Death of a Salesman is a stage play that was written in 1949 by Arthur Miller, an American playwright and literary activist who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play is a famous piece of art, which is considered as one of the best theater works of the 20th century (Thompson, “The Baggage Handlers” 52). The composition is translated into various languages and played in many theatres around the world.
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The central theme of the story, which is denial, cracks the myth of the American dream and helps the author to reveal the social values of people in the USA. The unusual theme of the drama ensured its uniqueness and contributed to the popularity of the author. In this paper, the analysis of the Death of a Salesman will be conducted. The work will be divided into three parts and contain the summary of the play, as well as the discussion of the protagonists of the story. In addition, the description of the main themes of the work will be included. At the end of the paper, the conclusion that summarizes the main ideas will be presented.
Summary of the Play
The story narrates about the Loman family, which consists of four members, namely, a middle-aged man, Willy, his wife, Linda, and their two sons, Biff and Happy. Willy has mental health issues related to his inability to recall some events that happened in the past. Sometimes, when his memories are relived, he talks to fake images from his imagination and digs deep into himself. Two brothers, Biff and Happy, have other concerns and difficulties.
They feel unhappy about their careers, as both of them failed to achieve success and become financially stable. In general, the first act of the play is based on the memories of Willy and Linda about the positive and negative moments of their lives. It introduces the lifestyles of the main characters to spectators and provides some essential details about their personalities.
As the narration continues, the audience learns more about the Loman family. Willy, who works as a salesman, goes to his boss to ask him to change his schedule so he could stay in New York instead of traveling to other cities. As a result, he loses his job and continues to lament the inability of his sons to earn more money. He is especially disappointed with his oldest son, Biff, who seems to lose respect for his father. Willy does not remember that his son learned about his affair with another woman and realized that Willy was not a fair and honest person. He was pretending, playing the role of a successful salesman, loving husband, and caring father.
Due to his mental issues, Willy frequently has daydreams where he sees himself, Linda, and his two sons younger and more successful. He imagines that he returns from a profitable sale trip, and his children are wealthier than in reality. He also feels sorry that he did not go to Africa with his relative, Ben, to find a diamond mine to become rich. The wrong dreams of Willy make his family feel unhappy. Thus, his wife is tired of her husband’s fantasies and his son Biff thinks that he is not good enough for his father because he was not able to meet his expectations.
At the end of the play, Willy dies, and his family and friends get together to validate his death. They discuss possible reasons for Willy’s passing away, suggesting that mental issues and failure to become a good salesman became fatal for him.
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After the funeral, members of the Loman family start thinking about their future. Thus, Biff is going to leave for the West and invites his younger brother, Happy, to accompany him. Happy, however, decides to stay at home and mourn the loss of his father. Linda has controversial feelings, because, on the one hand, she is grieving for her husband. On the other hand, she feels relief because she realizes that from the moment of the death of Willy, her family is free. There are no strange fantasies and reproaches in her family anymore.
The Protagonists of the Story
The main character of the story is the head of the Loman family, Willy. He is 63 years old, but it does not prevent him from having childish behavior. Even though he is the father of two sons, Willy is not supportive of his children. He needs to be supported because his emotional state is unstable. It seems that he has two different lives traveling between past and present times. Thus, in reality, he is just an old and sick man, who is dissatisfied with his job, family, and financial status. However, in the world of his dreams, he turns into a successful and young merchandizer, who has two rich sons and a young wife. Being reluctant to return to reality, Willy looks for privacy, so no one disturbs him from dreaming.
His wife, Linda, is a lovely woman who tolerates the strange behavior of her husband. She has an entirely different personality compared to Willy, as she takes care of and supports all the members of her family. She is represented as a smart woman who understands the real situation. Nevertheless, she always tries to think positively and calm down her husband when he is annoyed because of the high bills or insolvency of their sons.
It is worth noting that despite Willy’s poor treatment of his wife, Linda loves him and even encourages Biff and Happy to spend more time with their father. Her life is not simple next to the unstable and poor man, but she never thinks about leaving him and never argues with Willy demonstrating the true nature of loyalty.
Biff Loman, the elder son of Willy and Linda, is shown as a subject of Willy’s resentment. Biff used to have a lot of potential at high school as he was a promising football player and studied well. However, one day, he saw his father with another woman and, being upset, decided to drop out of school. Willy does not remember this incident and keeps insisting on Biff becoming a businessman. His son, however, wants to be a farmer and live in the West. As a result, he wavers between working as a businessman to please his father and doing what he likes. Eventually, after his father’s death, Biff reunites with his dream and leaves New York.
His brother, Happy, seems to be neglected by his parents. Willy pins all his hopes on Biff and does not have any expectations toward his younger son. Happy is continuously feeling that his parents ignore him and, to attract their attention, lies to them. Thus, one day, he said he was going to get married just because he wanted to get a little bit of attention from his family. The real name of the character is Harold, but everyone calls him “Happy.” The reason for that is because he always tries to support everyone around him, so people do not argue with each other and feel happy.
