticism has become one of the most prosperous branches among western critical theories.
The one most quoted definition of ecocriticism is raised by Cheryll Glotfelty, the first professor of Literature and the Environment in America, defines: Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and thephysical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies. (Glotfelty: xix) Greg Garrard held different viewpoints.
He ever defined ecocriticism like this: “In deed, the widest definition of the subject of ecocriticism is the study of the relationship of the human and the non-human, throughout human cultural history and entailing critical analysis of the term ‘human’ itself. ” (Garrard: 5) Chinese scholar Wang Nuo argued that “the mission of the ecocriticism is to explore how the thoughts, culture, science and technology, ways of production and lifestyles, mode of social development of human beings formed human beings’ anthropocentric attitude toward nature and finally resulted in ecological crisis. (Wang: 11) Another Chinese scholar Lu Shuyuan intended to combine Chinese ecological thoughts with deep ecology. He asserted that not only did nature need ecological balance, but also society and the spirit of human beings need ecological balance. Hence, he proposed two new items, social ecology and spiritual ecology. If society is not harmonious, people will feel lonely and unhappy.
If the individual can’t find love and doesn’t know how to love, they will be in a state of spiritual crisis. Then we need to solve the crisis of natural, social and spiritual ecology in order to achieve the genuine harmonious co-existence between man and nature. . The Analysis of the Symbols of Natural Ecology in Death of a Salesman 2. 1 The Backyard and Seeds In Death of a Salesman, Willy dreams more than once of the old days. The main scenes of his dreams are in their backyard. From Willy’s recall, the audience know that there were two elm trees, a piece of grass and some flowers before. “The grass don’t grow any more… Remember those two elm trees out there?… This time of year it was lilac and wisteria. And then the peonies would come out, and the daffodils. What fragrance in this room! (Miller: 5) The memories in the backyard are the symbols of nature that Willy is yearning for all along this drama.
For Willy, all the living things in the backyard represent the harmonious relationship between man and nature. Without the trees and flowers in their backyard, Willy still enjoys the beauty of nature. When he drives in his trip, he is always fascinated by the scenery outside his window. “… it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm. I opened the windshield and just let the warm air bathe over me. ”(Miller: 3) Finally, he decided to buy some seeds and grow them in his backyard. Gee, on the way home tonight I’d like to buy some seeds. … before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens…” (Miller: 31)
Willy never give up any opportunity to embrace nature. The seeds not only represent the hope of Willy’s dream of success, but a symbol of the single spark of rebuilding the harmony between man and nature. 2. 2 The Dreams of Father and Son When Willy’s brother Ben tells him that he had bought somewhere in Alaska and needed a man to look after the things, Willy is so excited and answers: “God, timberland! Me and my boys in those grand outdoors! ” (Miller: 38) Willy wants to live with his family in an intimate contact with the poetic and picturesque nature instinctively. He is longing for a house in the countryside and living for a quiet and comfortable life. And in this drama, Willy more than once fancies his brother Ben coming back for him and telling him that: “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich. ” (Miller: 17) “Jungle” is also a symbol of nature, and what Ben said symbolizes that only nature could bring people the real fortune.
This fortune is a gift from nature and priceless for it is something money doesn’t bring. Also his son Biff, like his father, has a dream to embrace the nature and live in a farm. After he returns from the west part, he finds that he is not suitable for the modern life in big cities. He wants to go back to the west and has a farm of his own. “Listen, why don’t you come out West with me?… maybe we could buy a ranch. Raise cattle, use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open. ” (Miller: 6) And he can see the beauty of the natural scenes, “This farm I work on, it’s spring there now, see?
