Is ‘Death of a Salesman’ anything more than a criticism of the moral and social standards of America in the mid twentieth century? Essay

Some critics have regarded it as Communist propaganda denouncing the evils of Capitalism, while others have seen it as a sympathetic study of the problems of big business. Some have interpreted it in Freudian terms and attributed to its author abstruse psychological theories, while from a Catholic point of view it has been approvingly regarded as a warning of the meaninglessness of life where there is no religious faith.

Willy Loman is certainly a victim of the Capitalist system exploited and then cast aside. “He works for a company thirty years, opens up unheard of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away.” Against this view is set the realism of the businessman: “When a man gets old you fire him.” Miller says that he meant (among other things) to “celebrate the common sense of business men, who love the personality that wins the day, but know that you’ve got to have the right goods at the right price.”

The cult of the personality and the profit motive are the two main ideologies that come into direct into conflict in ‘Death of a Salesman’. The play moves from the homespun myth of the fierce individualist who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and into fame and fortune (i.e. Willy’s father and Ben, his brother) to the harsh realities of industrial capitalist society. The ideologies are not mutually exclusive. They both fuel the insatiable greed at the heart of the American dream. They equate happiness with economic success.

Willy thinks he can achieve this goal with a smile and handshake. He places image before substance. “Be liked and you will never want” (Death 1360). This idea coupled with a belief that the simplest and most humble can rise to the greatest heights form the core of Willy’s motivation. It is also the source of his greatest struggle. Willy becomes Miller’s ideological champion of the common man. Though he fails, Willy challenges the fixed notion of a class system. “The revolutionary questioning of a stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or actions” (Miller 5).

The critic Mary McCarthy argues that “America is what is wrong with him [Willy Loman]… the conception of the salesman’s house as a house of shabby lies and competitive boats is sadly close to our national life.” Historically the American dream meant a promise of freedom and opportunity for all. A new frontier lay open and anyone who worked hard could expect to have a happy and prosperous life. Today, however, we think of the American Dream as the instant business success of those who are ruthless or lucky.

Willy experiences both the rewarding and the destructive aspects of Capitalism. However, Willy must accept some of the responsibility for his downfall. His blindness is partially self induced. His character is not totally dominated by the oppressive capitalist environment. Not all people suffer the fate of Willy Loman. Charley and Bernard work hard, and they not only survive, they thrive in Willy’s world. Capitalism is thus praised and punished within the play.

Although he is a victim of the system, he is its devoted adherent. He is himself an expression of the business man ideal, and in his dreams of his father and his brother Ben he admires the American pioneer ideal. “Father was a very great and very wild-hearted man”, says Ben. “He would start in Boston, and he’d toss the whole family into the wagon, and then he’d drive the team right across the country, through Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and all the Western States. And he’d stop in the towns and sell the flutes that he’d made on the way. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you would make in a lifetime.” This is a romantic dream of the “Great outdoors”. Ben himself, who walked into the jungle at the age of seventeen (straying into Africa on his way to Alaska) and walked out rich in diamonds at twenty-one, is contemptuous of cities and offers to Willy the prospect of timberland in Alaska, ” a new continent at your doorstep”.

This all- American business adventurer is aggressive and unscrupulous. “Never fight fair with a stranger”, he advises the schoolboy Biff. “You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.” He is Willy’s idea of success. He and Willy agree about the ideal of the American boy, “keen on games, rugged, well-liked, all-round.” One side of Willy Loman is completely absorbed in these American dreams; he is very much a conformer, wanting to be in the swim. At the same time, he is bewildered; he cannot understand why it has all gone wrong for him. Arthur Miller says explicitly, “There was no attempt to bring down the American edifice, nor to raise it higher”; however, American values are powerfully questioned in the play.

Although Miller claimed that he was “little better than ignorant of Freud’s teachings” a neuro-psychiatrist praised the play as “a masterful exposition of the unconscious motivation in our lives. He also emphasised the importance of the memory sequences: “The past, as in hallucination, comes back to Willy Loman, not chronologically as in a flash-back, but dynamically, with the inner logic of his erupting volcanic unconscious. In psychiatry we call this “the return of the repressed”, when a mind breaks under the invasion of primitive impulses no longer capable of compromise with reality.”

Other critics have said that the play is about “the meaningless of life without religion.” Arthur Miller does not share the belief expressed in some modern literature that life has no meaning or purpose; on the other hand, he is not at all a religious writer in the conventional sense. Still Willy must ask him what, after all the years of work and struggle, improving the house, paying the mortgage, polishing the car, bringing up the family, making contacts, has it all been for. I believe that the play is more about human life and what Time does to our youthful hopes of it. One of the images that from the play which grew from Miller’s mind was

“the image of a need greater than hunger or sex or thirst, a need to leave a thumbprint somewhere on the world; a need for immortality..”

When Willy is planting the seeds at the end of the play, he is expressing an unconscious desire to supply meaning to life and ” leave a thumbprint” behind.

Of course, the play is also about the situation of little men in our Society, but in particular about one individual, Willy Loman, at the end of his tether.