Death of a Salesman: Literary Analysis Essay

A radical innovative strategy in the literary analysis of a text in the modern literary learning and appreciation has been that of the literary experience which insists on the appreciating of a literary work as it is experienced by the reader and the elimination of the intimidating elements of literary analysis and appreciation including the specialized terminology and the categorization. A literary analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, one of the most celebrated plays in American literature, as to draw out its theme, plot, structure, character, and setting proves that the literary merit of the play is astonishingly great. This kind of analysis is often counted in an understanding of the ideas and messages conveyed by the novel and the identification of the literary tools used by the writer in order to gain the expected literary effect will assist in such an analysis. Therefore, this literary analysis has been of supreme literary value as it helps one in a better understanding and greater appreciation of the Death of a Salesman. In a very remarkable analysis of the play, the Death of a Salesman may be well “viewed as a social commentary, a Freudian analysis of family structure, an anti-establishment portrait of capitalism and religion, a documentary on sales. But, according to Arthur Miller, its origin and meaning are of much simpler stuff. The play grew from observations of ordinary life, a simple frame house surrounded by others almost identical to it, a house filled with children who will grow and leave a house that will one day be full of strangers. It is a play about the fabric of family life; the day-to-day banter among family members, as well as the moments of intense joy and sorrow. It is a play about agony, about a boy’s belief in his father, and a father’s dreams for his sons and himself. Although the play deals with failure and disillusionment, it also celebrates humanity and the love between a father and a son” (“Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman: Meaning & Art”). The article analyses the celebrated play in order to contribute to a deep understanding of the real meaning, idea, theme, plot, structure, and true merit of the work.

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As we have seen, the play was an instant success in the literary circles as well as in the stages and there are various elements that explain the glorious success of the play. This literary analysis, through an investigative examination of the play, aims at bringing out the elements that went into the success of the play. Therefore, it is important to begin this analysis of the play with a short investigation of the plot followed by a serious explication of the supreme themes of the play. Basically, the play is concerned with the life and death of a salesman who lived in a world of dreams and completely avoided the thoughts of reality. Death of a Salesman needs to be addressed on the basis of this ultimate fact of the play. This best-known work by Miller treats the ending hours in the life of Willy Loman, an old salesman. On a specific day, Loman quarrels constantly with Biff, his older son, who has come back home after spending time out West. He is also rebuked by his company after more than 30 years of strenuous sweat for it. He continues to scrounge money from one of his previous friends to conceal the fact that he has not been earning anything from his sales work. He “conjures up the presence of his dead brother and other memories of a happier past; recalls as well the traumatic moment when Biff, a teenager, discovered him in a hotel room with another woman; and, finally, because he is worth more dead than alive (thanks to an insurance policy), kills himself at the wheel of his automobile” (Walsh). Thus, the play culminates in the death of the salesman. There are important questions regarding his suicide that have been faced by the reader. However, the epilogue of the play has been of significant consideration in an understanding of the meaning of the play. Thus, we find that in the epilogue Willy’s neighbor defends his memory, “Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” (Miller).

The theme of the literary work has been one prominent element of literary analysis and this discussion on the play Death of a Salesman needs to include an investigation of the major themes underlining the work. Therefore, it is significant to mention that a primary reading or analysis of the play can be instrumental in an understanding of the key themes that run through the play. Thus, in this literary analysis, we may understand the most prominent themes of the play as the American dream, abandonment, betrayal, and the like. The effect of each of these themes on the main characters is worth analyzing. To explicate on these basic themes, we can very well understand that Willy sincerely believes in the promise of the American Dream—that a “well-liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will absolutely and deservedly obtain the material comforts that the modern American life offers. Strangely, his obsession with the outward qualities of attractiveness and likeability is contrary to a more coarse, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without grievance as the means to triumph. “Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life… Willy’s life charts a course from abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time… Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him” (Death of a Salesman: Study Guide: Themes). Our understanding of these primary themes of the play is augmented by the critical analysis of the play that has been available. When the play is treated as an important commentary upon the society of the time, it is significant to see Willy, representing a normal American, is completely dedicated to a life according to the American Dream which runs through the play as a significant theme.

