“Poor Willy!” Charley laments in the end at Willy’s funeral. Poor Willy indeed! None of his delusions of grandeur or the glories of being a Salesman came true. Not only is he not rich he committed suicide precisely because he was so poor that he wanted to die just so his family could have the insurance money, but until just about the end his family hated him and was contemptuous of his illusions. Instead of having thousands of people coming to his funeral like his idol, only his family and Charley came over to see him. Amid all this dystopia and disillusionment lie the seeds of hope, after years of disillusionment Biff Loman has finally risen from his stupor and is willing to rebuild his shattered life. His brother Happy is also willing to carry on for his sake. Rather depressing since it did not require the Death of a Salesman to happen. Death of a Salesman is a depressing story of illusions chaffing with the harsh chalkboard of reality.
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The Theme of Death
The Theme of Death of a Salesman is one of the Loman family trapped in its illusions. Locked in their beliefs, they are unable to transcend them even when the reality is already so far separated from the illusion. For example, despite years of being a bum and a loser, Biff is still referred to by his father as a leader of men and a future football star. Happy gives the illusion of being happy and successful when in fact he has a little achievement to substantiate his claims of being a successful person. Even Linda is still trapped in her belief that her husband is a good provider.
However, the true Ostrich with his head in the sand is Willy. Willy is trapped in his belief that there is a future to be made in being a Salesman. He doggedly clings to the story of his idol salesman who was so successful that he didn’t even have to go to his clients to make sales anymore. All the guy had to do was make phone calls. Obvious this man was rich and well respected. When that man died at the age of Eighty tens of thousands flocked to his funeral to give their last respects. Contrast this with Willy in the “Present” of the play. He is so poor that despite being a Salesman he cannot even afford to give his wife stockings and she is forced to darn stockings. This is severe because stockings are one of the wares he sells. Earlier in his life he even uses stockings as an incentive for the woman he used to be unfaithful to his wife with. He is so poor that he is forced to ask Charley his friend for loans just to pay for his insurance.
Speaking of Charley, when he asks for loans from Charley he keeps referring to some future deal or event which will make him rich. When he talks to Charley he speaks as if he is at the top of his game and that his prospects are gleaming more than ever. This is a disconnect with reality since he HAS no worthwhile prospects. His efforts have been so dry and fruitless that he has even stopped going to some of the places where he used to ply his trade because no one buys anything from him there. He still thinks he is the successful up-and-coming salesman from his children’s High School days a good provider, a successful father, and sharp enough to have a mistress on the side well on the way to becoming like his idol. The reality is that he is a decrepit old man with no future and is forced to live a life of penury because of his past failures. His only saving grace is that after decades of paying for it, he finally owns his house and his wife continues to love him and supports him, for reasons known only to her.
The end of the post-war boom
While the depressing theme can be pressed hard upon Willy and by extension his unfortunate sons the theme is also a commentary on the ‘American Dream’ as it existed at the time. Death of a Salesman was set toward the end of the post-war boom of the late-forties. Consumerism was at its height at the end of the war. People were buying up stuff and trying to live a good life to forget the nightmares they endured during the war. However, this had to come to an end eventually. Willy is obviously on the short end of that stick. People no longer have the ravenous appetite they once had for the goods he peddled and he is so locked into the old program that he could not stake out new selling territory or try and make a new source of income. He was destroyed by the ravages of Free Enterprise and Democracy because other people were younger and more vigorous than he was soon taking over.
The Trap of his illusions and dreams is so strong that even his son Happy is infected with it. Happy days at his funeral that his father did not die in vain that “He had a good dream, the only dream a man can have – to come out number one man. He fought it out here, and this where I’m gonna win it for him”. In other words, he is going to live a life just like his father chasing an illusory ideal that does not and can not exist. Happy is doomed to this dire fate but Biff is not. Biff towards the end broke free of these illusions and is going to carry on a fruitful life not as a leader of men but as an ordinary person. Even though Biff himself was demanding that his father recognize that he was a loser and a bum, Willy continued to believe that his son was a great man. Surely his delusions were clinical in their dissociative-ness.
Not only does he refuse to acknowledge that his sons are failures but he refuses to realize that their disillusionment and failures are his faults. After all, how can recognize his failure in raising them if he can not recognize them as failures? The root cause of their failure was when Willy Loman was discovered by Biff cheating on his wife. Despite his assurances that the woman was merely a piece of entertainment, Biff’s ideals and hopes were shattered. After that day he was an empty husk of a man unwilling to expend efforts for a dream that can no longer exist. Willy is the perfect example of a man who is trapped in his illusions so effectively that he can not any longer grasp reality and how different it is from his ‘truth.’
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Oates, Joyce Carol. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: A Celebration. Web.
Cardullo, Bert. Death of a Salesman and Death of a Salesman: The Swollen Legacy of Arthur Miller. Web.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman.