Millers’ most famous work deals with the painful conflicts within one family but also relates to American national values. It examines the blind faith of the American dream, a post war tragedy. Miller in ‘Death of a Salesman’ accuses America of selling a falsehood to the public in the post war economy built around a capitalist materialistic doctrine superseding the original American dream of the country’s founders. America, post World War two, faced profound tensions domestically in what became known as ‘The Cold War’.
The propagation of the myths of a peaceful homogenous America was counter manded by a constant anxiety of the Red Menace of communism and bitter racial conflicts. Most post-war Americans could not join in the affluent dream that the American economy was now making a reality for the conservative rich. However the pursuit of this materialistic dream meant a radical change in the mindset of the American public as they became embroiled in a race for conformity within the material world of keeping up with the trappings of neighbours and peer groups.
The accessories of affluence in the form of material possessions such as appliances, cars and television drove the American economy. At the same time the post war generation of writers and artists, influenced by the existentialists philosophy, took up arms against the hard sell philosophy of American industry and manufacturing. The basis for the dramatic conflict in ‘Death of a Salesman’ lies in Arthur Millers conflicted relationship with his uncle, Manny Newman, also a salesman.
Manny imagined a continuous competition between his son and Miller refusing to accept failure and demanded at least the appearance of complete confidence in his household. Miller in his youth had written a short story about an unsuccessful salesman, which he revived after his experiences with his uncle. The result was that he produced one of the most successful dramas in the history of the American stage. He expressed the emotions of his uncle, Manny, through Willy Loman and in doing so Miller touched deep emotions in the American psyche. (Benjamin Nelson. 1970, Arthur Miller. Portrait of a Playwright. Peter Owen Ltd.
Act one begins with flute music playing as Willy Loman enters, the music of the flute is symbolic for Willy, his father was a flute maker and the young Willy, along with his elder brother Ben, helped in the door to door selling of his fathers work. It also represents a painful side of Willy’s past when his father abandoned him. (Act one, p. 8. ) Abandonment is an important and recurring theme in Millers play, it is symbolic for Willy Loman and at the same time it symbolises Americas abandonment of the first American dream held by the immigrants and pioneers looking for a new life in the ‘land of opportunity’.
The abandonment that Willy experiences reoccurs throughout the play, as one by one the important people in Willy’s life leave him. At the time in which the play was written America was taking advantage of its new empire won or stolen in the Second World War. A new ‘American Dream’ was being sold to American society. The first dream of opportunity was more attainable when pioneers could get land and build their dream through their own efforts and self-reliance. As the land ran out and the cities developed the new dream of consumerism took over. However this new dream was just that, a ‘Dream’ as the word implies.
This dream was to be dreamt rather than achieved. Miller shows the end of the first dream in the play as Willy and Linda’s small home in Brooklyn is slowly swallowed up by the large tenements and office buildings which now surround them even blocking out the sun. Willy has sold himself on the ‘American Dream’ wholeheartedly; but it is a warped vision, it is part of his defence strategy to cope with his experience of abandonment by those closest to him. Both his father and elder brother have left him, whom Willy blames; on himself but at the same time is in denial of.
Miller uses Willy throughout the play to portray the gullibility of American society in accepting what he believes to be a false promise of freedom and happiness through material acquisition. Willy’s formula for success is based on a misconception that all one needs to attain the American Dream is to be ‘personal’ and ‘be well liked’. This is a stock phrase used by Willy throughout the play. Miller is pointing out that the pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of appliances, cars and television is a dead end road, a simile of the dead end road that Willy is on.
Miller accuses American capitalism of duping American society into believing that a man made ‘Heaven on earth’ is within everyone’s grasp. As the play opens, Willy is exhausted as he returns from an unsuccessful trip complaining that he almost crashed the car and didn’t make it past Yonkers in upstate New York. Linda his wife tries to persuade Willy to talk to his boss Howard Wagner about giving him a job in New York so he won’t have to travel. Willy dismisses his wife’s concern and instead complains about his son Biff who has returned home on a visit along with his second son Happy, and as of yet has not made something of himself.
Biffs return is a catalyst that opens up old wounds for his father, as we shall see later in the plot. (Act one P. 10). In order for Willy to keep his fantasy of the American dream he has to deal with the contradictions he experiences in his job and within his family. Willy is on the road selling whilst Linda stays at home looking after the boys. This makes Willy’s family life occasional or part time. Linda, who supports Willy’s fantasised view of the American Dream, represents the lot of the American housewife of the period.
