In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller defines the nature of the American Dream for middle-class Americans in the mid-twentieth century and condemns its effects in shaping—and in destroying—the lives of the Loman family, the play’s major characters. Miller’s protagonist, Willy Loman, is an aging traveling salesman worn out by his job and by life itself; he struggles to keep up the grueling pace required of him to peddle company products to buyers throughout his New England sales territory. After a lifetime of hard work, Willy has little to show for his efforts. Material success has eluded him, and paying the household bills each month is still a matter of concern. Exhausted and depressed, he realizes he is reaching the end of the road; life has passed him by, and he can’t catch up. As Willy’s depression, anxiety, and resentment deepen, he loses himself in memories of the distant past and often explodes in bouts of recrimination and rage.
Adding to Willy’s sense of failure is his relationship with his sons, Biff and Happy, which is fraught with conflict and betrayal. Crippled by their father’s definition of success—making money and being admired by others—neither son has accomplished anything of value in life; moreover, the lessons Willy taught them while they were growing up have ensured their lack of achievement. Shallow, selfish, and irresponsible, Happy is content to chase women and charm his parents to avoid accountability; Biff is a deeply troubled drifter, a liar and a thief, continually searching but unable to find a purpose or any sense belonging in the world. In Linda Loman, Willy’s wife and their sons’ mother, Miller creates a portrait of self-sacrifice that ends in grief and despair as she kneels by her husband’s grave at the conclusion of the drama.
The play begins with Willy’s returning late at night to his house in a suburb of New York City after having set out much earlier to make a sales call in Boston. He had gotten as far as Yonkers, he explains to Linda, but he could go no farther. As Willy recounts why he turned around and how he managed to drive home, the seriousness of his physical and mental decline is immediately evident as the play gets under way, and his deterioration grows more disturbing in each act. He often gets lost in the past and finds it harder and harder to remain in the present; his mind in turmoil, he contradicts himself, forgetting what he has just said.
Willy Loman is in some ways a conscientious husband and father who loves his family and feels responsible for them; he is also, however, self-centered, demanding, antagonistic, and critical. In his emotional unraveling, Willy can be interpreted as a tragic figure destroyed by the materialistic values of his time and the intensely profit-driven economy in which he works, but he also can be interpreted as a man without integrity who has sown the seeds of his own destruction, which makes him a pitiful figure rather than a tragic one. Alternately brave, boastful, contrary, vulnerable, hopeful, and hopeless, Willy Loman in the final analysis is a man of his times in a country that, in Miller’s estimation, seeks to realize the American Dream by pursuing materialism and has lost its soul in the pursuit. Linda Loman observes of her husband, “He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.” It is the humanity in Willy Loman—however flawed— that continues to draw audiences to Death of a Salesman.
The structure of the play consists of events that occur in the present interspersed with Loman’s memories of the past and with his interior conversations that let the audience know what he is thinking. Both are dramatized on stage in a manner that lets members of the audience know they have been transported into Willy’s mind. The construction of the stage set facilitates moving the audience from the reality of the present. The Loman house is “transparent,” consisting of a frame without walls. In scenes taking place in the present, characters enter and leave the house through the one exterior door; in the other scenes, according to Miller’s stage directions, “boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall onto the forestage.” The boundaries are broken more frequently as the play continues, indicating the progressive deterioration of Willy’s mental state as his grip on reality becomes more tenuous. Lighting and music are also employed to signal transitions.
Death of a Salesman opened at New York City’s Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Tony Award for Best Play and ran on Broadway for 742 performances. It has been staged in subsequent award-winning Broadway productions four times and remains in the history of American theater one of the most frequently produced and adapted dramas.
Death of a Salesman is very much a play of a particular era in American history, the period following the Great Depression and World War II when capitalism and an invigorated consumerism driven by advertising merged to produce intense competition for profits in the marketplace. The deprivations of the Depression and the war were replaced by an influx of goods that Americans wanted and could now buy, with cash or with credit. Materialism became a national value, redefining the American Dream. Although the play depicts an earlier time, Arthur Miller’s themes still resonate. The character of Willy Loman remains synonymous with ambition in pursuit of a flawed American Dream and the delusion that success is defined by money and material possessions and acquiring them is the path to happiness and personal fulfillment.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the major and minor characters and the events in the play.
2. Describe the dramatic arc of the play (exposition, rising action, climax, resolution).
3. Identify the primary character traits of Willy Loman, Linda Loman, Biff Loman, and Happy Loman.
4. Explain how Willy Loman contributes to his sons’ failures in life.
5. Trace the trajectory of Biff Loman’s life and explain how his character has changed by the conclusion of the play.
6. Describe what Charley and Ben represent and how they impact Willy Loman’s life.
7. Explain the purpose Willy Loman’s memories serve, both for himself and for the audience, and how they relate to the present circumstances of his life.
8. Trace the mental and physical deterioration of Willy Loman and explain why he eventually commits suicide.
9. Explain what statement Arthur Miller is making in the play about the nature of capitalism and consumerism in America in the mid-twentieth century.
10. Discuss why Death of a Salesman has become such an enduring classic that continues to resonate with audiences today.