Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” examines the themes of the American dream, self-sabotaging behavior, and insecurities caused by the lack of the traditional success. The salesman in question, Willy Loman, obsessively and unsuccessfully chases after money and professional advancement, destroying his family and himself in the process. The play resonated with several generations of Americans, exposing the harmful dark side of their ideals of success and prosperity at all costs. This paper aims to analyze the key topics of the play, its manifestations in the main character Willy and the way those are demonstrated in the assigned extract.
The extract in question shows the audience a dialogue between disillusioned Willy and his wife Linda, in which they discuss Willy’s insecurities about his lack of professional success. Feeling invisible at work and laughed at behind his back, Willy allows Linda’s unconditional support to fuel his dedication to the American dream even further. Reassured, Willy acknowledges how valuable Linda is to him and how her compassion and acceptance help him to keep trying every day. The scene takes a dark turn when a third character, a nameless woman, enters the stage. She is Willy’s mistress, an extramarital adventure he carries out in hotel rooms while on the road, and the assigned extract contains her first appearance in the play. Thereby she provides a shocking revelation of the actual state of Willy and Linda’s supposedly nearly perfect and supportive marriage.
An analysis of this extract should begin with the way concerns and insecurities voiced by Willy reflect the overall narrative of Miller’s story. Willy complains that his meek work achievements do not match the effort he puts into them, while other men “do it easier.” It is evident that the protagonist perceives his failure to achieve the American dream as something that undermines his masculinity. The salesman is insecure about his performance as a provider, and it alienates Willy from the domestic happiness with his wife and sons. On the same note, Willy is worried he is acting as a laughingstock when at work, whereas his colleagues and competitors talk less and command respect. Ignoring Linda’s passive objections, Willy decides to double down on perseverance and endurance, believing that he should overcome these difficulties by continuing to strive in the never-ending rat race.
This first part of the extract is undoubtedly tragic, particularly when you consider Willy’s character arc as a whole. Early orphaned, he grew up without a father figure and never had a sense of internal safety and stability, as well as functioning masculine role models. As an adult man, the protagonist attempts to compensate for this void by lusting after money, professional success, and ultimate social status. Willy accepts the existing social paradigm of financial success as the ultimate goal without question and craves the approval of others. He yearns to be respected, but the desperation and pleading manner only cause people to ridicule him. The extract demonstrates that Willy understands this subconsciously, at least to a degree, as he uses one of his colleagues, “a man of few words,” as a counterexample. The sadness lies in his inability to recognize the failure of the value system he so blindly believes in. Willy proclaims his determination to cure the symptoms and not the illness, oblivious to the fact that there is no way to win the game he signed himself up for.
Linda is shown in this extract as she is in the play overall: a supportive, unconditionally accepting wife. She does not question, challenge or confront her husband, instead continuously doing her best to act as a rock in his life. Interestingly, Linda is fully satisfied with the family’s financial and social status, contrasting the narrative trope of an ambitious, greedy wife that provokes her unsuccessful husband into irrational actions. On the contrary, this demonstrates how Willy’s professional failure, at least at this stage of the play, exists primarily within his head. There is a noticeable disconnect between his negative self-image and the absolute adoration he receives from Linda that is still insufficient to satisfy his hunger for praise.
Despite Willy seeing himself as unattractive and clown-like, he is handsome, lively, and worthy of being idolized by their children in Linda’s eyes. She represents the patriarchal image of the ideal wife, happy to mind the household while her husband is making a living for the family. Yet, despite always being there for Willy, Linda can hardly be called his partner who would point out the faults at the salesman’s behavior. Her love is so unchallenging that while slowly descending into moral and personal ruin in the later stages of the play, Willy has no opportunity to get a wake-up call. Furthermore, the idealized image of an angelic wife narratively prepares the reader for the existence of “the other woman”, that also features in the extract. Linda’s devotion bores Willy, as it does not provide him with the challenge of the opportunity for conquest, so he decides to satisfy his hunger for victory elsewhere.