All the other characters portrayed in the play aim to show the difference between the Loman family and the people around them. Thus, their neighbors, Charley and his son Bernard are represented as subjects of Willy’s jealousy because of their success and wealth. Ironically, Willy has a relative, Ben, who achieved the so-called American dream and became fantastically rich. He is shown as a role model for Willy, whose dream about wealth will never come true.
The Main Themes of the Play
The play Death of Salesman is a combination of dreams, memories, and fantasies. The central theme of the play turns out to be denial. The protagonist of the story, Willy Loman, denies the reality where he lives and fails to realize that he is not a successful salesman and his sons are not businessmen. He gets annoyed during the short period of his backslide to the present because everything does not look in the way how he sees it in the dreams. Eventually, he begins to spend more time in his pleasant memories, trying to escape reality.
The life of Willy demonstrates the crackdown of the American dream, which is usually considered as something that can always be achieved through hard work and proper efforts. However, the author shows that despite Willy’s lifetime efforts, he failed to discover the secret of success and become wealthy (Thompson, “Built like Adonises” 26). As a result, Willy commits suicide at the end of the play, being unable to bear with a substantial discrepancy between his desires and abilities. The scene of Willy’s death conveys the idea that people must appreciate their lives even if they are poor and do not have everything they want.
The theme of denial is further developed through the demonstration of relationships between Willy and his elder son, Biff. Willy does not understand why Biff does not adore him anymore as he used to be in the past because he forgot about the incident that happened years ago. It facilitates tension between them, which has already been existed for a long time due to the high expectations of Willy toward his son. Biff, however, runs between his two main dreams, namely, to meet the expectations of his father and do what he likes. At the end of the play, it becomes evident that Biff fails to please Willy. However, the author gives him a chance to change his life and sends him to the West.
Similarly, Willy’s wife, Linda, denies that her husband needs professional help. Being aware of Willy’s mental problems, she prefers to ignore them and protect his illusions. She treats his dreams as truth and persuades Biff and Happy to do so as well. By doing so, Linda tried to save the piece in her family and avoid arguments. Therefore, all the members of the Loman family deny the reality of pursuing their desires and dreams.
Also, Miller managed to show the social values of Americans by describing the lives of the protagonists of the story. In other words, the author suggests the spectators a mirror where they can see themselves. He shows the variety of American society and different people that occupy one space. All of the individuals possess divergent traits, preferences, and lifestyles. Thus, Willy believes that the main characteristics that his children should have are likability and initiative. Biff and Happy, however, have different views and do not share the opinion of their father. Showing the relationships between Willy and his son, Miller demonstrates the shift in the values of American society that occurred in the 20th century.
Thus, the generation of Willy actively pursued the idea of the American dream that promised everyone to be happy and prosperous. The majority of representatives of the older generation, including Willy, his relative Ben, and neighbor Charley, see wealth and financial stability as the main factor that defines the success of human beings. The Depression of the 1930s, however, broke all the promises that were given to the citizens of the USA, and the American dream faded (Bindas 165).
While it caused disappointment and dissatisfaction of the elderly, young people seemed to react differently due to the transformation of the social values of younger generations. For instance, Biff is a realist, and he does not dream about a luxurious life. Instead, Biff admits that he is a regular man, who wants to settle down somewhere in the West and hold a farm. Similarly, his brother, Happy, does not think about becoming a businessman. He desperately tries to attract the attention of his family as it helps him to feel happy, and it seems like it is everything he needs.
Therefore, the play Death of a Salesman is not a simple story that describes the interaction of a group of people. Instead, it shows a family system, which shapes individuals’ behaviors and attitudes. Analyzing their behaviors and traits, it is possible to suggest that the theme of denial is a central idea of the story. This opinion is supported by Allan and Nancy Chavkin, who asserts that the theme of rejection is at the heart of Death of Salesman (27). Thus, the once popular idea of pursuing an American dream stopped being attractive for the new generation and was cracked by Miller, which helped him to reveal the social values of Americans.
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It can be concluded that the play Death of Salesman, written by Arthur Miller, is a truly unique and valuable piece of art. Based on the communication of people within the Loman family, the author managed to raise the importance of rejection in people’s lives. Miller shows that humans must have the ability to appreciate what they have and accept their realities. The suicide of the protagonist of the story at the end of the play highlights that people’s refusal to accept the lives they have leads to negative consequences.
Also, the drama demonstrates the transformation of the social values of Americans, which happened due to the destruction of concepts of the American dream in the first half of the 20th century. Since the play suggests many exciting ideas and thoughts, it can be recommended to become familiar with this composition for both youth and adults.
Bindas, Kenneth. “Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930–1941.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 49, no. 1, 2018, pp. 164-165.
Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Chavkin. “Looking at Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman through the Lens of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection Theory and Family Systems Theory.” The Arthur Miller Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 2015, pp. 27-44.
Thompson, Terry. “Built like Adonises: Evoking Greek Icons in Death of a Salesman.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 3, 2016, pp. 24-34.
—. “The Baggage Handlers: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” The Explicator, vol. 75, no. 1, 2017, pp. 52-54.