Death of a Salesman as a Social Drama


The play, Death of a Salesman, portrays the theme of American dream and its impact on ordinary citizens like Willy Loman and his sons. Miller portrays that for Willy, the pride, the disappointment, the suffering are never so deeply felt, or so variously, as in relation to Biff, the almost tangible clay that Willy had hoped to mold in his own image. False dreams and ideals ruin life of his children, Biff and Happy, when they try to fulfill expectations and hopes of their father.

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Miller depicts that Willy’s contradictory words and actions have a negative impact on his children and family relations. Ideals of wealth and high social position influence his son, Happy, who embodies all bad traits of his father. Loman encounters many pitfalls in his character: he is neither an ideal father nor an ideal husband. These are the defects of his weakness, and, in spite of them, his substantial loyalty to his wife and children and to the cherished ideals of his society are unquestionable. “Willy’s son, Happy, is himself wedded to money values and says over his father’s coffin that he’s going to stick to them for his father’s sake” (Cardullo 2006). Happy trusts his father as a child, and a large part of his failings as a man may be directly traced to his uncritical acceptance of contemporary social values. Happy is a liar and boaster; he is unable to overcome false dreams and expectations of his father (“Death of a Salesman” 2008). Biff is an opposite character to Happy, thus he is also influenced by false dreams of his father. Willy hopes that one day Biff becomes a prosperous and successful businessman but Biff has no skills and knowledge to compete in the business world. The main problem for Biff is that Willy expects his son to fitful his dreams and life hopes. “Biff was so aggrandized by his father that he became kleptomaniacal as a boy and even now, after his father-as-idol has collapsed, he can’t resist stealing a successful businessman’s fountain pen as a niggling revenge against that man’s success and his own lack of it” (Cardullo 2006). Biff is limited by these hopes and tensions unable to find his own life path. Dreams of a better future slowly take the shape of wishful fantasies, so much so that the sharpness of the conflict between illusion and reality, between Loman’s little dreams and the impersonal forces of society, seems to be apparently lost in comprehensive images of extraordinary poetic force. An affair of Willy with the Woman influences Biff’s perception of the father and their relations: he isolates from Willy and understands false ideals imposed on him by his father. The playwright has taken particular care throughout to underline the sense of inadequacy in Loman’s life, his idealized attitude towards a society he never understands, and above all to convey the image of a trapped animal in a rigid social structure (“Death of a Salesman” 2008). Henc Biff, who tries to retrace the steps of his father into the past and the West, is unable to accept a simple sense of harmony with his surroundings as adequate to the definition of success which his father has instilled in him, though that harmony is precisely what his father longs to achieve.

False values and ideals ruin life of Biff and Happy and prevent them to choose their own life path. Biff dreams to become a famous football star but his father convinces him to change his life and become a businessman. Willy’s favorite son, Biff, is even more dextrous than his father—in high school he is a star athlete and, as a man, he can find happiness only as a ranch hand; one remembers that Willy’s father was a pioneer type who drove over the country in a wagon, earning money by ingenious inventions and the making of flutes. Willy’s mystique of physical skill is thus a reflection of the simpler, pioneer life he craves, a symptom and a symbol of his revolt against the constraints of the modern city. He fails to gain the minimum sense of security and prosperity in his profession, and he looses the respect and affection of his children for whom he cares so much. Willy Loman, however, is largely responsible for this failure. Biff is the creature of the father, and this apex of a self-created edifice of the future becomes the instrument whereby Willy is hurtled to his false ideals. In Death of a Salesman this is Willy Loman’s adultery, which by alienating his son, Biff, has destroyed the strongest value in Willy’s life. The value that Willy and his sons attach to manual work, and its glamorous extension, sport, their belief that it is necessary for a man to keep fit, to be able to handle tools and build things.

Willy’s actions turn Biff and Happy out the way they do through Willy’s motivation and persuasion, and desire to fulfill his own dreams and life hopes. Biff and Happy are trapped in a society which prevents them establishing anything to outlast themselves. Willy ruins the lives of his sons as well as his own. Willy Loman’s entire life is a question mark in that direction, although he does never suspect that he is asking this question throughout his career as a salesman. In fact he is not selling automobiles, he is selling himself to ensure personal fulfillment, and peace and happiness in the family. “Where Willy Loman is a salesman, his son Biff is a thief. Yet these are fellow Americans to whom “attention must be paid.” Arthur Miller has written the tragedy that Illuminates the dark side of American success” (Oates 2006). And at both the levels he fails as millions do in a competitive commercialized society. His failure is all the more pitiable because in an age of rigid organization he is content to cherish and follow the declared ideal of the great open society: he is hardworking, he is honest, he trains his sons to be ‘well liked’—and yet everything he touches come to nothing. It is almost a typical case of the American dream transformed into American illusion. Willy is confronted by indubitable failure in his vocation and with rejection by his so Biff , who cannot forgive either Willy’s night with a woman or the false values that Willy inculcated in him, Willy believes he can recover family solidarity by endowing it with his insurance money through his suicide. Biff is a failure because he remained a slave to his father’s “phoney dream” even after he has rejected his father as a fake. Willy never tells the boys they need skill or industriousness; indeed, he sedulously encourages them, especially Biff, in cutting corners and relying on personal magnetism to carry the day. One might say he determinedly sells them the bill of goods he has once been sold, infecting the next generation with the vocational pathology whose symptoms bring him down. Happy’s sharp business practices may incline toward innovation on the style of his Uncle Ben, his is a kind of empty conformity. Happy gets what he thinks he wants, but his life is somehow flavorless, without bite or savor.


In sum, Miller seizes the conflicts of his society to interpret them in the light of human values so much so that his vision transcends the immediate and the contemporary; it projects values associated with tragic imagination, values that are limited to man’s position in society, values that are rarely concerned with the cosmic relevance of man. He strikes an affirmative note in the tradition of the social drama, but his moral imagination extends beyond the anxieties of the protest plays.

Works Cited

  1. Death of a Salesman. Britannica Online. 2008. Web.
  2. Miller, A. Death of a Salesman: 50th Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books; 50th Annni edition, 1999.
  3. Oates. J. C. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: A Celebration. 2006. Web.
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