Introduction to Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman a play having “two acts and a requiem” is the masterpiece of Arthur Miller written in 1948 and produced in 1949. The popularity and success of the play demonstrate the strength of its story. The play was adapted for various tableaus, films, and course books across the globe, securing a Pulitzer Prize for Miller. The story of the play revolves around an unfortunate middle-class man who ruins his life, chasing the idea of the American Dream. This unattainable hunt costs him dearly; he seems stuck between fantasy and reality with a resultant loss of his own life. In one of his interviews, Miller mentions that the inspiration for the play is seeing his father struggle during the Depression.
Summary of Death of a Salesman
The play features Willy Lowman, living in New York City with his wife, Linda. Although Willy has worked as a salesman for almost thirty years, yet he has not achieved the real level of success that would allow him to stop tiring himself and afford the household expenditures that swallow his diminishing wages. He constantly compares himself to another salesman, Dave Singleton, who led a successful career and when he died, many people came to bid him farewell.
The play begins when Willy comes home exhausted from a failed trip with his mind full of tensions and worries. He seems sick of daily travels, while Linda, consoles him and suggests that he should ask his boss, Howard Wagner, to get a placement that demands less travel. Willy consents to request his boss the next day. Then, Linda and Willy start talking about their sons Biff and Happy, who are out for a date and are expected to be home soon. Also, she reminds him not to be critical or judgmental toward Biff, but Willy expresses his resentment over Biff’s lazy approach toward life.
Alone in the kitchen, Willy plunges back in time and remembers old times when his sons were young and idealized their father as an upright man. His flashbacks make the readers familiar with his philosophy of success that has derived him to his current unsuccessful state. Compared with his successful neighbor, Charley and his son, Bernard, Willy’s family is more determined and full of the natural charisma required for success. Willy always thought that his son’s rising high school football achievements would offer him university scholarships and make him a successful man. Yet the same neighbor once offered him a job but he refused despite the fact that he used to borrow money from him to cover household expenses and his son Bernard who was kind of a nerd in school, is now a successful lawyer.
Once again Willy drives back in time when he thinks about his brother Ben, who left home at seventeen and made quite a fortune in Alaska and Africa. Willy and Ben’s father abandoned them and Willy compares himself with his successful brother and regrets it. This comparison adds more to his miserable state, making him think that he is not capable of achieving success in life. Disturbed by Willy’s present state, Linda discusses his deteriorating mental state with his sons. She tells them about his failed suicide attempts as well. The boys get chagrined at themselves that they could not bring comfort to their father; Biff immediately decides to join his brother’s sports goods business and he’d go and talk to his old acquaintance for business funding. This idea pleases Willy, who, in turn, gives some incoherent and conflicting advice to his sons.
The next day, Willy goes to his boss, Howard Wagner, to request him for placement close to home. Howard not only refuses his plea but also suspends him from the job. Humiliated and disheartened, Willy turns toward Charley to borrow some money, and this time he encounters Charley’s son, Bernard. Like his father, Bernard has also achieved a respectful status in society, while his own sons are still striving to get settled in life. Stumbling between reality and illusions about success, he heads toward Frank’s Chop House where his sons are waiting for him for dinner.
Soon, Willy arrives and confesses that has been fired but hopes to have some good news from Biff. Biff tells Willy that the meeting with Bill Oliver was a failed attempt. Biff and Willy lock their horn in a disturbing argument that throws Willy backs into the past when young Bernard informs Linda that Biff has failed in a Math test and sets his trip to Boston to meet Willy to resolve this issue since it would be affecting his career. Biff discovers his illegitimate affair, which became Biff’s disillusionment with his father and the values that he taught all his life. After the argument, Biff and Happy leave with two call girls abandoning their father in the restaurant. Once, Willy comes back to his senses asks the waitress the way to a seed shop. Once home, Willy’s disconnection from reality continues as he plants seeds in the middle of the night, hoping to grow a garden. In his distress, he has an imaginary dialogue with his deceased brother who reminds him about a life insurance policy worth $20,000. Willy plans on getting in a car crash so he could at least leave them that money and show how much he cared for his children and wife. Also, how ‘well-liked’ by his friends at the grand funeral.
