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Death of a Salesman: Plot Analysis

The events of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman take place in 1949, four years after the Second World War has come to an end. America is enjoying a postwar economic boom, but the World War has caused a shake-up in American society, changing the way people view business, leisure, themselves, and others, making the American way of life very different from what was projected as the ‘American Dream’ by the Founding Fathers of the country. In Miller’s play that is totally woven around the American Dream, the Lomans live in Brooklyn, a busy suburb of New York City. In pursuance of the novel’s primary theme – reality versus illusion in relation to the American Dream – Miller creates contrasting characters of Willy Loman and his wife Linda in order to show the two main but contrasting mindsets of people during those days in their response to the American Dream. While depicting Willy as one striving to emulate in his own life his country’s suffusion with capital materialism fuelled by the post World War II economy, Miller criticises such materialism for camouflaging the personal factual reality and moral concept of the original American Dream by not only depicting various events in the story that show the realistic state of affairs, but also in Linda Loman portrays a character who, in totally contrast to her husband, is down-to-earth and very realistic about life and the way it should be lived.

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The American Dream is best described by the man who invented the phrase – James Truslow Adams – in his book The Epics of America: “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. [It is] a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the full stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (Kiser). Adams clearly states that the American Dream can turn into a reality for anyone, irrespective of status or community, provided that the individual attains the full level his or her personal achievement which is duly acknowledged by society.

Willy is an illusionist. He totally believes in the American Dream, expecting life to be a rosy path strewn with wealth and prosperity. He is guilty of only looking at one side of the American Dream {the dreamy vision of prosperity and riches} while totally ignoring the other side {the requirement of hard work to attain full level of achievement}. When he finds constant disparity between what he expects and what he has actually achieved in life, he becomes disoriented and starts increasingly taking comfort in imaginary situations that are favourable to him and his family. This tendency to daydream and escape into fantasy while conveniently ignoring reality is exacerbated when Willy’s request to Howard Wagner for a New York job is rejected. Wagner instead tells him to take a vacation – which Willy interprets as being fired. The imaginary situations in which Willy likes to seek refuge all have one thing in common – his successful achievement of the American Dream.

In one day dream, his sons Biff and Happy think back about their adolescent days and their father’s constant criticisms mainly about Biff’s lack of success in life, and daydream about purchasing a ranch in the fantasy ‘West’. Willy daydreams about interacting affectionately with his sons during their younger days when both are happy and Biff is a famous high school football player. Willy even resorts to drawing up comparisons with mythological Greek figures, likening Biff to Adonis and Happy to Hercules, fondly believing that his sons have the same level of perfect attractiveness and power as the fabled Greek mythological heroes. In the daydream, Willy boasts to them that he will resign from his low paying salesman’s job and start a business that grow and flourish to such an extent that it will eclipse the quite successful business of their neighbor Charley. Another daydream involves him flirting with his mistress {‘The Woman,’ a secretary who works for one of Willy’s clients} in a hotel room, during which she expresses her gratefulness for his gift of stockings. A third daydream involves Ben, his brother who migrated to Africa, who discovers a diamond mine there and becomes wealthy; Ben talks about his successful venture, and he and Willy reminisce about their father.

When Willy starts increasingly realising that what he expects is totally different from what he has really achieved and that the comfort of his daydreams is very short-lived, he turns into a cold man who values money and personal success more than family happiness and family relations. He becomes intolerant towards his family members. This is most probably due to him inheriting his father’s genes, as Ben recounts to Willy how their father was a “very wild-hearted man” who would “toss the whole family in the wagon” (Miller 35) and drive right across the country. Willy is particularly intolerant towards Biff, whom he criticizes throughout the play for not developing a good life. Willy is also not too tolerant of Happy {although he has a steady job in New York}, because he feels the job is not paying sufficiently well.

Willy is so immersed in disillusionment at not achieving his one-sided version of the American Dream that he cannot recognize and appreciate the warm love his family offers him. This is in large part due to his guilt at having betrayed his wife by indulging in an adulterous affair with “The Woman.” A major cause of his criticism of Biff is his own sneaking guilt that Biff dropped out of summer school in disgust after finding his father ensconced in a Boston hotel room with “The Woman” in a position of sexual infidelity and betrayal. Willy also feels guilt that Happy’s womanizing ways {he uses the services of prostitutes like Miss Forsythe}, which have interfered with his work concentration and climbing up the job ladder, is a direct result of his father’s genes, as Willy himself is an adulterer, shamelessly betraying his loving wife by his ongoing affair with “The Woman.”