A prominently notable element of the Death of a Salesman by Miller is that the play has been of great contribution to the literary tradition of America. When the dominant themes in the drama of twentieth-century literature are investigated, perhaps the prominent among them seems to be an attempt to recuperate or restate tragic anxiety about the human state. Thus, we find that a persistent apprehension about the decisive meaning of human suffering has been reflected, in one way or another, in the works of all of the major twentieth-century playwrights. The contribution of the American drama in this regard is worth mentionable as a particular concern of this literature has been to deal with the modern face of suffering. Arthur Miller is perhaps the most successful dramatist in the American group in terms of his ability to formulate coherent mythic patterns. Miller demonstrates his superiority to other American dramatists in the symbolic interpretation of universal dimensions of collective experience through Death of a Salesman. The play becomes conceivably the most nearly mature myth about human torment in an industrial age. Miller has formulated, in the play, a declaration about the nature of humanitarian crises in the modern era which seems, evermore, to be valid to the entire structure of civilized experience. “The superiority of Death of a Salesman over the other worthy American dramas…is the sensitivity of its myth: the critical relationship of its central symbol—the Salesman—to the interpretation of the whole of contemporary life.” (Jackson 7-8). Thus, the play has got great relevance in the American literary tradition as it contributes to the general themes of American literature and the literature of the twentieth century in general.

Another of the dominant themes of the play has been the inability of the chief characters to differentiate meaningfully between reality and illusion and this becomes especially important as the general mood of the play tends to move in this direction and the total experience of the different characters is based on this essential nature of the play. All through the play, we find that the Romans in general and Willy, in particular, cannot discriminate between reality and illusion. This becomes one of the major themes and sources of conflict in the play. Willy is not able to identify who he and his sons are. He conceives that they are great men who have every potential to be victorious in the business world. Regrettably, the notion proves itself to be wrong as they cannot, in reality, be successful. “This reality versus illusion problem eventually brings about Willy’s downfall. In the end, Willy believes that a man can be “worth more dead than alive.” Charlie, always the voice of reality tells Willy, “A man isn’t worth anything dead.” Willy is also unable to see change. He is a man lost in the modern era of technology. (Theme). Now, to discuss the structure of the play by Miller, it is evidently a play in three parts, two Acts and the Requiem. The play is structured to include three different days in three sections and the first two sections deal with the main themes and elements of the play through the reflections of Willy with the use of flashbacks which form a central element in the overall structure of the play. The play beginning in the present moves back into the past through flashbacks. And, this forms a significant tool for the author. “The events that took place in the past expose for the reader the situations that have led up to the present-day boiling point in the Loman household.” (Structure). This clearly reveals the structure of the play and this structure can very well be rated as the dramatist’s essential way of dealing with the themes of the play most effectively.

It is also essential to have a clear idea about the characters of Death of a Salesman and their specific importance in an overall analysis of the play. Thus, we can see that Willy Loman, the protagonist of the play, is an unconfident, self-deluded salesman. Most essentially, he is a strong believer in the concept of the American Dream which, as he thinks, would make him a successful person. In fact, he never achieves success in life. When his sons also fail to achieve this same success that he hoped for, Willy becomes a terribly disappointed person which turns him go mentally disabled. The overpowering and irresistible apprehension which the character feels due to the actual difference between what he hoped for and what he gained along with other powerful elements in his character such as the social elements contribute to the wider appeal of the play. The other main characters include the two sons of Willy, Biff, and Happy, Linda the wife of Willy, Charley, Bernard, Ben, and the unnamed woman. All these characters have an important contribution to make, in one way or other, towards the success of the play.

