The Critique Of American Patriarchal Society In ‘Death Of A Salesman’
Drama can be referred to as a form of written literature that is intended for performance and often has the ability to examine human issues and behaviour in a specific social context. A play that conforms to this is Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’. Published and set during this time, it follows the story of Willy Loman, an aging salesman from Brooklyn dissatisfied with his life, in relentless pursuit of financial prosperity and success while facing other troubling aspects of his life; his deteriorating relationship with his eldest son, provoked by his infidelity which all result in fluctuations of his emotional state and ultimately, his downfall. As women were forced out of their wartime occupations and into more domestic roles many women felt disenfranchised with the late 1940’s being identified as the pinnacle of gender inequality as women were disparage and portrayed as “purely domestic creatures’. It is values as such that are represented in the patriarchal society portrayed in Miller’s tragedy. This essay will analyze how the play explores the values of a conventional American patriarchal society post World War II and offers the idea that these values are flawed, by exposing their prejudiced nature through illustrating the injustices faced by women who adhere to the social norms, the toxicity of dominant masculine ideals and implies that men who objectify women struggle with internal conflict. It does so through the employment of different generic conventions.
Miller’s play serves as a critique to these ethics as it proposes that although the traditional gender norms were adhered to by many women, the role undertaken by these women limit them from flourishing. Miller emphasises the restrictions placed on subservient women as he contrasts Linda’s fidelity, goodness and care for her husband with his treatment of her. Early in Act one, Willy claims, “you’re my foundation and my support, Linda’ which is ironic as his betrayal is exposed through the visual stage play of, ‘the laughter of a woman’, he had an affair with. Although Linda embodied the dutiful wife, Willy’s actions held all of her efforts as objects of ridicule and she didn’t have the support and admiration of her husband, which in a time as such was important as having a male trusted male figure ensured her stability in society Willy’s. The sense of inequity is also evoked by Linda’s internal conflict of her inability to confront him about his suicide attempts, through questioning herself, ‘How can I insult him in that way?’. Her monologue offers an image of herself as someone who conforms to many expectations of her time as a wife; subservient, but scenes like this emphasises her perceived lack of agency to change things, her inability to control her world because of those roles themselves. This makes us sympathise for Linda and reverts back to the broader argument of patriarchal norms hurting women as she hasn’t been treated with the respect she shows her husband. Later in the requiem, we learn that Linda is in distress from Willy’s death, not only through dialogue but the stage directions ‘the flute begins’ as she ‘sobs quietly’. Willy believes that his suicide will resolve the disorder in his life whereas in reality, he denies Linda of a debt free husband and because of this, another image of a woman rendered powerless or suffering because of the actions of the men around her is made and once again as her sobs show her grief. Her grief is again emphasised with the symbolic aspect of the flute as it is a reminder of the path Willy could have chosen, which also creates a sense of remorse. Within most of Linda’s interactions, Miller’s tragedy portrays the prejudice they are subject to and inability to flourish although they remain obedient and respectful to traditional gender roles.