While dreams, illusions, and self-deceptions feed the smooth inter-connection actions of the play, Linda Loman, in contrast to Willy, is a realist and materialist who seems very much planted in reality with her concerns realistic family things such as house payments, mending, insurance premiums, and her husband’s care. While she surely has heard about the American Dream, she realizes that it is cannot be fully realised without a large amount of work and effort. She is a practical woman who accepts their family situation as it stands. She tries her best to help her husband with his work problems, right from the start of the play such as suggesting {in Act I of the play which opens to show Willy coming home after an exhaustive and unsuccessful sales journey}, that he asks his boss Howard Wagner for a New York based job that would not involve lengthy sales trips that tended to exhaust him.

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In keeping with her realistic mindset that is fuelled by a shrewd and correct understanding of the American Dream, Linda is patient and tolerant towards all her family members, in particular towards her husband. She is a loving and sympathetic woman, warm hearted, kind and the fulcrum that keeps the family together in spite of their problems. She does everything possible to support her husband, and fully aware of his obsession with his one-sided interpretation of the American Dream, encourages him by saying better times are around the corner: “It’s changing, Willy, I can feel it changing” (Miller 45). Linda Loman’s central importance seems to be as a voice of protest and outrage against what is happening to her husband {and by association, the general tendency of many Americans during those days to allow materialism to hide the personal factual reality and moral concept of the original American Dream}. By being realistic and trying to make her husband see things as they are and not dream as what they should be, Linda is a positive representation, and sometimes an ideal, of the nurturing wife and mother, who example is fit to be emulated by all those in pursuit of the American Dream.

The different mindset and outlook of the Loman couple affects their everyday life. As a married couple, Willy and Linda have different family and parental duties. Linda is a housewife whose duty is to look after children and her husband. While a mother raises the children, they also need a father’s input. So little do many men understand their role as a father and so little do they take that role seriously that many a father has experienced some difficulty in thinking of himself as such, except in a narrow technical sense. Instead, with the best of intentions, such fathers often think of their children as pals, buddies, and friends. As a father, Willy does not have an active part in the upbringing of his children, choosing instead to pay more attention to his work and skewed personal ambitions as he strives to attain the American Dream of his fantasy. As a result, he is not an ideal, romantic father figure who acts as his children’s friend, model, and provider. In contrast, he is an ambitious father who cares about social recognition and personal image that has been promised by the American Dream, which in reality knowing nothing about his sons. While Willy sees his son Biff as a hero, loved and admired by everyone because of his athletic prowess, and unquestionably destined to succeed because of this, the play suggests another reality, in which, in sports as well as the rest of American life, “business is definitely business” (Miller 28) and Biff the discarded athlete will wind up on the ash-heap, just like his father the discarded salesman, as soon as he fails to make the grade. Miller underlines with deep irony the faith in athletics as a means to a better life that Willy articulates: “Without a penny to his name, three great universities are begging for him, and from there the sky’s the limit, because it’s not what you do, Ben. It’s who you know and the smile on your face” (Miller 49). In contrast, Linda is aware of the problems faced by her sons but can do nothing to change their false values and unachievable dreams. As Willy says: “Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance of bringing friendship to bear, or personality” (Miler 47). Willy misses the respect, comradeship, and gratitude that had been a vital part of relationships. He acts as the family provider just going through the motions as he routinely lives his life according to his own lopsided perspectives, while Linda takes a subservient back seat, and their sons Happy and Biff struggle to make it big.

There is however one similarity among all the plays characters in response to the American Dream – they do nothing to change their family life and false hopes and values. When Willy is terminated from his job, he does not do the logical thing and search industriously for another, possibly better paying job. Instead, he prefers to wallow in self-pity, even going to the extent of borrowing $ 100 from Charley in order to pay his life insurance premium. Similarly, Linda could well have taken up employment to supplement the family income. Even given the fact that she is most probably illiterate, she could very well have found a job as a seamstress or as a factory worker drawing a low emolument, at least until her husband got another job. Yet despite Linda’s clear understanding of the reality that faces them, she allows her family’s dreams to flourish; she even encourages them. It is possible to blame Linda for collaborating in Willy’s unrealistic fantasies and for remaining passive as her family is being destroyed around her. The character of Linda in the daydream scenes, viewed through Willy’s remorseful idealization of her, is quite different from the Linda in the scenes of the present, who is protecting her young when she defends Willy from the boys.

