How does Miller present family at the start of Death of a Salesman?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The initial event of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is the entrance of Willy Loman onstage, saying "oh boy, oh boy", after having nearly smashed his car during one of the long drives that he has to make as part of his job.

The first glimpse of family that we get in that specific event is the devotion of Willy's wife, Linda, as she also enters the stage in complete worry about her husband. In the stage directions Miller specifies and important fact:

Most often jovial, she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy's behavior- she more than loves him, she admires him, as though as his [flaws remind her] of the turbulent longings within him...which she shares but lacks the temperament and follow...

Here we have the quintessential married couple: one in which the man is the indisputable head of the household while the wife is the subservient being which vicariously experiences joy through the enjoyment of the "man's" world.  In this, Miller brings out the essence of the conservative and nuclear family. We also get a lot of the maternal and nurturing female role within a family made only of males. Linda seems to come to the rescue almost instantly as Willy comes in: she listens, commiserates, offers him cheese (repeatedly and in a way that would annoy any other person), and tends to him as if he were a child, and she were his mother.

Subsequently we learn about the presence of "the boys" in the house, who are visiting and staying in their childhood bedroom, bunking together as if they were children. Happy and Biff, both thirty-something, clueless, and not as productive, are at home for different reasons; Biff, because he again was pulled in by the need of re-organizing his life. Happy, because he was visiting as he does whenever he is bored, or feels lonely.

However, there is almost an instant understanding that "the boys", the father, and the mother all live in completely different circles of reality. Happy tells Biff about the dissatisfaction and shallowness of his life, while Biff confesses to his complete loss of "self". Linda reveals immediately to "the boys" about Willy's slow spiral into insanity, asking them not to say a word to Willy; in other words, Linda asks the children to follow her act with Willy. Then we have Willy, who is in a world of his own altogether. This sends a strong message about family: that, regardless of the outer appearances, a big and seemingly-united family can still be, individually, living "alone, together". Appearances can work well at hiding dysfunction, but the need to open up to sincerity and reality will be the ultimate salvation for the Lomans.




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