Patriarchal society also operated on customary masculine ideals which the play exposes as toxic and having the ability to oppress those unable to live up to them. The poem encourages us to sympathise with Willy Loman as he feels humiliated when working on commission because a ‘man’ earns a living. We learn that eventually, Willy is unable to maintain his facade of success as he constantly doubts himself by asking Ben, ‘am I right?’, in his delirious state. These symbolic objects and the dialogue between the two characters unveils Willy’s inability to fulfil society’s ideas of a successful man, which in a capitalist society, equated to being financially stable and economically able to support his family, contribute to his tragic downfall as he buckles under the pressure of these ideals due to his fear of being judged, not only revealing the elusive nature of these archetypes but also the its harmful impact. Loman’s misguided notions of success that generates a fraudulent and dejected existence is further accentuated by his relationship with Biff. Through the dramatic aspect of tension, we learn that Biffs lost his sense of identity, procured through his proclamation targeted at Willy, ‘I know who I am! Why can’t I say that’ as he’s on the verge of ‘attacking his father’. The pressures of a feigned desire fuelled by deluded projections of hegemonic masculinity from Willy eventually triggers Biffs implosion. Biffs breakdown, critical of Willy, is expressed in a criminative manner and creates a sense of resentment towards Willy as he is the principal cause of Biff’s loss of individualism, revealing the harm that unrealistic standards of masculinity can generate. Willy’s relationship with Happy isn’t as significant in comparison to Biff, yet Happy is subject to the corollary of their relationship; he goes to certain lengths in order to attain Willy’s approval which is constantly on Biff. Happy’s desire to gain his father’s attention and please him, goes as far as promises of him ‘getting married’. The constant repetition of this acts as comedic relief and is ironic as we know that Happy is a philanderer who compulsively sleeps with women married to successful men due to his ‘overdeveloped sense of competition’. His promiscuity unmasks that he’s (and other men in his position from an American patriarchal society) incompetence to succeed prompts them to seek other methods of gaining power over the men they envy (because of their superior positions in society), some of which are unethical, overall highlighting the feature of unrealistic masculine values as having the potential to corrupt the minds of people. ‘’Death of a Salesman’ largely focuses on the male members of the Loman family, who are members of the middle class, yet seem to suffer due to their inability to satisfy the standard of masculinity at the time to express the perniciousness of these standards.
In addition to the potentially cataclysmic nature of masculine archetypes, a traditional patriarchal society encourages the objection of women, however the play implies that men who take advantage of this usually struggle with inner conflict. As act one progresses, readers are given an insight into Willy and Linda’s relationship through the symbolism of stockings. In their marriage, Linda allows him a level of authority that he does not enjoy in his personal life and this is proven as she submits to his orders, ‘I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out’. The stockings are symbolic of the rift in their relationship caused by Willy’s infidelity and it is clear that Willy is unappreciative of the effort that Linda puts in to mend their relationship and doesn’t care of the outcome. He treats Linda as if she is a toy and isn’t considerate of her feelings, however it is also reflective of Willy’s state; he is overridden with guilt and mistreats Linda to uplift himself. Loman’s discord with femininity is also reflected in his son’s behaviour as shown in their dialogue earlier in Act one, where Happy updates Biffs about his life and states, ‘It’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely’. By including women in his list of accomplishments, he regards them as tools and prizes to be won, rendering them as inanimate objects however he still isn’t satisfied and is indignant about the fact that he is lonely. This reverts back to the broader argument of the Miller’s play implying that men who objectified women experienced their own struggles. The play moves on from characters who exemplify these implications to a character who’s an exception. Through dramatic aspect of conflict, readers become aware of Biff’s respectful nature in the midst of an argument between him and Willy as he constantly defends Linda by reprimanding Willy, telling him to ‘stop yelling at her!’. Biff stands up for his mother, knowing she is unable to do so herself because of her role in society and seems to be the only male who considers Linda’s feelings and worth as he treats her as an equal member of the family. Although Biff struggles with his sense of identity throughout the play, it concludes with Biff gaining his individualism after Willy’s death, by declaring, ‘I know who I am’. The 1940 play depicts a society which encourages the subjugation and objectification of women however, in response to this, it implies that those who follow through oppressing women battle with an internal conflict.
As seen from the essay, Death of a Salesman exposes the principles undertaken society governed by men as defective and enforces this idea through portraying injustices experienced by women who follow through with gender norms, destructive nature of masculine ideals and the suggestion that men who subject women to objectification struggle with internal conflicts as a means of deflection. It does so through employing certain generic conventions such as tension and comedic relief. The play unexpectedly serves as a critique to patriarchy as it was written by a man who conformed to the patriarchal male stereotypes, however this could be representative of a change in social structures and beliefs with the rebirth of feminism fuelled by the war.
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