And they’ve got about fifteen new colts. There’s nothing inspiring or—beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. ” (Miller: 7) However, not like his father, he sees clearly that the modern life in big cities is not easy and he would like to compromise to follow his natural instinct to embrace nature. That’s why he doesn’t understand his father’s paradoxical dreams—hoping both having a successful life in modern competition and living a quiet life in the countryside. 3. The Analysis of Ecological Imbalances in Death of a Salesman 3. 1 The Imbalanced Ecological Conflicts between Man and Nature In Death of a
Salesman, Miller shows the audience the destroy of the nature by social development and the irremeable beauty and happiness that nature brings to human beings. The fast development of the society makes this poetic and picturesque beauty of nature become a highly urbanized and commercialized market. From a sharp contrast between Willy’s complaint about the changed living condition now and the cherishable memory of the comfortable rusticity in the past, this drama demonstrates clearly that the America’s high urbanization and commercialization totally destroyed the inhabited environment and harmonious relationship bewteen man and nature.
Willy is not only a salesman of a New England company but a victim of the increasingly worse natural inhabited environment of American society. He is like an animal in the box, strained and terrified. The intimacy between man and nature is seperated by the nightmare of the modernized city, like the critic Thompson said, “Willy and Linda’s house used to be in the countryside. There is a garden behind the house with trees around and enough space for two children to play. However, with the merciless expansion of the city, these houses are surrounded by high buildings. (Thompson: 23) Willy feels so uncomfortable by these surrounded buildings that he can only sigh: “The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks. ” He feels himself can’t get along with all the environment around him, “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them? (Miller: 4)
For Willy, the elm trees and the swing all symbolize the harmonious combination between man and nature. Hoplessly, Willy can only criticize these builders, “They should’ve arrested the builder for cutting those down. They massacred the neighborhood. ” (Miller: 4) These comments are so useless that Willy can only yearn for the peaceful and joyful past, “More and more I think of those days, Linda. This time of year it was lilac and wisteria. And then the peonies would come out, and the daffodils. What fragrance in this room! (Miller: 4-5) In the highly materialized society, high efficiency and fast pace tighten people’s nerve, make most people lose their esthetic sentiment, and even make them only care about the material satisfaction. In Death of a Salesman, by using both the joyful memories in the past of Willy and his disatisfaction to the modern life, Miller analyzes the imbalanced relationship between the man and nature. 3. 2 The Imbalanced Ecological Conflicts between Man and Man High urbanization, industrialization and commercialization not only alienate the relationship between man and nature but the relationship between man and man.
Followed by the worsening of the natural environment, men’s own nature begin to be alienated and materialized. Those characters which human beings shouldn’t have—the expansion of material desire, the paramountcy of techniques and the anthropocentrism begin to contaminate men’s spiritual ecology and turn men into spiritually barren non-human, machines of technology and slaves of comsuption. The communication between men and men become utilitarian. Most people put the house, car, electric facilities and so on in the center of their lives and changing the whole society into a spiritual wasteland.
This alienation on one hand threatens the healthy development of human’s spirit, on the other hand, it destroys the social environment. It makes the whole society and spiritual ecology become imbalanced. In this alienated background of society, most friendly contacts in the past are substituted by the merciless modern competitions. In Death of a Salesman, in order to afford the whole family, Willy has to beg Howard for just a low salary but on the contrary he is fired by Howard. In Howard’s eyes, old Willy is becoming useless and nonprofitable.
Willy desperately cries out: “I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit! ” (Miller: 37) Ironically, Howard turn a blind eye to someone who have made some contributions to the firm in the past but focus on a recording machine—a representative of electric mechanical products. Money and profit become the principles of the relationship between men and men. Willy, as a salesman, actually become a product of his company until his death. Only his death can bring his family twenty thousand dollars as his real value.
Arthur Miller, as a dramatist, feels deeply the slavery and alienation the commercialized society bring to people. Willy’s tragedy is the result of the alienation of the society. The imbalance of natural environment social ecology will lead to the imbalance of human’s spiritual ecology. 4. Conclusion Death of a Salesman depicts the early period of twentieth century’s America—a period of fast development of capitalism, a period of sacrificing the natural beauty, harmonious relationship between man and nature in order to develop the commercialization.
Arthur Miller thinks that the nature is not only the living environment but also the source of men’s joyful spirit. Only when the relationship between man and nature become harmonious, men can live a healthy life. Miller prophets the difficulty and tragedy of human beings’ living condition and shows his disatisfaction to the materialized and commercialized society. This drama gives the development of modernization some important warnings.
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