One of the seminal literary works of the past century remains Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. The widespread public popularity and academic acclaim of this work make the play particularly important in the context of literary analysis. Miller based the plot on the tragic story of Willie Loman, a salesman who does not have a high salary and lives in a constant state of desperate survival. Willie has constant conflicts with his son Biff because both men view the world differently; their values are different. Biff has made many attempts to go along with his father and help him out of his decadent state, and when he gets desperate, he cries on his father’s chest. Willie could not stand it and decided to commit suicide by crashing his car — the insurance payments for the accident were a parting gift to his son from his father.
At first glance, it may seem that the underlying core of this story is determined by the complexity of relationships between people of different generations. However, the actual problem is much more complex, for Death of a Salesman demonstrates the problem of Willie’s death not so much physical as moral. The salesman’s American dream collapses, and the man, who has failed to cope, becomes depressed. Thus, the play exposes the social problem of unremarkable and untalented people who cannot offer social goods to the world and are therefore forced to live unsightly. Their dreams and fantasies of a better life are the only vector people like Willie have, but they do not last forever either.
The existing phenomenon of the American dream, reinforced by cultural works, inspires individuals to believe in an unrealistic happy life in which they achieve personal success and finally begin to please everyone around them. The low realism of such a story is statistically conditioned since only a few achieve their goals; most are forced to live an ordinary and humdrum life. The contrast of this ordinariness with fantasies of a better life creates the problem of the little man in the American community, which is the subject of Miller’s play.
Miller has chosen excellent words to let the reader know exactly how the protagonist Willie lives from the beginning of the play. In describing the salesman’s house, the playwright used such epithets as “the angular shapes… surrounding it on all sides,” and “the small, fragile-seeming home…” (Miller 1). These strong words should make the reader initially think of Willie as a small man in a complex, pressured world. It is not only the home that is fragile in this environment but also Willie himself, as will become clear from the narrative that follows.
The transparency of Willie’s motivation, who did not want to be a salesman on a deep level, is confirmed by an essential quotation from Act II. Willie tells Howard that “…’Cause what could be more satisfying than being able to go,…, into twenty or thirty different cities, pick up a telephone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (Miller 61). In this monologue, one can hear Willie’s desire to be recognized and loved by others rather than to have a successful career as a salesman. In reality, Willie could have been anything with this motivation, but being a salesman might have seemed the most understandable way for him to achieve his dreams, especially after Singleman’s inspiring example.
Motivated by the example of this perfect salesman in Willie’s view, the man is living his dream, far from reality. In the first chapter, Miller informs readers that “…an air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality” when he describes Willie’s dilapidated dwelling (Miller 1). Remarkably, a silver sports trophy stands beside Willie’s bed in the same house. The playwright ironically shows the reader that the silver trophy — second place — is the maximum a small individual like Willie can achieve; he can never become a leader.
It seems evident that Willie is well aware of his insignificance in this world and is not willing to put up with it. One way Willie deals with routine is by narrating success stories. Thus, the reader watches Willie talk with inspiration about his brother who managed to go to Alaska and find fortune — Willie regrets the missed opportunity not to go with his brother and is proud of other people’s success as if he deserves it himself. Willie also regrets his life when he says, “…why am I trying to become what I do not want to be…I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that Willy…” (Miller 105). In this small but important fragment, there is a synthesis of despair, helplessness, and the deep disappointment in himself that Willy has lived with.
In reality, Willie Loman is not the person who would take significant risks, but he lives in constant need of such risks. Talking about successful people motivates him to be like them, but the contrast of everyday reality quickly brings Willie back into the routine. Realizing the incivility of such a life, devoid of joy and the opportunity to pursue his dreams, Willie decides to take a serious risk for once in his life. In his case, that risk is the death of a salesman.
Although it should be understood that Willy’s suicide was part of his decision and responsibility, we must consider this phenomenon holistically. Willie never did anything in his life to stop being the little man. This suicide — as immoral as it sounds — allowed Willie to take risks not only for his family but primarily for himself. Hence, the salesman wanted to prove to himself that he deserved more than he had. Ironically, long before he died, Willie said that “…after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” (Miller 76). This was a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s fate, in which he would only stop being a little man, at least to himself, after his death.
To summarize the interpretation of Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, the problem of the little man in the big city is not unique to literary works but is of concern to many individuals in the real world. The inconsistency of personal expectations of life and the pursuit of success with how the everyday routine develops makes people despair. The play’s protagonist, Willie, was just such a small man who always wanted more than he had but never achieved it. The only time Willie was able to stop being that way was, ironically, the moment of his death. This irony creates the critical dilemma of choosing between a vivid but short life and a long but boring one.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books, 1949.