Back in reality, Willy has a final confrontation with Biff who announces leaving his family for good. After the announcement, Biff goes to his room and cries. Aggrieved by his son’s miserable state, Willy finally decides to commit suicide; he leaves the house and intentionally kills himself in a car accident. Only his family and Charley attend his funeral, sharing their thoughts about his struggling life and tragic end. The play ends with the contrasting opinions of Biff and Happy about their father’s unsuccessful life. Happy decides to stay back and fulfill his father’s ‘American dream’ of becoming successful while Biff plans to leave Brooklyn forever. Linda was confused with the irony of how the house mortgage was finally paid off with no one to live in it.
Characters in Death of a Salesman
- Willy Loman: Willy Loman, the main protagonist of the play, is a simple family man and Linda’s husband. He also has a brother, Ben, and two young sons, Happy and Biff. As an aging salesman working in various parts of Europe, he seems to be an ambitious man, full of sales philosophy and hopes for a bright future for his son. In fact, he chases the American dream and aspires to enjoy the bliss of life with his family. Unfortunately, his hard work and lowly income not only weakens his determination but also leads him to suffer from anxiety and stress. His mediocre career, estranged relationship with his son Biff and some past mistakes steal the remaining joy of his life. His constant failures and suffering make him stand at the place where he begins to hallucinate. Unfortunately, his sons never understand the intensity of this pain despite Linda’s efforts to make them understand the traumatic state of their father. These worries force the old man to commit suicide.
- Linda Lowman: Willy’s wife and mother of Happy and Biff, Linda is a loving lady as she always shares the worries of her husband, making him believe that one day he will taste the fruits of his untiring efforts. Although she supports him in his dreams of prosperity and success, she knows that it is impossible for him to live a life full of wonders. Despite Willy’s disturbed mental state, she stands by him and even rebukes his son for not living up to his father’s expectations.
- Biff Loman: The older son of Linda and Willy Loman, Biff is a good and promising athlete and bright student but he never graduates from school. His life is moving at a smooth pace until he discovers his father’s extramarital relationship and becomes mentally upset. Willy wishes him to become a successful businessman, but he flees to the west, following his instinct to become a business tycoon. Despite trying his luck several times, Biff fails to win the admiration of his father. In the end, he admits that he has been chasing the shadow and wishes to lead a normal life.
- Happy Loman: The younger son of the Loman family, Happy works as a manager in a store and seems to be a contented person. However, his father thinks that he has not made the right choice in life. He is shown as a really happy person in life with a single flaw that he is a womanizer. Despite his claim that he does not want girls, he fails to avoid them.
- Charley: As a successful businessman living in Willy’s neighborhood, Charley helps Willy often with money for paying bills. Once he offers him a job that Willy refuses, claiming he shares distant views about success in life. Although Willy considers his children more practical and successful, he seems jealous of his social status.
- Bernard: The intelligent and successful son of Charley, Bernard is a sober young man with a lot of potentials. Unlike his father, he has achieved success and status in society by becoming a successful lawyer. However, Willy’s jealousy toward their success never lets him praise his success.
- Ben Loman: Willy’s late brother, Ben proves a constant reminder to the family due to his role of leaving his family years ago to try his fortune elsewhere. His travels to Africa and Alaska and his story of becoming a millionaire reverberates throughout the play. Although he is talked about like a dead person in the play, his success and prosperous life become a model for Willy to follow. He gets obsessed with his brother’s success that he forgets to accept the bitter reality of his own life.
- Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss, Howard is shown as a stout and stern kind of person. As a pragmatic manager, he knows how to apply his principles, and caring only for his own interests, and not the problems of his employees. In fact, he is the epitome of a capitalistic owner, who refuses to understand Willy’s plight and when Willy tries to argue, he instantly sacks him.
- The Woman: The Anonymous woman appears less in the play, yet plays a significant role in the storyline. She lives in Boston and works in a company. Unfortunately, the lady becomes the reason for contention between Biff and his father.
Themes in Death of a Salesman
- American Dream; American dream stands as the most significant theme of the play as every member of the Loman family yearns for a better life. Willy and his sons try to chase this dream but get nothing except failure and dissatisfaction. However, some of the characters have shown it as an achievable model, as Howard Wagner, who has inherited this alluring dream from his father, while Loman’s neighbors have achieved this dream, showing how to lead a prosperous life. Willy is the only person who longs to have this bliss. Despite working hard, he fails to bring any improvement in the standard of his life. Biff, his son also faces continuous failures, while Happy is also not living up to his father’s expectations. Disheartened by the failures of his sons and his own tiring life, Will tries to see his dream through his brother’s success but gets nothing.
