What are some ideas from success versus failure in Death of a Salesman?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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When Arthur Miller was writing the Death of a Salesman, to be successful, a person needed to conquer the public’s highest expectations. If one chose to spend his life as indifferent, neglectful, inferior, or lazy-- society would label that person as a failure.  This drama portrays a family’s dreams and the reality of their lives. Miller thematically criticizes the materialistic society of the late 1940s.

History has always committed to the idea that money, career, and family measure the success and failure of an individual. Most people believe that material goods represent the essence of success. These are the issues that Willy Loman and his family face as they try to live their lives in a hostile environment.

The protagonist Willy Loman wants to be liked. His conviction has been that popularity, attractiveness, and luck are the three keys to success.   He judges one of the most successful salesmen in his company by the high attendance at the man’s funeral.  This to Willy is the ultimate success. Willy believes if he had been popular, he would have been successful in his job.

An aging salesman haunted by a feeling that his life has been a failure, Willy, 63, the company that Willy worked for no longer gives him a salary and will soon fire him.   Everything he owns is old, and his bills are stacking up.  

Willy's hallucinations center on his dreams for a better tomorrow; on the future of his son, Biff; and on a woman with whom he had an affair while on a sales trip. Slipping back and forth into reality, these lapses enable playwright Miller to reveal not only Willy’s disturbed state of mind but also the secrets of his past.

Willy has been thinking of suicide because he can no longer face his failure as a husband, a father, a human being. This is the only way that he will be able to help his family.  The insurance money will enable his son to open a business. This can be his legacy.

Willy: I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well like that nothing---Funny, y' know? After all the highways, and the trains and the appointments and the year, you end up worth more dead than alive.

Now, he is old, poor, out of work and dissatisfied with everything in his life.  What is his solution?  Willy hopes that by killing himself he can leave some legacy to his son Biff in the form of life insurance money. This would give Biff a chance to succeed in the business world. Perhaps, with Willy's death, a new salesman will be born.

Like everything else in his life, even his death and funeral fail. In the funeral scene, it is more than clear that all Willy's dreams are deader than dead. Biff has no interest in following in his father's footsteps; furthermore, it is painfully obvious to everybody that Willy committed suicide, meaning that there will be no life insurance money coming to his family. In the end, Willy's salesman dream is dead along with Willy.  

 

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