What are the major themes in the play Death of a Salesman?
Arthur Miller explores themes of death, money, and the loss of identity in Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman wants nothing more than the American Dream. He covets his brother's wealth and strives for a perfect life, but he repeatedly fails to achieve his dreams. As a salesman, Willy is subject to the whims of the marketplace and can only rise so high in the world of business. He can't help his son Biff secure a loan. In the end, Willy kills himself, having realized how little he accomplished in his life.
The themes of Death of a Salesman include:
A) Willy's quest for the ideal of the American Dream and the idea that those who work the hardest get rewarded the hardest. His idealized notion of the All American "perfect" life with the son in a football team, him a businessman with a wife, even a mistress- and the fantasy of it all.
b) reality vs. fiction- All that Willy had as real was actually his own make-belief notion of grandeur. Back in his time, a salesman was probably the least educated professional of his time, yet, Willy saw himself as a major businessman the way self made millionaires would see themselves today. The dysfuctionality of his family, his lack of parenting skills, his torn marriage, his insipid career, all this goes in the backburner in his mind.
c) fighting against society- A salesman has no choice but to codepend on circumstances: The market, the clients, the trends, the business, etc- Willy tried his entire life to build something he could fall back on with no success. He was as incapable of building a present as he was a future.
d) fighting against oneself- Willy had denied his talents, froze his son's own talents (though Biff was no different than Willy) and all because he still wanted to live this image that he was not up to par. In the end, he died committing suicide, perhaps after finally accepting how little he had accomplished versus how much he had dreamt.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman deals primary with an examination of the human perception of greatness and its repercussions on the American dream. Unlike so many classic tragedies, Willy Loman isn't a man of greatness who falls from on high, he is a "low man" who attempts to project his own greatness and merely drags others around him down as well.
Set against this backdrop are also questions regarding the importance--or perhaps backlash--of modernity. Willy Loman seems obsessed with new gadgets and inventions despite the fact that his own job, that of a traveling salesman, is almost obsolete. Even the Loman house--once idyllic on the outskirts of town--is depicted as being surrounded by tall, modern buildings, as if it is almost being swallowed up by new times and new ways. We also see this idea expressed in the nostalgia and/or regret many of the characters have for the past and their prior accomplishments--both real and imagined. Willy, Biff, Happy, and to a lesser extent even Linda, all suffer from this flaw.