Much of the selling of the dream was through television and aimed at the American Housewife. Miller’s portrayal of Willy Loman as the archetypal salesman is a Marxist analogy of the capitalistic system were the majority of American citizens did not own the means of production and had to work for a salary or hourly rate. If we move back to the play we can see Millers criticism of the American Dream and the cost to Willy as he tries to realise his own fantasy of the American Dream.
Returning to home Willy boasts of a fantastic sales trip but Linda extracts the truth that the trip was only marginally successful. Act One P. 27. ). Here we see Willy embellishing his achievement as he tries to fool himself that he is achieving the dream. Willy began his fantasy when he heard of a legend in selling, Dave Singleman, who by all accounts went on into his eighties selling over the phone. Willy imagines what Dave’s funeral would be like and fantasises of hundreds of people attending the graveside in mourning. A man ‘well liked’, Willy sells himself this image lock stock and barrel, from then on he inhabits a world of self-delusion and denial.
Miller here is referring to the ability of the American public to delude itself as to the cost of consumerism. Willy complains that he wont be able to meet the payments on the household appliances and the car, he continues saying that people don’t like him and he is not good at his job. As Linda consoles him he hears the laughter of his mistress, which becomes louder and invades his mind with the memory of his infidelity, he praises Linda for her steadfastness and tells her she is the best. The guilt of his infidelity shows as he shallowly praises Linda.
Willy’s daydream shifts into a memory of him flirting with the woman and giving her some stockings. Willy fades back to his prior daydream where he chastises Linda for mending her stockings and tells her to throw them away. Again Willy’s guilt raises its head, he can buy new stockings for his mistress but his devoted wife has to mend hers. (Act One P. 30). Miller again is attacking American society for its inability to see the cost of the American Dream on the family. Willy Loman salesman, occasional father and husband.
His son Biff is rebelling against the indoctrination of his fathers’ dream, which he sees as an illusion, and waste of a life. Biff has travelled but not as a salesman and has seen something of America as he wandered from job to job. Biff has seen through the self-delusion of his father and is beginning to find an identity for himself. Miller is using a similar analogy from ‘Herman Hess’s’ book Knulp, were a young man who thinks he has wasted his life suddenly realises he has become a success but not materially.
Biff represents the old dream of the pioneers but also a new aspect of American society where quality of life is more important than what one can collect in life. Miller shows that Willy becomes aware he is deluding himself from time to time but in order to protect his fragile dream is forced to adjust the real world to fit his fantasy. When Willy is confronted by his failing health and ability, he sells himself short in order to fit in with his boss’s lack of faith in him. This is a slight on American business and the pursuit of profit at the cost of the weak.
At the time the play was staged, there was an upsurge of disaffected young people in America, portrayed in works such as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. (US. 1955, Warner colour). Other protesting groups began to spring up such as the ‘Beatniks’, who were questioning American values and expounding some of there own. Miller received thousands of letters after his play was staged from Americans who saw a resemblance in their own lives to that portrayed by Willy Loman and his family. The American dream was disintegrating.
Miller does not include Black Americans or the Native Americans in the play but in doing so points to the hypocrisy of the dream, which excludes them. Miller purposely crowds in on Willy leaving him no way out of his dilemma, just like America runs out of wilderness where the original dream was possible Willy runs out of proverbial road and is left with a dead end with only one way to go. Analysis. Millers ‘Death of a Salesman’, is an analogy of the ‘American Dream’. Miller uses the Loman family as a symbolic representation of the American way of life.
The dream of solid family structures and opportunity for all is starkly portrayed in the dysfunctional Loma family. Willy’s choice of career is flawed due to his past insecurities caused by being abandoned by his father. To compensate for his insecurity Willy Loman creates a world of fantasy where everything is always well and he is the hero of his life. When Willy becomes ill with the onset of dementia his world and that of his family begins to disintegrate, as he can no longer hold his fantasy together.
People and circumstances gather and undermine his self-deluding strategies for survival. The poignancy of the play reveals itself in Willy’s futile suicide. His epitaph from Linda at the graveside when she says “Willy I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip”. Starkly portrays their occasional life together. Willy will not be missed. Willy dies as Biff suggested ‘ten a penny’. The tragedy in Millers play is a warning to American society to beware of false prophets who come baring gifts.