The Woman never gets a name, which is a clue to her intended symbolic role in the story. She is Willy’s mistress, with whom he regularly meets in Boston hotels to achieve the feeling of being chosen and desired. Throughout the second part of the extract, the leitmotif of her picking him for the relationship is repeated several times, solidifying its importance. As this is the first time the Woman appears on stage, the audience has no opportunity to know for certain what were her reasons to seduce the salesman. However, while saying goodbye to Willy until their next encounter, she refers to stockings he has gifted her. Hence it is not unreasonable to suggest that as far as her interests are concerned, their relationship is largely transactional.
Evidently, Willy has no real feelings for this nameless figure, whose personality is inconsequential to him. In this affair, the salesman indulges his permanently wounded ego, getting the emotional gratification from the sense of being chosen. The acceptance of his wife is not enough to satisfy the need of feeling worthy, as Willy is trapped in the losing position at work, which dominates his emotional state. Despite her noticeable lack of characteristics, the Woman he has an affair with is clearly associated with laughter, both appearing and disappearing surrounded by it. The image of laughter is a double-edged sword for the salesman, who is attracted to the sound of it and latches onto a sense of humor to keep himself sane. However, the salesman also believes that his willingness to crack jokes and generally lively disposition are the traits that prevent him from being acknowledged by customers and colleagues. The duality of the laughter is represented through the productional choices as well, with the sounds of Linda and the Woman laughing combining at the end of the scene.
The affair’s reveal in the second part of the extract is crucial to Willy’s character arc. As the salesman crumbles under the weight of expectations he had put upon himself, he engages in a variety of self-destructive and amoral behaviors that lead to his eventual suicide. He justifies theft and teaches his sons to do the same, spiraling further and further into corruption and despair. It is evident, however, that the key to Willy’s downfall lies in the weakness of his character rather than malice. Childlike in his necessity for support and tunnel-visioned determination, the salesman does not have the internal strength to oppose the pressure of the American dream. When, later in the play, the Woman appears for the second time (that is also the last for her), Willy’s infidelity is revealed to his older son Biff. Their subsequent conflict and falling out provides the ground for the salesman’s ideology to be challenged in the text.
The illusory nature of this dream is one of the key topics in “Death of a Salesman.” Its idea is corrupted and logically contradictory to the beginning, as it promises that everyone who works hard can achieve exceptional success. In reality, however, such a promise is not feasible: if everyone was exceptional, no one would be. The American dream, as depicted in the play, is a parasite, praying on people’s pride and desire to see themselves as special. Throughout the second part of the play, Willy has multiple opportunities to re-evaluate his choices, but it eventually turns out that he is in too deep. As the affair with the Woman starts his downfall in the void of self-destruction, the audience continues to see the salesman desperately clinging to his fantasies. At a certain point, Willy’s ignorance about the true state of his life and the goal he chases after can only be interpreted as wilful. Yet, he never denounces his catastrophic path, as doing so would mean accepting that his life has been ultimately meaningless.
In conclusion, the extract provides a significant inside into the main character and key themes of “Death of a salesman.” It represents a turning point in the play, signifying the protagonist’s turn to self-destruction. In the first part of the scene, the audience gets a glimpse into Willy’s inner world and an understanding of his subjective and unfair view of himself. It is evident that Linda’s emotional support and love are not enough to stop the salesman’s self-loathing and desire to prove a point. The second part of the extract reveals a shocking yet logical affair that Willy is having with a nameless Woman while on his work trips. His mistress is a prop more than a person, which corresponds to the position she holds in Willy’s life. As the scene ends with the joint laughter of the two women, the audience is reminded of the bitter tragedy of Willy’s path. At work, at home, and even with his mistress, Willy Loman remains a “low man” due to his self-esteem issues and the choices he has been continuously making.