Death of a Salesman: the Theme of a Small Man in a Big City


To some extent, the unique social and spiritual image of the United States attracts the constant attention of many people, including researchers and writers. The latter, as a rule, tend to understand and convey the originality of the American society, its past, present, and possible future scenario in their literary works. Little attention is paid not only in American but also in the world, and literature uses the theme of the death of a character. Most writers use the method of death as the atonement for the sins of the hero or as a great sacrifice to justify any action. In any case, the end of a character should cause certain readers feelings of regret, empathy, and grief. The famous play Death of a Salesman, based on the integration of the described phenomena, immediately nominated the author, Arthur Miller, to the first ranks of American playwrights. This research paper is designed to analyze the literary work of Death of a Salesman from the point of view of the unique techniques that Miller uses through the image of a small man in the big city.

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Miller’s Unique Techniques


The number of those who see suicide as the only way out of their nightmare is growing. Millions of citizens are in constant anxiety about tomorrow and are doomed to do so until death relieves them of their torment. The protagonist of the play is so distraught; his nervous system is so shaken that he decides to commit suicide (Zhao 403). This is the central theme of the dramatic play Death of a Salesman. Whether a simple worker or a small entrepreneur is able to secure his future, the playwright asks a rhetorical question. The answer does not keep the reader waiting: during the play, the reader will repeatedly face the idea that the little man will always have to suffer.

From the very first pages, the reader understands that the structure of the play is original. Miller consciously refuses a linear narrative and builds a conflict, linking the past with the present, and the real with the fictional. Retrospectives give life to the protagonist, Willy Loman, a significant dramatic depth (Parker 145). Death of a Salesman is a tragic play of the drama genre, where the actions unfold not within an extended period, but only within 24 hours. With this move, the author additionally creates the effect of involvement, because the reader does not leave the hero for literally a minute, living with him all day long.

The Effect of the Pressing Space

The reader will discover the effect of the pressing space not only on Loman but on himself as well. Miller achieves this with the help of a popular contrast technique realized through metaphors. The author writes unequivocally about the pressure from the world around him: “as more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home” (Miller 4). And in the center of the pop-up image is the tiny and fragile house of a salesman doomed to failure. The little shelter of the little man will soon be wiped off the face of the earth by the coming city and a big firm world (Parker 145). Plunging the reader into a dull atmosphere of despair, hopelessness, and imminent death of the hero, the playwright already subtly hints at one single outcome of the whole performance – the tragic one. For readers, it would be a great surprise if the end seemed different.

Arthur Miller does not aim to make life easier for the hero or to simplify his problems. Indeed, it is quite easy to blame the capitalist system in such a vital situation, where business sharks destroy the fry. However, the truth is that it has always been and will always be – the strong can suppress the weak. And if a salesman wants to have a good and quiet life, saturated with everything he dreams of, then Loman must show resilience. The play will repeatedly convince the reader that Loman is mainly responsible for his fall because he lived in a world of illusions (Otten 286). The illusion is the famous American dream, which became the reason for the creation of many literary works, and influenced Arthur Miller. The image of Willy Loman is comparable to the image of an average American of the twentieth century, convinced of the power of the nation and seduced by a system of often misleading ideas of life.

Small Man’s Desire

Miller reveals the problem of a small man who wants to realize his American dream. While the reader has the idea of unrealistic plans of the hero, the author is beneficial to introduce the older brother Willy, who is supposed to be created for the contrast. Ben left everything and went to Alaska, where he was able to become a rich man. The symbolic image of his brother repeatedly appears in order to call Willy after himself, to give hope for a new better life. The older brother’s phrase addressed to the protagonist, only confirms it: “opportunity is tremendous in Alaska, William. Surprised you are not up there” (Miller 31). But a salesman does not belong to the kind of people who can change their destiny with their own hands. In fact, he has never been able to take such a risk. It’s much easier for people like him to work in a low-wage job, come to a lonely and fragile home, and dream of a good life in his spare time is like living a brother’s life. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the name of the main character has a symbolic meaning. “Loman” can be interpreted as a small man desperate to find his place in the world.

Trying to justify the life of the protagonist at least a little bit, it is possible to note that the hopes for a good experience of Loman could not arise on their own. The reason for them, or rather the guilt, was the historical situation in the United States in the 1920s. The Industrial Revolution and the apotheosis of the industrial system gave rise to dreams not only for literary heroes but also for a generation of Americans and migrants. This led to the phenomenon of a small man living among giant skyscrapers.

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The Effect of Hopelessness

To enhance the effect of hopelessness and futility of being the protagonist, Miller uses a large number of literary techniques, painted in dark shades. The last lines of the play have a small description of the life of the Loman salesman, in particular, “he is a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back¬ – that is an earthquake” (Miller 104). Such a comparison of the importance of a simple smile in the life of such a doomed man characterizes the whole life of the protagonist. He is a dreamer, naive, and gentle man who chose not his path, not his profession, and a job that requires calculus, determination, and impudence – all that is missing Willy (Otten 288). Continuing to introduce the reader to the world of the failed fate of Loman, Arthur Miller, in his literary traditions, creates another contrast. Salesman Willy was seduced by the success of Dave Singleman and decided to become his shadow (Jacobson 249). It is important to note that Loman does not have a desire to exceed the ideal of sales, but only the desire to become the same. However, if a born salesman needs only a small effort to earn a living, the protagonist has to work around the clock to try to make money for his own business. Using a series of hyperboles, “I am tired to the death,” “I am getting tired,” Miller tries to convey the state of his hero, who does not live his life (Otten 290). Willy Loman chose the wrong, deadly for him landmarks in life, inevitably leading to the tragedy.

