From the text of Death of a Salesman, what kind of characteristics of Americans appear in the characters of the text?

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We might argue that Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman presents two types of Americans. This is a somewhat broad assertion - or a broad way to read the characters in the play - but it is instructive as to how a narrative can reflect and examine value systems though the use of character types. 

The two "typical" American types in the play are essentially divided by family. The men in the Loman family may be said to represent a get-rich-quick mentality that focuses on being liked, being successful, and having few qualms about how these things are achieved. Status is important but the path to achievement is not exactly paved with hard work. 

In looking at the materialism and rather blind ambition of the Loman family, we may identify the broad set of traits that belong to the American swindler and mark the values expressed by this figure (moral "flexibility" and charm and often a desire to be loved coupled with a lack of confidence in the potential for being loved). 

The men of the neighbor family, Charley and Bernard, represent the American ethos that insists on hard work as the foundation for success. Throughout the play, Biff's plight is compared to Bernard's. Where Biff looks to cut corners to get ahead, Bernard strives to convince Biff to simply do the work that will guarantee success. Like Willy, Biff seems to believe in the power of personality while Bernard and Charley seem to believe in the power of hard work. 

The contrast between the two families and these two character types is not one of good versus bad. Charley and Bernard are as proud as the Loman family.

Charley is a friendly, generous man, and Bernard seems sensitive and sincere. Yet there is an undertone of spitefulness and cruelty in both of these characters, father and son. 

Reflecting on Biff's failure to graduate from high school, Bernard seems to harbor as much disdain for Biff (and Willy) as pity. Bernard is clearly bothered by the lack of work ethic and lack of integrity that characterize Biff and his father.

While the differences between the families do not follow the basic moral distinction of "good" and "bad," they are nonetheless rather simple and stark. One family is characterized by a strong work-ethic (Charley and Bernard) and the other family is characterized by a fundamental tendency toward deception (including self-deception) and a belief in the power of personality.

In the final act of the play, Biff comes to understand that he has been deceiving himself. He admits the truth about himself and is freed to begin anew, with humility and honesty.

His brother, Happy, is unwilling or incapable of letting go of the basic self-deceit that led to Willy's death - the fantasy of success as the result of sheer force of personality. 

HAPPY: All right, boy. I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.

Thus we see that Happy and the Lomans represent an approach to success that prizes notions of personal charisma and individuality/individualism and which is subject to deceptive tendencies. The "ethic" of the family is "be liked and you will win." Charley and Bernard follow an ethic of hard work and do not seem to see material success as a game to be won.

Charley, in one flashback, says that he does not follow sports. The distinction implied in that idea is significant when comparing the American character types Miller's neighbors can be argued to represent. 

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Death of a Salesman

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