Is the story of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, relevant to our lives today?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished.

Charley's words define Willy.  In this definition, it becomes painfully evident that Willy's predicament is relevant to our lives today.  Willy's very definition of being is that of a "salesman."  The idea of "making it big" and being a definite success in every tangible sense of the word are realms in which Willy's predicament can be seen today.  Willy lives in a world that defines success through money.  "Being somebody" is equatable to material success.  Willy appropriates this own thinking in how he sees himself. Accordingly, it makes sense for him to kill himself so that he can "amount to something" in terms of the life insurance policy collection.

In just this small description, consider the implication to the modern setting.  In an economic setting that is defined by global capitalism, there is a pressing need to define oneself through monetary means.  Tangible and definable notions of success are seen through the prism of money and wealth.  There are those that have money and a vaster majority of individuals who lack it.  Those who lack it strive to do better in order to get it.  Willy is crushed by all the demands of his life that have to do with money, and this is seen in the modern setting today. 

When Charley defines Willy as one where "there's no rock bottom to it," it shows a condition where Willy will always seek to make it rich, continue to strive for validation through a material sense of success.  These standards are still applicable today.  "When they start not smiling back" is the same condition seen today as individuals struggle mightily to find a degree of wealth and personal happiness, continuing the hope that they find that "smile" back at them.  The Brookings Institute suggests as much in a study with the assertion that rich people believe their lives to be happier because of the presence of money. Wealth and happiness are perceived, just as Willy perceived them, to be linked to one another.  Rich people are happy at being rich and poor people, like Willy, wish to be rich.  In the end, few question this system and capitulate to it, as Willy did. Thinking like this is where Willy's thought is and is where the thought of so many in the modern setting lie.  Consider how Miller perceived the audience's reaction to a Canadian production to his drama:

[Audience members] were weeping because the central matrix of this play is ... what most people are up against in their lives.... they were seeing themselves, not because Willy is a salesman, but the situation in which he stood and to which he was reacting, and which was reacting against him, was probably the central situation of contemporary civilization. It is that we are struggling with forces that are far greater than we can handle, with no equipment to make anything mean anything.

It is here in which one can see how Willy's narrative can be relevant to our lives today.