How does the theme of appearance vs. reality appear in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur's Miller's Death of a Salesman, believes that the way to success is popularity, attractiveness, and luck.  These are the keys to success. One of the themes of the drama subscribes to the idea that appearance may not be reality.

(1) The entire Loman family places heavy value on appearances and good looks. Many of Willy's fondest memories involve his son Biff dwarfing others with his personal attractiveness. Biff was a high school football star who had a scholarship to college.  He failed a math test and that was the end of the college education. 

Despite the fact that Biff is 34 years old, Willy still thinks that Bill is going to find success around the next corner.  He would also like him to be the successful salesman that he was not.  Biff is still a good looking guy, but he resents his father and does not want to be a salesman.

(2) Willy has always believed that it was his appearance that has held him back.  He has always worried about how he looks.  Miller used this aspect of Willy Loman’s life to illustrate that America puts too much importance on the outside image and outer facade. Biff’s dedication to keeping up his appearance suggests his remaining desire to impress his father. Willy attributes Biff's former popularity and success to his smile. Now, however, it seems that Biff's smile and good looks just have not been enough to get him to a stable place in life.

WILLY: I’m fat. I’m very—foolish to look at, Linda. I didn’t tell you, but Christmas time I happened to be calling on F.H. Stewarts, and a salesman I know, as I was going in to see the buyer I hear him say something about—walrus. And I—I cracked him right across the face. I won’t take that. I simply will not take that. But they do laugh at me. I know that.  I gotta overcome it. I know I gotta overcome it. I’m not dressing to advantage, maybe.

Willy assumes his business problems have to do primarily with his appearance. It does not to occur to him that his real problem may be that people see right through his flimsy, image-obsessed personality. The play points out that people of real substance are the ones who get real respect.

(3) To further illustrate the idea of reality versus appearance, the pride of the Loman family pushes them to lie not only to the outside world but to each other. The Lomans and particularly Willy are proud but the basis for their pride is not reality—it is their lies. Willy celebrates his own phenomenal success in business…when in actuality, he has not been receiving a paycheck and eventually is fired. 

His neighbor Charley, a successful business man, offers Willy a job with a weekly pay check.  Because he has always considered Charley inferior to himself, Willy’s pride will not let him accept the job.  He will accept loans that he is unable to pay back.  The verse from Proverbs teaches: Pride goeth before a fall.  The fall for the Lomans will be hard and life-altering. 

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Several aspects of appearance versus reality exist within the text of Arthur Millier's Death of a Salesman. First, the very concept and job of a salesman is to deal with appearances rather than reality and to convince people to buy things that they do not actually need. (If the things being sold were really necessary, one would not need to market them aggressively). Next, Willy Loman's claims to being successful are in fact mere appearance, although of course, appearance is part of what can make someone a successful salesman. Next, the Lomans tend to judge people by external appearance as opposed to internal value, as noted above.


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