"Its theme comes across with blinding clairity - failure is the only sin Americans will not forgive" (T.E Kallen, Time, 7 July 1975).  How does this quote relate to the play(book) and what events...

"Its theme comes across with blinding clairity - failure is the only sin Americans will not forgive" (T.E Kallen, Time, 7 July 1975).


How does this quote relate to the play(book) and what events show that this quote is relevant to the play?

Expert Answers
mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quote reminds me of the Glengarry Glen Ross quote by Blake (Alec Baldwin's character) in the movie:

We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? 
[Holds up prize] Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.

How's that for respect?  Failure is not an option in the uber-macho dog-eat-dog world of sales.  It's Social Darwinism at its cruelest: kill or be killed.  Sell or be fired.

This quote is aprapos to the themes Death of a Salesman.  America was founded and predicated on dreams, most of which have become myth in the 20th century.  The "self-made" man of days gone by--of Rockefeller and Carnegie--are tall tales in the regulated world of 1940s Wall Street.  Gone are the days of smooth-talking salesmen and iron-fisted barons who can manipulate consumers and sidestep government regulations.  Present are the anti-trust legislation and the competitiveness of the post-war business world.

Willy Loman is symbolic of his name.  He is the low man on the socio-economic totem pole of the sales world.  He dreams of the days he could rely on charm to make commissions, but he realizes that the present conditions dictate, "what have you done for me lately?"  Age and senility are catching up with him, and he knows the sales jobs are for young up-and-comers who will work longer hours and be more aggressive than him.  If short, his tragic flaw is a gnawing sense of failure and a fear that society will deem him unnecessary if it catches up with him.

One critic says:

According to an article on the play in Modern World Drama, Willy is "a rounded and psychologically motivated individual" who "embodies the stupidity, immorality, self-delusion, and failure of middle-class values." While his self-delusion is his primary flaw, this characteristic is not necessarily tragic since Willy neither fights against it nor attempts to turn it toward good. Dennis Welland in his book, Miller: The Playwright summarized this view, critiquing critics who believe that "Willy Loman's sense of personal dignity was too precariously based to give him heroic stature." Although he is ordinary and his life in some ways tragic, he also chooses his fate. The article in Modern World Drama confirmed that "considerable disputation has centered on the play's qualification as genuine tragedy, as opposed to social drama."


According to conventional standards, Biff, the older son of Willy and Linda, is the clearest failure. Despite the fact that he had been viewed as a gifted athlete and a boy with a potentially great future, Biff has been unable as an adult to succeed or even persevere at any professional challenge. Before the play opens, he had been living out west, drifting from one low-paying cowboy job to another, experiencing neither financial nor social stability. Back in New York, he is staying with his parents but seems particularly aimless, although he does gesture toward re-establishing some business contacts. Although one could speculate that the Loman family dynamics in general have influenced Biff toward ineffectuality, as the play progresses readers understand that one specific biographical moment (and his willingness to keep this moment secret) provides the key to his puzzling failure.

Read the study guide:
Death of a Salesman

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question