The death of Willy Loman at the end of the play is a dramatic act which shows that dreams in general and the American Dream in particular, which have no basis and connection with reality, not only ruin family happiness but also leads to the ultimate penalty {death} for those who go on pursuing the dream relentlessly to the point of obsession. Willy Loman realises his mistake too late: “I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life” (Miller 23). In contrast to her dead husband, Linda is alive but she is unable to live without support of her husband. When Willy provides the $ 20,000 insurance money as a result of his suicide, Linda is both aggrieved and a little relieved. She is angry because her husband chose take such a devastating step to end his life {due to which she could not initially cry at his funeral eulogy}, but then comprehension gradually sets in and she realises that Willy has in fact not only relieved them from chronic debt and their inability to properly sustain themselves, but has also put them in a position where they can acquire better possessions and be able to live a higher standard of life – this realisation makes her ultimately break down in tears, whispering brokenly that they are now ‘free’.

The ideas and dreams that Happy promises to achieve in memory of his dead father epitomise the American Dream, a dream in pursuit of which Willy lurched from one self-delusion to the other in his life, with each one causing him increasing hopelessness. He resorted to sliding back into memories where his family is satisfied, happy and secure. His tortured mind, driven by his version of the American Dream, failed to understand and appreciate his family’s love for him. As his mental decline accelerated, Willy finally realised that he had achieved nothing of value in his life. He finally reaches the conclusion that the product he sells in life is himself, and that his ultimate sale involves his own life. Willy undertakes the maximum sacrifice {committing suicide, but disguising it as a fatal car crash} that would allow his sons to claim the $ 20,000 insurance money and use it to fulfill the American Dream. At the end of the play Willy gives up his life for his own sins {failures in life} as well as those of his sons {their failure to attain their latent potential within the scope of the American Dream}.

In conclusion, Miller does well to portray the two different ways people went about interpreting the American Dream in those days by exemplifying those perceptions in two different types of people in his play: Linda the realist, a housewife and a keeper of home values, and Willy the illusionist, a salesman who believes in false values and importance of social recognition and success as epitomised in the American Dream, but fails to achieve them. This contrast allows Miller to not only depict the typical life of a typical American family, but also to criticise the basic elements of the American Dream showing that American people like the Lomans believe in dreams and ideals created by society, but are unable to evaluate and predict possible consequences of their actions or inactions. While Arthur Miller has undoubtedly presented the stark reality facing Americans in America during those days very well through his play, his intuition in guessing that such a state of affairs would also continue in future {because it is irrevocably linked to the human tendency to go all out after the ‘dream’ as mentioned in the first part of James Truslow Adams’ description of the American Dream while turning a blind eye to the second part of that description, namely, ‘attaining the fullest stature of which they are capable’(Kiser)} has been so highly appreciated that the writer was deservedly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman.

Today, the allure of the American Dream of the American Founding Fathers which impelled them to fight against British rule exists in the minds and hearts of immigrants {who mostly come from poor nations} to the United States (Kiser). Like Willy Loman in Miller’s play, they dream of achieving instantaneous wealth and prosperity while living a high standard of living and enjoying all the amenities of modern life. They do not realise that such an achievement can be achieved not only after a lot of time, patience and hard work, but also provided they have the right foundation ingredients {suitable educational qualifications coupled with sufficient and proper work experience} to make it happen. In this context, although Arthur Miller could not have possibly foreseen the huge tide of immigrants that would deluge his country in the near future, his play Death of a Salesman also holds practical lessons for all those individuals who make a beeline for the Big Apple in pursuit of the fabled American Dream.

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  • Kiser, Donna. “The American Dream: Myth or Fact?” Associated Content, Inc. 2009.
  • Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman (50th Anniversary Edition).” USA: Penguin Books. 1999.

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