Death of a Salesman raises many issues, not only of artistic form but also of thematic content. Dramatically speaking, the play represents Arthur Miller’s desire to modernize the tragedy of Aristotle described in the Poetics. Aristotle held that tragedy portrayed the downfall of a king or noble, whose fall from grace was the result of a tragic flaw—generally held to be hubris, or an excessive amount of pride. Miller, on the other hand, believes that tragedy—or the individual’s desire to realize his or her destiny—is not solely the province of royalty. It also belongs to the common man—in this case the “low man,” as in Willy Loman.
Willy’s tragic flaw stems from the fact that he has misinterpreted the American Dream, the belief that one can rise from rags to riches. For Willy, the success of that dream hinges on appearance rather than on substance, on wearing a white collar rather than a blue one. It is this snobbery, combined with a lack of practical knowledge, that leads to his downfall.
Indeed, much of the lasting popularity of Death of a Salesman both in the world of the theater and in the canon of English literature, lies in its treatment of multiple themes. Too didactic or moralistic for some modern readers, who see the author as heavy-handed, the play nevertheless raises many pertinent questions regarding American culture. Many younger readers have even credited it with preventing them from making the same mistakes committed by the characters.
Chief among these themes is an indictment of the capitalist nature of the American Dream—the belief that through the pioneer virtues of hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, and fortitude, one might find happiness through wealth. Implicit within this dream, however, is the assumption that money leads to fulfillment, regardless of the type of work that one does in order to attain it. While Willy himself was never successful as a salesman, he remains confident that his son Biff will be able to make it big in business because of his good looks and his past glory as a high school football star. Willy makes the error of celebrating popularity over know-how, style over substance. He taught Biff that being “well-liked” would carry the day, thus ignoring the damaging truth that Biff’s habit of petty theft—whether it was lumber from a nearby construction site or a football from the locker room—would ultimately lead to the boy’s downfall.
The way in which this theme informs the play is also the key to its form, since Willy constantly relives the past through a series of flashbacks. These scenes present Biff and Happy as they appeared in high school, providing the audience with a glimpse into the happy past that shaped the unhappy present. Another theme thus emerges: that the decisions made in youth have a direct impact on one’s life in maturity. In addition, by seeing past events, the audience is forced to admit that Willy lives in a world of fantasy and denial, where he is unwilling to confront his own role in contributing to his son’s unhappiness.
Indeed, the linchpin of the play surrounds an event in Willy’s past, when Biff discovered his father committing an infidelity with another woman. Crushed by his newfound glimpse into the world of adults, the adolescent Biff learned that his larger-than-life father was all too human, that he was “flawed.” Thrust abruptly from the world of innocence into the world of experience, Biff sabotaged his own life by refusing to attend summer school, thus preventing him from making something of himself at the university. Instead, he took a series of menial jobs and wandered aimlessly, only to return home at the age of thirty-four, unsure of both his identity and his purpose.
The play returns, then, to its examination of the American Dream, asking such fundamental questions as “What is the nature of success, and how does one attain it?” For Willy, it means wearing a suit and tie and making a lot of money—in short, it means having pride, or hubris. Yet, when Biff confronts his father in the final scene, he has an epiphany, a sudden burst of knowledge: Biff realizes that success entails working at an enjoyable job, which for him means working on a farm, outdoors, with his shirt off. The life of business and the city is not for him, and he sees his happiness in day-to-day living rather than in the goals foisted on him by society or by his father. Happy, meanwhile, lacks the courage of honesty and remains caught in the rat race, still under the impression that wealth and status are the keys to fulfillment. In a sense, Death of a Salesman ends on an optimistic note, in that Biff discovers a new sense of himself, stripped of illusion, as he finally becomes a man with self-respect—one who paradoxically has found pride through humility.
Willy, however, remains imprisoned by a set of false ideals. Having devoted his life to a belief in the honor of a career as a salesman, he possessed too much snobbery to admit that his own destiny was in a simple career as a carpenter. Instead, he listened to his brother Ben, that figment of his imagination who told him that money was the true path to happiness. Out of options, Willy decides that suicide is his only exit, since Biff will then collect the insurance settlement and be able to launch a career in business.