There are several ways to analyze the play and various ways of critical approaches contribute to an analysis of the play. One of the most essential types of criticism that can be applied to this play is archetypal criticism and when evaluated from this point, the play is rated very significantly in a way that it represents the culture of a society. This remains one background contributor to the volumes of literature that has been written on the myth of the American Dream. As we have already analyzed, one prominent theme of the play has been that of the American Dream as represented and illustrated through the central characters of the play. Thus, the culture and tradition of an entire generation and a group of people have been very essentially reflected through the masterly play by Miller. It incorporates and reflects fading dreams of a nation as well as the real potency of a myth as the American Dream. It also points to the archetypal myths that have been central to an entire community. The 1930 Depression seemed to smash all the promises America had made to its citizens. The 1929 stock market crash ended a particular version of history that is optimistic and positive. In an overview, it seemed that the American dream faded. However, it was not absolute. “Myths as potent as that, illusions with such a purchase on the national psyche, are not so easily denied. In an immigrant society, which has, by definition, chosen to reject the past, faith in the future is not a matter of choice. When today fails to offer the justification for hope, tomorrow becomes the only grail worth pursuing. Arthur Miller knew this. When Charley, Willy Loman’s next-door neighbor, says that “a salesman is got to dream,” he sums up not only Willy’s life but a central tenet of his culture.” (Bigsby vii). Thus, we can very well argue that the play by Miller has been instrumental in keeping the optimistic spirit of the cultural myth of an entire nation. This is the real significance of the play by Arthur Miller.

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Another remarkable element in the character of Willy who mythologizes people around is relating to the mythological way of understanding the play. For example, he compares Biff and Happy to the mythic Greek figures Adonis and Hercules as they are identified by him as apexes of “personal attractiveness” and power through “well-liked” -ness and notably, “to him, they seem the very incarnation of the American Dream.” Willy’s mythologizing proves quite nearsighted, however. Willy fails to realize the hopelessness of Singleman’s lonely, on-the-job, on-the-road death…Similarly, neither Biff nor Happy ends up leading an ideal, godlike life; while Happy does believe in the American Dream, it seems likely that he will end up no better off than the decidedly un-godlike Willy” (Death of a Salesman: Study Guide: Mythic Figures). Therefore, the use of such mythic figures also needs to be understood on the basis of an archetypal way of dealing with this literary piece.

There have been a large number of critical works that concentrate on the various merits of the play and an overall discussion of what elements go into the making of the play an important achievement in the American literary tradition brings about a number of conclusions. In an ultimate conclusion, it is not possible for a common reader of the play to arrive at all the elementary aspects of this literary achievement. There have been severe criticisms as well about the merit of the play. However, no analysis of the play can conclude without paying attention to the true merits of the play that distinguishes it from the countless volumes of literary pieces in a similar stratum. “There are a hundred ways to see the play, as Miller himself knew, bogus ways and true ways. We can smile when Miller tells us that as one audience left the play he heard a man, probably a salesman, tell another that New England always was a lousy territory. But something about the play strikes deep now, and did in 1949, and will. This something is the poetry of the play, not something that can be isolated in particulars, but the way the whole play ranges out from its center which is Willy, the way it echoes far past its own American images, the way it demands a hearing for its own sentimentality and exaggeration. The great issues the play embodies are human issues brought to a focal point on the American continent.” (Heyen 48). In an ultimate conclusion to the literary analysis of the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, it can be well established that the merit of the literary piece is far superior and the several awards and the long-lasting recognition it has achieved proves the true class of the play as well as the playwright.

Works Cited

Bigsby, Christopher. Introduction: Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts by Arthur Miller. (n.d). Penguin Classics. 1998. vii.

“Themes, Motifs & Symbols.” SparkNotes. 2006.

Walsh, David. “Arthur Miller, An American Playwright.” World Socialist Web Site.org. 2005.

“Death of a Salesman: Study Guide: Themes, Motifs & Symbols.” SparkNotes. 2006.

Heyen, William. “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the American Dream.” New York: Chelsea House. 1988. 48.

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Jackson, Esther Merle. “Death of a Salesman: Tragic Myth in the Modern Theatre.” New York: Chelsea House. 1988. 7-8.

“Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman: Meaning & Art” Yahoo: Geocities. 2008.

Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman.” Penguin Classics. 1998.

“Theme, Death of a Salesman.” Homework Online. 1998-2008. 2008.

“Structure, Death of a Salesman.” Homework Online. 1998-2008. 2008.

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