The Feeling of Inevitability

The play Death of a Salesman page by page leads the reader to the inevitable. On the way to the death of the main literary hero, it becomes clear that suicide will not become a quintessence of Willy’s deeds, and can hardly justify his lifestyle. The tragedy of Loman is that he has no life support (Jacobson 247). The lack of durability in life and leads the salesman to imminent death. Paradoxically, the more obvious the fragility and deceptiveness of the American dream is, the more adherents of this ideology cling to the concept. Thus, Willy Loman, in the last minutes of his life, still believes in life insurance, and presents (albeit indirectly) the sum insured as a gift to his children. Willy will never understand for the rest of his life that he lived in a world of illusions and dreams (Zhao 406). Deep down, Willie did not believe in his commandment, like many Americans, but he who professed it knew that there was no other way to survive.

Miller shows that the cause of the tragedy of both Loman and many other little people in the big city is their worldview blindness. The central dramatic conflict of the play is the conflict between illusion and reality, which is complicated by the traditional family conflict for Miller’s drama (Otten 281). Disagreements in Death of a Salesman occur between a father, a bearer of false ideals, and two adult sons. The problem of blindness spreads to the whole family of a literary character, making his children hostage to the system. First of all, this is the eldest son, on whom Willy places an unbearable burden of unrealistic expectations. He is confident that his son, under his natural charm, already has everything he needs to succeed (Jacobson 251). The confirmation of these words is found in Willy’s dialogue with his son Biff. The father instructs his son with the beliefs “because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead” (Miller 21). Willy believes that it is enough to have a few specific character traits to make a dream come true.

Hoping for the advantage of a good impression, charm, attractive appearance, Willy, at the same time, continually reflexes – feels doubtful, uncertain, but he trusts only himself to think about it. It is not difficult to understand why Willy imposes a particular lifestyle and thinking style on his son. As a loser, the salesman has achieved nothing significant, and to justify his existence, he grasps the possibilities of his children. After all, if any of them can reach certain heights, Willy will take it as his merit, too.

Biblical Motives

The biblical myth of the prodigal son’s return to Death of a Salesman is interpreted as follows: Biff, who has returned to the bosom of the hobo’s family, is morally judging his father, his “false dreams” and in the end declares his decision to go to the West in search of freedom forever. At this stage, the parallel between Biff’s eldest son and his older brother Ben, who at the time decided to leave everything and go to Alaska, is visible.

In Miller’s play, the influence of expressionism is evident, which was primarily expressed in an attempt to dramatize the subjective picture of events seen through the prism of the central hero’s consciousness (Otten 285). Expressionism also had an impact on the fragmentary structure of the action, in which scenes from the present alternate with scenes from the past, allowing the heroes to move freely through time and space. “Then” and “Now” do not just complement each other – they are merged, communicating logical and psychological motivation to the actions of the characters. The present grows from the past, and the history, in turn, is projected into the present. The existing problem of controlling the temporal flows in the theatrical productions of this play is solved by the playwright with the help of a simple method: if there is a permanent set in the form of a frame of the Willy house. Nowadays, the actors observe the imaginary boundaries of the wall partitions. In scenes from the past, all the restrictions are violated, and the characters come out through the walls on the stage.


The dramatic play Death of a Salesman has given Arthur Miller worldwide fame. In the years when the play was published, its message could be read as an ideological orientation through a critical understanding of the American dream. In the light of contemporary realities, of course, it will be read in a new way, in a broader context, in particular as a work on the collision of fragile humanity with the world, in which the primary value is considered to be the ability to make money. The play demonstrated Miller’s best quality, namely the ability to compassionate the heroes. Miller’s literary work belongs to the style of tragic, revealing false ideals and aspirations of the consumer society. With the help of stylistic methods, such as contrast, image, and metaphor, the author tries to tell about the fate of Americans of the XX century by the example of his heroes. About those who, since childhood, felt all the cruelty of society and in search of some shelter from the hardships of life believed in the imposed values, too late to realize that for this have to pay the price of spirituality and loss of meaning in life. In other words, the fates of the heroes of the work are followed by a tragic image of America of the XX century.

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Works Cited

Jacobson, Irving. “Family dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American literature, vol. 47, no. 2, 1975, pp. 247-258.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Revised Edition. Penguin, 1996.

Otten, Terry. “Death of a Salesman at Fifty—Still” Coming Home to Roost”.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 41, no. 3, 1999, pp. 280-310.

Parker, Brian. “Point of View in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 1966, pp. 144-157.

Zhao, Jinying. An Analysis of Willy Loman’s Tragedy in Death of a Salesman. 2016.

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