How is Miller's Death of a Salesman a Modernist play ?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Miller's work can be seen as an example of Modernism in a couple of ways.  One of the most fundamental is the play's rejection of totality or the structure that professed to provide guidance.  In this case, the American Dream is under indictment.  Much of Modernism is focused on the idea that the presence of structures such as national identity or spirituality are empty and exercises in futility because "human relations have shifted," according to Woolf.  In much of the same way, Miller, through Willy Loman, is pointing out that the pursuit of the American Dream is a fruitless one if it is defined in the strictest terms of financial success.  Willy is a failure because the social standard of acceptance is a financial one that he has appropriated in his own state of being.  Another way that Modernism is reflected in how technology and advancement has altered the professional setting in which Willy is immersed.  Willy's understanding of what used to be in sales is no longer what is present.  The generalized notion of sales is not what the professional setting that Willy confronts, as the field has become more specialized, more technologically advanced, and has essentially passed Willy.  This is a Modernist idea at its core because Modernist thinkers probed about a world where technology and rational advancement actually serves to alienate and isolate individuals, as opposed to including them.  Willy suffers this fate.

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gototheshop | (Level 1) eNoter

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Another aspect of the modernism of the play is the rejection of strict chronology of time. The play is punctuated by arrival's on to the stage by people from Willy's past, via his memories. There is a conjunction of present and past brought about by Willy's mental rambling.

This complication of past and present is also represented in the dialogue between Willy and his sons. Often Willy's thought processes divert into the past and the conversation with his sons becomes split. The sons think that Willy is talking about a certain topic, whilst Willy is actually, through delusion, talking about something from his past. Whilst the characters seem unable to understand this disjunct, the audience is aware. The audience is given an insight into the fractured and intractable nature of Willy's mental state and, therefore, his relationships.

Miller brings Willy's fractured and wandering thoughts to bear on the stage through modernist techniques of tangible memory relapses manifested by physical people and dysfunctional conversation.

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