Yet, although he remains misguided, Willy achieves the stature of a tragic hero. Fighting a world pitted against him, he fulfills his destiny and sacrifices himself for his son by paying a debt in blood. The futility of his life and dreams are revealed, however, when only his immediate family attends what Willy has imagined would be a magnificent funeral, thus exposing a legacy of only disappointment and death.
Nevertheless, the end is not entirely bleak: Through his father’s sacrifice Biff escapes a vicious circle of greed and self-delusion; he is freed. Accordingly, the audience experiences a catharsis—the cleansing or purgation associated with classical tragedy. The play’s final lesson, then, is that destiny lies in discovering one’s true identity, in following one’s bliss, and in being true to one’s inmost and honest self.
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Death of a Salesman Essay
December 9, 1996
Willy Loman is responsible for his own downfall. Willy finds his own hero and tries to become the hero in his own existence. Willy tries to become a very successful businessman, at the start of his career he thinks that no one can tell him what to. Willy is not good with people, he is good with his hands, he is not a good salesman and he chooses the wrong career. Willy often makes up stories or changes the stories he knows because he cannot face the truth of his life that he has not accomplished as much as he has planned. Willy's downfall is his own doing which is brought about by his unrealistic dreams, his pride, his career choice and his failure to manage life's problems.
Willy, at a young age, noticed an old salesman who worked at an age of 80 and made a lot of money. The old salesman took orders from no one, he made his own orders and everyone did as the old man said. When the old salesman, Dave Singleman dies, all the buyers came to his funeral. All the people Dave ever knew came. There were thousands mourning his death. From that point, Willy Loman found an awesome dream which he followed the rest of his life. Willy became a salesman. Willy is the most unqualified salesman ever! He never sold a thing. Willy stops seeing the truth at one point of his life and he relies on his own lies to numb his pain. The pain of knowing he cannot and wont be able to become Dave Singleman. He is Willy Loman, who is good at fixing the house. He is not cut out for travelling from city to city and selling goods to people he has never met before. Willy dramatically dies living out his dream, the dream that never suited Willy Loman.
Willy does not allow people to tell him what to do. He believes that he cannot be bossed around and that he is too important to fall under anyone's authority but his own. Willy teaches Biff and Happy not to take orders from anyone. He thinks this will make Biff, Happy and himself successful, but it is in fact a major contribution to Willies failure. Willy did not become a "Big Shot" meaning he did not become important to the field of retail. Willy thought he was a "big shot" when he was not and this must have made people angry because he is not liked by many people. People have to earn their importance. They cannot just be important overnight. This lack of status contributes to his co-workers disrespect.
Willy accomplishes less when he works compared to working and staying at home. Willy fixed up his house with great skill and ease. Willy's family appreciates the things Willy does for the house and the family. They share many happy memories of him working on the house. Willy is suited at a job that requires hard labour rather than being a salesman. Biff says in the novel that Willy puts more work in the house than he ever did at work. This is not true because Willy paid off the house because of his job but in a sense it is true because Willy put his whole life into being a salesman and if he put his life into being a carpenter he probably would have accomplished much more than just paying off the house. Thus manual labour brought Willy enjoyment but he rejected it in his pursuit of the American Dream.
Willy Makes up stories or changes stories because his life so uninteresting. He is not doing anything with his life and this depresses Willy. He often says that he will take care of the problem first thing in the morning. When Willy wakes up he intentionally forgets about all his problems and goes on with his life. These problems accumulate until Willy loses control. Willy ends up killing himself because of the overwhelming amount of lingering problems.
Willy Loman thinks he is an important figure but in reality he is an ordinary person. Willy cannot take orders from anyone and this does not allow him to gain respect from others. Willy chooses the wrong career and does not accomplish much during his life because of his poor career choice. Willy Also never faces the truth and blocks out his problems until there are too numerous to handle. These four reasons show that Willy is responsible for his own downfall and ruins his and his families lives.
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