Reality vs. Illusions: Death of a Salesman Analysis Essay


Death of a Salesman takes place in 1949, four years after World War II has ended. America is enjoying a postwar economic boom, but the 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. The overall situation may seem a bit far-fetched to present-day Americans, but it must be remembered that those times were tempered by three main disadvantages – racism, communism and the formation of status groups.

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Main Objectives of Comparing

The Lomans live in Brooklyn, a busy suburb of New York City. Miller creates contrasting characters of Willy and his wife Linda in order to depict and demonstrate different social and personal values typical of those times. In spite of the fact that Willy and Linda live together for many years, they have different worldviews and values.

In relation to the novel’s primary theme (reality versus illusion) Willy turns out to be an illusionist. He totally believes in the American Dream, and when he finds constant disparity between it and his status in life, he becomes disoriented and starts increasingly taking comfort in imaginary situations that are favorable to him and his family. The imaginary situations comprise his achievement of the American Dream {he imagines he is ‘well liked’ and successful, while his sons do well at school, and particularly Biff, his eldest son, is a respected high school footballer}. He 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 contrast to Willy, Linda is a realist and materialist. 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, such as suggesting he asks his boss Howard Wagner for a New York based job that would not involve lengthy sales trips that tended to exhaust him. While dreams, illusions, and self-deceptions feed the action of this play, Linda, in contrast, seems very much planted in reality with her concerns over house payments, mending, insurance premiums, and her husband’s care.

Willy is depicted as a cold man who values money and personal success more than family happiness and family relations. He is so immersed in disillusionment, that he cannot recognize 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.” Linda is a loving and sympathetic woman, warm hearted, kind and the fulcrum that keeps the family together in spite of their problems.

Willy is 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. 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 is also not too tolerant of his second son Happy, whom he considers too lowly employed. Here too Willy 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.” On the other hand, Linda is patient and tolerant towards all her family members, in particular towards her husband. She does everything possible to support her husband, encouraging 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. Linda is a positive representation, and sometimes an ideal, of the nurturing wife and mother.

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 the 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 upbringing, choosing instead to pay more attention to his work and personal ambitions. Miller does not give a picture of an ideal, romantic father figure who acts as his children’s friend, model, and provider. In contrast to this, Willy is a portrayal of ambitious father who cares about social recognition and personal image knowing nothing about his sons. While Willy sees his son 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. Death of a Salesman 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 for bringing friendship to bear–or personality” (Miler 47). Willy misses the respect, comradeship, and gratitude that had been a vital part of the business relationships. Willy acts as the family provider, while Linda takes a subservient back seat, and Hap and Biff struggle to make it big.

The main similarity between the characters is that 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; 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 was most probably illerate, she could very well have found a job as a seamstress or as a factory hand drawing a low emolument, at least until her husband got another job. Yet despite Linda’s clear sight 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 at the end of the play is a dramatic act which shows that dreams ruin family happiness and life of all family members. “I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life” (Miller 23). In contrast, 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 realization set in and she realizes that he has relieved them from chronic debt, inability to sustain themselves and acquire better possessions to live a higher standard of life – this realization makes her ultimately break down in tears, whispering brokenly that they are now ‘free’.

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In sum, Miller depicts two different types of people: 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 epitomized in the American Dream, but fails to achieve them. This contrast allows Miller to depict a typical American family and criticize the basic elements of the American Dream showing that people like the Lomans believe in dreams and ideals created by the society and unable to evaluate and predict possible consequences of their actions or inactions. Arthur Miller does well to portray the stark reality in American during those days, and it is highly fitting that he was rewarded by the Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman.

Works Cited

Miller, A. Death of a Salesman: 50th Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books; 50th Anni edition, 1999.

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