“Death of a Salesman” is one of the most successful plays of the 20th century. Written in 1949, it was a brave attempt to challenge the conformity, reigning beliefs of an average American. Arthur Miller the author, brought up a number of important themes, that could not leave the audience indifferent. They are both various and deep: family relationship, mental stability, correlation of reality and illusions, and, most importantly, analysis of the American dream.
The plot develops within a period of a couple of days, encompassing the life of a Loman family. Willy Loman has lived his life working as a traveling salesman. Linda, his wife, takes care of the household, doing her best to support her husband, living a life full of routine and disappointment. Biff and Happy are Willy’s and Linda’s children. Biff, seen as a failure by his father, has chosen a way of searching for his real self, without following the standards, imposed by his father. Happy has decided to follow his father’s path and do his best to be rich and well-liked.
Loman family has led a relatively simple life. However, as the plot evolves, a reader can see how complex and multi-layer it actually is. Willy Loman has failed to meet his own expectations. As a result, he drifts away in the world of delusions, where he has become a successful and wealthy person. Hallucinations get worse, as Willy understands how far the reality is from his aspirations. Linda, whom Willy cheated on during one of his trips, supports her husband. Nevertheless, she seems to understand that none of his strivings has been brought to life.
Biff and Happy represent two solutions to an existential conflict, that brought Willy to the state of insanity. Biff, who had lots of potential at high school but failed math exam, is a disappointment for his father. Nevertheless, he is not afraid to face the life and pay effort to become wealthy, but accomplished person, not only for the sake of his father’s satisfaction, but to build up his own life and personal achievements. He realizes, that life is likely to take unexpected twists. Thus, he has the courage to face acute angles both in his business and in family life. Happy is the opposite character. He does his best to resolve all the clashes. The way he does it, though is rather questionable. He seeks instant reconciliation, without going deep to the reasons of controversy. Happy intents to follow Willy’s ideology, where an individual has to take a certain series of steps, that will inevitably bring to success and fortune.
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All the characters of the play take different stances in the conflict with each other. However, the most important controversy lies within the personality of Willy Loman. He is an example of American dream, shattered by the walls, built by Willy himself. Constantly looking for the opportunities to gain a higher social and financial status, he fails to look inside himself and his family. The happiness, that was in fact close and achievable, turned into an incredibly distant and almost impossible prospect. Having finally understood it, Willy comes to conclusion that the only way he could help his loved ones is to kill himself, in order to get insurance compensation. The gap between the dream and reality destroys Willy in the end.
Willy Loman is willing to fulfill the American dream. However, he is too afraid to follow his ambitions to the full extent. What is more, he doesn’t approve of Biff’s decision to do so. Obsession with material goals does not give him an opportunity to explore the world and his true self. Sadly, the trend seems to grow into future generations, as Happy believed that he will manage to accomplish his father’s goal, sacrificing his own life to that.
“Death of a Salesman” challenges the concept of the American dream and public perception of it. Though the plot of the play is impregnated by the spirit of time when it was written, it perfectly fits the reality we live in. Everybody answers the questions, raised in the play in their own way. Nevertheless, taking Miller’s answers into consideration might help make wiser choices.
Hurell, John D. (1961). Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Scribner. pp. 82–8.
Miller, Arthur Death of a Salesman (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996) ISBN 9780140247732. Edited with an introduction by Gerald Weales.
Sandage, Scott A. (2005). Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01510-X.