- Modernity: During the 1950s, modernism started to alter the structure of society, making noteworthy changes in various professions. People started depending on modern gadgets, spending a fortune, and still vying to have another gadget just hitting the market. Creating a false idea of the American dream, modernity eventually creeps in the Loman’s life as they see their sons succeeding in the world like their neighbor but faces only mental torture when they see them failing. Howard keeps on working on his radio, making it clear that technological development has replaced manpower.
- Opportunity: Although everyone strives to succeed, yet material luck finds those who seek better opportunities. Howard has been tolerating Willy because his father appointed him. Otherwise, he knows Willy does not deserve the job anymore. So, when Willy asks for some changes in his job, he fires him without having any compassion. Willy does not understand the reason for this sudden decision; instead of equipping himself with a better professional attitude, Willy gets more frustrated. Howard, on the other hand, gets an opportunity to find a new potential salesman. In the same way, Willy’s son, Happy, finds an opportunity to have a good job, while Biff wanders to seek one.
- Family: The theme of family emerges through the Lomans, who never accept the changing shift of time, an attitude that costs them dearly. Willy constantly tries to materialize his dreams yet ends up with a failure. After his failed attempts, he fixes his attention to his sons, thinking they may fulfill his dreams of the ideal life through their careers. Unfortunately, both of them fail him; Biff is directionless, while Happy does not run after dreams. In contrast to Willy’s failed family, Charley and his son have resounding success with money and career, making their family achieve the American dream.
- Ideal Personality: The concept of ideal or well-liked personality is another major theme Miller discusses in the play. Willy constantly advises his sons that they must be well-liked. To him, well-liked persons are the demands of industry and market as he has seen it during his career as a salesman. It also transpires to them that an ideal personality wins success as they see it in Charley’s son as well as in Howard, the boss of Willy.
- Hallucination: Hallucination also stands as another important theme of the play. Willy Loman’s series of failures and constant sufferings drag him to a place where he cuts himself from the biting reality and begins to hallucinate. His hallucination features his successful brother, Ben, who has used his talents to make a fortune. Although Ben is dead, he appears in the form of hallucinations, a state that drags Willy toward disappointment and further mental torture.
- Pride: The play projects this theme through the character of Willy Loman. He is an extremely proud man even though he does not have any reason to be proud as his sons have failed him and he is fired from the job. Despite struggling financially, he constantly praises his ideas of success in business and the little accomplishments of his sons. His pride never lets him consider the real success and efforts of his neighbor, Charley, his neighbor, who helps him overcome his financial difficulties.
- Betrayal: Although betrayal is a minor theme of the play, it casts a gloomy shadow on various characters as Willy betrays his wife Linda by having an extramarital affair. Similarly, Biff constantly dodges his father’s dreams and tries to figure out his own ways of living. Linda thinks that Biff is betraying his father by not fulfilling Willy’s desires.
- Reality versus Illusion: Reality against illusion is another major theme as Willy constantly dreams to be a successful businessman, and in case, if he fails to win glory, his sons will carry the flag to win success for him. Unfortunately, his desires for amassing wealth are only illusions that do not turn into reality despite his struggle. To his surprise, his sons also go against his dreams.
Writing Style of Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman shows Miller’s style of writing simple and direct dialogues and presenting down-to-earth real characters. He has used sharp irony and satire to show the poisonous impacts of the American dream upon the middle class. The writer has juxtaposed realism with fantasy at various points in the text to comment on the hollow and unrealistic approach of the people toward the false standards of society. The success of this writing lies in the skillful use of other literary elements, complex characterization, and simple sentence structure though diction at times becomes highly complex, showing the mental state of the Loman family.
Literary Devices in Death of a Salesman
- Action: The main action of the play comprises the struggle of Willy Lowman, a salesman by profession. The rising action occurs when Willy is fired from the job, while the falling action occurs when Willy blames himself for the troubles his family is going through.
- Allegory: Death of a Salesman shows the use of allegory by presenting the main idea of how the person’s nonadoptive nature creates trouble for himself and the people who belong to him.
- Anaphora: The play shows the use of anaphora at different places as give in the below examples,
i. Maybe I oughta get stuck into something. Maybe that’s my trouble. I’m like a boy. I’m not married, I’m not in business, I just—I’m like a boy. Are you content, Hap? You’re a success, aren’t you? Are you content? (Act-I)
ii. Willy: Where is he? I’ll whip him, I’ll whip him! Linda: And he’d better give back that football, Willy, it’s not nice. Willy: Biff! Where is he? Why is he taking everything? (Act-I)
iii. Willy: No, you’re no good, you’re no good for anything. Biff: I am, Dad, I’ll find something else, you understand? (Act-II)
These examples show the repetitious use of the phrases “you’re no good”, “only think”, “I’ll whip him”, and “I’m like a boy.”
- Allusion: The play shows the use of various allusions as given in the examples below,
i. Biff: But you look at your friend….Happy: Yeah, but when he walks into the store the waves part in front of him… I want to walk into the store the way he walks in. (Act-I)
ii. Willi: Like a young god, Hercules- something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges stand by? And the buyers I brought and the cheers when he came out, Loman, Loman, Loman. God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. (Act-I)
iii. Willy: That’s why I thank Almighty God you are built like Adonises.” (Act-I)
The first example alludes to Moses and the remaining two to Greek gods.
- Conflict: There are two types of conflicts in the play, Death of a Salesman. The first one is the external conflict that is going on between Willy Loman and the competitive world around him as well as his own family. Another is the internal conflict of Willy, his fight with the heavy odds of life, and about the troubles of his life how they are going to be resolved.
- Climax: The climax of the play, Death of a Salesman, occurs when Willy confronts his distressed son, Biff, for the last time.
- Characters: Death of a Salesman presents both static as well as dynamic characters. Willy’s sons Biff, and Happy are dynamic characters as they change their attitude toward life as well as their father. However, the rest of the characters do not see any change in their behavior as they are static characters like Willy Loman, Linda, Charlie, and Bernard.
- Irony: The play shows situational irony in the following examples,
i. That’s just what I mean. Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. (Act-I)
ii. CHARLEY (an arm on Bernard’s shoulder): How do you like this kid? Gonna argue a case in front of the Supreme Court.
The irony is clear in the first example through the mention of Adonises and in the second through the mention of the Supreme Court.
- Metaphor: Death of a Salesman shows good use of various metaphors besides the extended metaphors of good versus evil such as,
i. I am a dime a dozen, and so are you. (Act-II)
ii. The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress. (Act-I)
These examples show that characters and the world have been compared to different things to make them feel prominent.
- Mood: The Play, Death of a Salesman, shows a melancholic, though it becomes tragic, ironic, and highly satiric at times. Sometimes, it also becomes gloomy when Willy is trapped in the troubles of life
- Motif: Most essential motifs of Death of a Salesman are mythic figures, the American West, and the African jungle.
- Protagonist: Willy Loman is the protagonist of the play. The text starts with his discontent with his life and ends with his tragic death.
- Rhetorical Questions: The play shows the use of rhetorical questions at various places such as,
i. CHARLEY: Without pay? What kind of a job is a job without pay? (Act-II)
ii. WILLY: What’s the matter with you? I’ve got a job. (Act-II)
iii. CHARLEY: Why must everybody like you? Who liked J. P. Morgan? Was he impressive?
These examples show the use of rhetorical questions asked by Charley and Willy but they do not need answers. They are self-explanatory.
- Theme: A theme is a central idea that the novelist or the writer wants to stress upon. The play, Death of a Salesman, shows the clash between dream and reality, the idea of the American dream and betrayal.
- Setting: The setting of the play is Willy Loman’s house, his yard, and other places he visits in Boston and New York.
- Tone: The tone of the text is somber, serious, melancholic, and tragic.
- Simile: The play shows the use of similes at various places such as,
WILLY: Sure. Certain men just don’t get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison; I think. Or B. F. Goodrich. (Act-I)
ii. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. (Act-I)
iii. Like a young god. Hercules — something like that. (Act-I)
These use of “like” in these examples show as things have been compared such as men with Thomas Edison, then Willy with an old dog, and then a person with Hercules.
- Symbols: Death of a Salesman presents various symbols such as seeds and diamond symbolize Willy’s hope and the American dream and the rubber horse symbolizes false hopes.